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Beyond the PR Stunt That Was the "Blacklisted Seafood" Dinner Legal Seafood's Blacklist Fish Dinner

Overfished Atlantic cod: should you eat it or not? The answer is less straightforward and much more interesting than you might have thought.

Well, last night was the big one for seafood snuff in Boston, where 50 lucky diners ate Atlantic cod cheeks, white hake, and farmed Vietnamese black tiger shrimp at Legal Sea Foods. If you're keeping score, that menu goes three for three on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's list (pictured to the left) of seafood to avoid because its population numbers are too low or because it is "caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment."

The event was clearly a PR stunt, despite Legal Sea Foods' owner Roger Berkowitz's protestations to the contrary. Nonetheless, it's worth avoiding knee-jerk condemnation in this case, as Berkowitz is actually making an interesting point by challenging the over-simplification of consumer seafood buying guides.

Let's look at cod, for example, the iconic predator fish of the Alantic. Berkowitz served cod cheeks with spaghetti squash last night, while Monterey Bay Aquarium's pocket guide is explicit in its recommendation to "take a pass" on it.

Here's the problem: Even the answer to the question of whether current cod stocks are healthy or not depends on who you ask, what they were measuring, where, and how. This almost impenetrable report from the Sustainable Fisheries Council gives a sense of the variables in play: Are you measuring inshore or offshore? Are you using industrial bottom trawls, traditional gill nets, tagging studies, or hydro-acoustic scans? Did you factor in age and size composition, natural mortality, and/or by-catch?

Add to that the fact that the fish migrate dynamically through different fisheries along the Atlantic coast, which can cause dramatic spikes and declines in cod stocks in any single area year on year, and you can see the difficulty associated with giving a clear, yes-or-no answer to the question of whether there are enough Atlantic cod for you to eat it with a clear conscience.

This year there might, for example, be enough inshore cod to exploit using traditional line trawls and gill nets in the St. Lawrence Seaway fisheries, but not enough to allow offshore industrial trawling. But you can imagine the difficulty in communicating that message to conscientious consumers in a useful way.

The Culinary Guild of New England, which sponsored Berkowitz's blacklist fish dinner, claimed that their goal was simply to "bring awareness to some of the inherent complexity that exists within sustainability in the seafood industry." That's a fair point.

But the more important point is that, however you measure them, Atlantic cod stocks are a long way beneath their potential carrying capacity. So, in the face of human responsibility for the precipitous decline of marine life, is awareness of the complexities of blacklisting actually helpful?

In that way, the blacklisted seafood dinner illustrates a larger problem, one that might be familiar to those following the debate over climate science. When there's little doubt that human actions are having a significant negative impact on an ecosystem, does a greater awareness of the complexity of the science involved help or hinder our ability to act?

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