Monday, January 24, 2011

Rant: Mr. Trenor, Tear Down This Boycott!

Once again we wade into the murky waters of sustainable seafood.  This time, the issue of boycotts has reawakened and I believe that the effort may be misguided.  This is not the first time I have taken this position, and it probably will not be the last either. A boycott is a drastic action, a significant punitive measure and should not be undertaken lightly.  So, that leads to numerous questions:  Is a boycott warranted or necessary?  Will the boycott actually be effective?  Will the boycott resolve the ultimate problem? 

I'll preface this rant by returning to a prior one: Who Can You Trust?  As I said then, "The key to discerning an accurate source is to question everything.  Question their motivations, their knowledge level, their biases.  Don't accept anything at face value."  And I do question everything, seeking the evidence that will help determine the truth of the matter. Especially when dealing with issues of sustainability, questions may be your most valuable tool.  It is too easy for people to resort to rhetoric without providing sufficient supporting evidence.  It is too easy to be driven by an emotional appeal rather than rationally examine the matter.   

Famed advocate for sustainable seafood Casson Trenor recently wrote an article: "4 Places You Should Never Buy Seafood From," calling for a boycott of four companies.  Trenor's goal, protecting endangered species, is admirable and one I also support, but I am not in agreement with his call for boycotts and I will address two of the specific companies he mentions. In addition, I note that the article is long on allegations, but short on actual evidence.  There are not even links within the article that would provide such evidence, and I feel such evidence is definitely necessary, especially when calling for such a drastic, punitive action as a boycott.

Nobu Restaurants is once again one of Casson's targets, because they sell bluefin tuna, and I do not contest the fact that the bluefin population is in a precarious position. There was a significant call to boycott Nobu back in the summer of 2009 and I wrote about the issue then.  I had many questions about the issue, and some remained unanswered. In Casson's new article, there are few facts about Nobu, only an assertion that they sell a "tremendous amount" of bluefin tuna. That is quite a superlative but how much do they actually sell?  Where are the actual figures? 

Back in June 2009, Casson had commented on my post, responding to my questions:  "How much blue fin does Nobu purchase each year? And what percentage does that constitute of all the blue fin caught worldwide?"  His response was: "A great question, and one I don't know the answer to. But again, I have to remind you that this isn't just about numbers."  So, does he now have the answers or was the "tremendous amount" a mere unsupported assertion?  If he has the answers, what are they are and where is that evidence? I have serious doubts that Nobu sells a "tremendous" amount of bluefin.

We know the commonly cited statistic that Japan consumes about 80% of bluefin tuna, so they clearly are the greatest offender, and no other country even comes close.  There is also evidence that when U.S. consumption of bluefin tuna decreased, consumption in Japan thus increased.  So our decreased consumption accomplished really nothing.  So what effect will a boycott of Nobu's American restaurants accomplish?

It doesn't seem that it will do anything significant to protect bluefin.  The primary offender is clearly Japan so it makes sense that the vast majority of efforts should be directed at them.  Even if every American restaurant stopped serving bluefin, it would not solve the problem of Japan consumption and it would not save the bluefin.   

Plus, the call for a boycott of Nobu has gone on for probably at least two years.  During that time, what effect has the boycott had on Nobu and bluefin?  Has it been effective in the slightest degree? If so, where is the evidence to show its effects? If it has not had any effect, then why not?  If it has not had any effect, then why continue to call for a boycott?

I cannot support any boycott of Nobu without the answers to all of these questions.  These are crucial issues that need to be addressed, and any call for a boycott without such answers is premature, and potentially wasteful and counterproductive.  I would rather an open and civil discourse on the issues rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the issues.  Something truly productive needs to be done, and it does not appear that a mere boycott can accomplish it. 

Casson also calls for a boycott of Legal Seafoods, and his grounds for this boycott are shaky.  Essentially, his reasons center around a "sustainable seafood" dinner that Legal is hosting tonite.  Legal has called into question the science behind the assessments made by the National Marine Fisheries and NOAA.  In his article, Casson failed to specifically address Legal's allegations, simply claiming that the scientists have no motivation to "steer people away from safe, responsibly caught fish." 

I would rather have seen Casson address Legal's specific concerns, and show where those concerns were inaccurate or erroneous. The failure to do so leaves the questions open.  A number of the issues revolve around whether the NMF and NOAA scientists are using the best available scientific tools, and that is certainly a valid question that requires a response.  It has nothing to do with the motivations and biases of the scientists. So Casson did not fully address the concerns of Legal. 

Though it is also perfectly justified to question any potential biases on the part of those making fish population assessments.  And yes, scientists and their organizations too have their potential biases.  As I said before, question everyone.  The mere fact that you are willing to question such people should not be grounds for a boycott.  Instead, that should be the foundation for a civil discourse on the issues, to determine the truth at the heart of the matter. It certainly seems that merely because Legal disagrees with Casson, that he is then calling for a boycott. 

I am also concerned that Casson has called for a boycott before the meal even takes places. That seems extremely premature. Casson is relying on sound bites in news articles, rather than getting the full story directly from Legal.  Instead, Casson or one of his representatives should have attended the dinner, prepared to debate the issue with Legal, prepared to hear Legal's full position on these matters.  Why did Casson feel it was necessary to call for a boycott of Legal before the dinner even took place, before Legal had their chance to fully lay out their position and evidence?

Legal's stated goal is to advocate for sustainable seafood so it is a shame that Casson is calling for a boycott.  Their goals are the same, even if all of the means are not.  Thus, Casson should be trying to find ways to work with Legal rather than making Legal into an enemy.  What will consumers think when they are being asked to boycott a company that claims to support sustainable seafood?  The issue of sustainability is  confusing enough, and this boycott won't make the matter any more clear.  Plus, such a boycott is more likely to stifle discussion rather than promote it.

I will be at the Legal dinner tonite, prepared to listen to what they have to say, to see what evidence they possess.  I will ask questions, and listen to the questions of others.  Then, I feel I will be in a much better place to make a decision on the issues.  I wish Casson would be at the dinner too, to hear the entire story, instead of judging Legal based on very limited information.   

In a slight rewording of famous words spoken by President Ronald Reagan to Gorbachev, I say:

Mr. Trenor, Tear Down This Boycott!

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