Some of the world's sea creatures make incredible migrations to feed or mate. Tuna, for example, swim back and forth across the Atlantic or Pacific. In the globalized economy, some fish go on long migrations even after they have been frozen.
The new book "Bottomfeeder," by Taras Grescoe provides a fascinating look at the state of the world's oceans (I reviewed the book over at The Ethicurean). The book is a compelling combination of nature, history, politics, and culinary arts. If you want to understand more about why certain fish are rated "best," "good," or "avoid" on lists like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, "Bottomfeeder" is a must read.
Near the end of the book, Grescoe visits a fish processing facility in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Some of the fish that go through the plant have been on long migrations before arriving and some fish continue their migration after processing.
About the plant's operations, Grescoe writes:
High Liner's fish sticks were made from pollock that was caught, filleted, chopped up and frozen in factory vessels on the Bering Sea. It arrived at High Liner, after being trucked across Canada in frozen pre-minced blocks, with the skin and fat removed. By the time they got to this factory, where they were sawn into oblong portions, covered in batter and bread, and deep-fried, they had already traveled 4,300 miles. In the worst case scenario, a salmon farmed on the Chilean coast would be sent by container ship to Dalian, China to be filleted, then shipped back across the Pacific to Vancouver. From there it would cross Canada by truck, be processed and packaged in Lunenburg, and go right back out the door. If it ended up in a supermarket in, say, San Diego, that salmon would have traveled 22,300 miles, a distance close to the circumference of the earth.
Although these journeys might seem crazy, I have no doubt that they make financial sense in today's business environment where there is little, if any, cost to emit carbon dioxide.
Labor costs are much lower in China, according to a recent article in the New York Times. The article states that "Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia." The relative labor costs for Canada and China are probably similarly out of balance. (As an aside about China, I urge you to visit the website of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. In the last few years he has assembled an amazing collection of photos of China's industrial revolution — click on the CHINA link on the left side of the page. For example, this photo shows a chicken processing plant. Burtynsky's work has also been captured in the film Manufactured Landscapes.)
In addition to lower overseas labor costs, there is another financial reason to ship food around the world: the fuel is untaxed. The New York Times article explains:
Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures.
Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters.
An international trading system that is outside the reach of any government presents a challenge to climate change regulations, so governments — especially in Europe — are working with the International Maritime Organization to create a system whereby international trade can be incorporated into national and regional climate change and pollution regulations. Such modifications to agreements will be another step towards a full accounting of the environmental costs of international trade.
Marc lives in Berkeley, California and writes Mental Masala, a freshly-ground blend of food, history, travel, history, and nature.