A Rose by Any Other Name Might Smell as Sweet, but Would It Sell? Consider the Slimehead

Stephen DeAngelis

August 11, 2009

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two fated lovers are trapped in a family feud not of their making. Juliet laments that Romeo is a Montague and not, like her, a Capulet. Had Romeo a different name, she believes, they would have been able to live happily ever after. Lamenting over the situation, Juliet says to Romeo:

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

By the end of the play, Juliet would learn “what’s in a name.” Romeo’s and Juliet’s names doomed them to extinction. The same may true for fish. Consider the fish once known as the slimehead. As a species, it has learned the sad truth that there is much in a name [“Tastier Names Trouble for Seafood Stocks,” by David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post, 31 July 2009].

“If the slimehead were still a slimehead, it wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble. An arm-long fish with the look of a prehistoric fossil, the slimehead lived in obscurity a quarter-mile deep in the ocean. The fish was known mainly to scientists, who named it for its distinctive mucus canals. But then, in the 1970s, seafood dealers came up with a name that no longer tickled the gag reflex. This was the beginning of the ‘orange roughy.’ And, very nearly, the end. With this tasty-sounding name, the slimehead was widely overfished.”

Of course, the slimehead is not the only species of fish that has been depleted by overfishing. Fahrenthold continues:

“A long-awaited report on the world’s seafood stocks declared that 63 percent of these species are below healthy levels. The seafood study, released … in the journal Science, is one of the most comprehensive looks at the contents of the world’s seas. An international group of scientists examined an unprecedented amount of data about harvests and fish populations from the Bering Sea to the Antarctic, and they studied thousands of species from the Atlantic cod to the Australian jackass morwong. Some of those worst-hit were fish that have been renamed to make them more marketable. For threatened animals on land, a more attractive name might be a blessing. But for these creatures — slimeheads, goosefish, rock crabs, Patagonian toothfish, whore’s eggs — it was a curse. That fishermen have turned to them shows what’s left in the ocean. Today’s seafood is often yesterday’s trash fish and monsters.”

According to Fahrenthold, “the study’s lead author, Boris Worm, [has] predicted that if fishing continued at the same rate, all the world’s seafood stocks would collapse by 2048.” Surprisingly, he also indicated that the “study actually revealed something surprising: a reason for optimism. About half of the depleted species might actually have a chance to recover, the scientists found, if given enough protection.” Protecting fisheries is not easy since many of them are located in international waters or lie close to the shores of states incapable of enforcing illegal fishing. One would think that fishermen and large seafood companies would be the most vocal proponents of fisheries protection since once the fisheries collapse they’re out of business. Logic, however, doesn’t trump greed and we end up experiencing what has been called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” If there is hope (and that’s a big “if”), it could lie in better information sharing among fishermen and seafood companies. I say that because studies have shown that information sharing can make a difference. In a great book entitled The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley report the results of reported experience with a simulation called Fish Banks, Ltd.

“The Fish Banks simulation is a computer-supported board game that looks a bit like Monopoly. But instead of real estate companies, teams of six to ten members apiece run fishing companies. Each company begins with a small fleet of boats, a bank account with a positive balance, a set of options regarding where and under what conditions they can fish (deep water, shallow water), and information on each fishery, like how rapidly fish stocks regenerate. They can buy boats or sell off old ones. Every team understands that the sea’s potential bounty is substantial but not unlimited. Each has the simple goal of making profits by maximizing their fish catch and minimizing their costs. In the hour or so it takes to play the game, ten years of simulated time pass.”

It sounds simple enough; but the results of hundreds of games involving thousands of people over a 20-year time period are, as the authors write, sobering.

“Almost every game results in early overfishing, continued overfishing, catastrophic overfishing, and eventual collapse. Even teams that start out fishing wisely and sustainably usually yield to competitive urges, as they assume they must add boats and fish harder in order to keep up with other fishing businesses that are growing. Players from the public sector overfish. Players from the private sector overfish. Even teams staffed by environmental advocates and watchdog organizations have overfished, although sometime more slowly. Once a group from a major state environmental protection agency played Fish Banks — and overfished. It seems that we should add a clause to the old axiom: Give a man a fish and he will be fed; teach him how to fish and he will feed himself; give him a fishing business and he will overfish.”

Remember I indicated that if there is hope, it could lie in better information sharing among fishermen and seafood companies. Perhaps you missed the note of hope in the sobering information presented by Senge and his fellow authors. They wrote “almost every game results” in overfishing and catastrophic collapse of fisheries. The hope is found in games that didn’t result in fishery collapses. You’d be surprised perhaps to learn that participants from Harley Davidson played one such game.

“The Harley team refused to go ahead with the game until every team agreed to share information on fish catches. They reasoned that this basic information was necessary to monitor overall supply. Though one knew exactly how big a catch was too big in any given year, everyone would see if the total fish catch was starting to decline. The Harley team elected also to announce to the others each whether or not they were going to expand their fleet, even though no such disclosure was required. Gradually, this prompted many others to do the same. The result was that the fishery never collapsed. The entire industry regulated itself. Moreover, profit and total assets for all teams were higher than for any other game; the least profitable team (everyone still competed) made more money than the most profitable teams in games that resulted in collapse! The fish stocks that were present at the beginning of the game were not only still there at the end, they had increased to the full carrying capacity of the fishery.”

I’m sure you can’t make too many broad generalizations from a single game, but it appears that given enough information on which to base rational choices such decisions can be made. Without self-regulation, fisheries in real life are likely to collapse and we will all be the worse off for it. Senge and his co-authors conclude:

“What happened at Harley can happen anywhere. Stewarding healthy commons starts with thinking about the larger system your team or organization is part of and recognizing that business-as-usual practices could easily end up causing everyone to lose. … This sharing of basic information ensures that all players know the health of the commons upon which all ultimately depend, the essential condition for healthy competition. Tragedies of the commons can be averted by players in industries accepting ‘rules of the game’ that recognize underlying limits.”

Returning to Fahrenthold’s article, the study printed in Science is sharing information on the fisheries commons and it will likely receive wide attention. Will it be enough to save endangered fisheries? Probably not. What is missing are the “rules of the game” under which all those involved in the seafood industry have agreed to operate. With no such rules, the results have been and will continue to be devastating.

“The depleted stocks include familiar fish such as the Atlantic cod, which has been fished so heavily that the Georges Bank population off New England is at 12 percent of healthy levels. The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper stocks are at 6 percent of what scientists say they should be. To fill the void, some seafood vendors have fraudulently sold cheaper fish as grouper or snapper. But in other cases, they have given the fish a more palatable name — preying, environmentalists say, on the arm’s-length relationship Americans have with their seafood. The most famous case involves the Patagonian toothfish and the Antarctic toothfish — drab, yard-long creatures from the cold waters near the South Pole. In the 1970s, they were rechristened ‘Chilean sea bass,’ although they are not, biologically speaking, sea bass. The toothfish’s new name and the firm, oily meat found a huge market. In recent years, environmentalists have said both toothfish are now threatened with heavy fishing, including by ‘pirate’ fishing boats that ignore conservation laws.”

Popular author Jared Diamond, subtitled his book most often referred to as Collapse, with the modifier “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Senge and Diamond share the belief that we can make correct choices given the right kinds of information. Seafood industries have such a choice before them. What they decide will likely tell us whether the theory that information can actually help us make better decisions holds true. Let’s hope so. Our future relies upon it.