The Common Good
March 2004

Rockfish, Redfish, Stockfish, Foodfish

by Susan Power Bratton | March 2004

Seven biblical principles for the care of creation

A commercial fisher winches up his net. A new crew member sees him tossing large and very edible fish overboard. "Why throw those nice salmon back when they're already dead?" the novice asks. "The regulations only let me keep the rockfish I'm officially going for, and stray sea bass." replies the fisher. "If I land the salmon, I'll lose my license and get fined."
"But aren't they wasted? Couldn't you at least give them away?"
"The fisheries agencies think if they let me keep the salmon at all, I'll start targeting them." The fisher grunts. "I don't like it
I shouldn't waste anything someone could eat. I'd be glad to freeze the discards and give them to the food bank. My dad was a good Christianhe'd always give some of his catch to folks in need."

AMONG RESOURCE-BASED businesses, ocean fisheries have one of the gravest problems with waste. Crews toss overboard fish that are too small, the wrong gender, the wrong species, or out of season. Captains who are over their quotas dump millions of tons of excess fish at sea.

All forms of natural resource harvesting and food gathering by people kill some non-targeted species or disturb key ecosystem processes. Industrialized harvest methods—particularly those using heavy equipment—cause extensive collateral damage to natural habitats. Many modern methods of natural resource collection also cause degradation or abandonment of useable materials or foodstuffs. Harvest of quality hardwoods from tropical rainforest, for example, results in high grading of the most desirable species, often injuring the less valuable trees left behind. Hydroelectric projects can drown thousands of acres of productive farmland.

Sometimes we are so convinced that a by-product of our industry is necessary "waste" that we overlook its potential value. The cow manure and agricultural fertilizer that pollute many of the world's streams and rivers are both assets if they stay on gardens and fields.

A FIRST ETHICAL question, from a Christian perspective, is why, for example, don't commercial fishers seem to care about all this waste and disturbance? Many fishers have protested quotas and regulations that cause them to throw edible fish overboard. North Atlantic fishers, for example, adopt the "Protestant ethic" with its emphasis on hard work, efficiency, and frugality and its principle of "waste not, want not." Fishers express values such as "I only keep what I can use," or "we try not to kill anything we can't use."

The first problem with "waste not, want not" from a Christian perspective is that it too easily allows the industrial values of utility and efficiency to modify our concepts of waste and destruction. When a vessel is fishing for salmon, sea bass become "necessary waste" if they interfere with processing salmon.

The second difficulty with relying on "waste not, want not" is that it does not consider other applicable Christian or biblical values. Unfortunately, Christians have often been disinterested in issues of wastage and environmental damage if they involve what appear to be reasonable methods for enhancing the world's food, timber, or power supply. They have neglected the links between environmental waste and social justice. When a corporate logging operation extracts expensive hardwoods from the rainforest, indigenous peoples find their medicinal plants, fiber-producing vines, and favored food species badly depleted.

UNDER A GENERAL ethic of stewardship of creation, seven biblically based ethical principles can offer guidance in cases of environmental wastage and degradation.

The first principle, Christian stewardship, has two major implications for the problem of environmental waste. The earth and the seas are the Lord's. We are stewards—called to represent God's interests. Further, when we harvest the creation, we should not only avoid damaging God's world, we should share God's blessings with other humans. Just as we are responsible to God for our finances, we need to be responsible with natural resources.

A research project at a Christian university, for example, is attempting to award cow manure its full value by finding methods for fermenting it into useable chemical products. For the Christian household, recycling and careful use of lawn fertilizers are simple acts that honor God's provision for the earth.

A second principle, do not destroy, prohibits wanton destruction of productive nature. Jewish interpretation calls this ethical imperative ba'al tashit—and cites Deuteronomy 20:19, which admonishes armies at war not to cut the enemies' fruit trees or unnecessarily devastate the land. Once combat has ceased, the fruit trees will be needed to feed the people. If one should not cause such damage during war—the worst of circumstances—then during peacetime wanton destruction has no justification at all. We can extend this concept from care for our critical farmlands to the wild forests that produce timber and protect watersheds. Forest clear-cutting that causes massive soil loss, pollutes water, ruins fish habitat, and causes flooding violates the principle of "do not destroy."

Christians can begin to practice ba'al tashit and maintain the blessing of God's providential care for creation by developing an appreciation for their regional environments. For example, someone who lives in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore can learn about the issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay, support legislation and conservation programs that reduce coincidental environmental damage, and practice "do not destroy" by eliminating excess soil erosion and lawn fertilizer.

The third concept, honoring divine joy and interest in the creation, concludes that wanton or unnecessary disturbance of the environment disregards God's love and care for life on earth. Psalm 104 declares: "O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…. These all look to you to give them their food in due season, when you give to them, they gather it up; and you open your hand, they are filled with good things" (verses 24 and 28). These texts support the idea of inherent value for all life, even spider crabs and starfish accidentally dredged from the benthos.

The fourth biblical principle is that of neighborliness—our obligation to protect the interests of others in the human community. Exodus 22:6 instructs the ancient Hebrews not to accidentally burn their neighbors' fields or grain while managing their own property. In the case of fisheries, vessels chasing rockfish should not destroy halibut, and boats seeking shrimp should not degrade the spawning stock of redfish.

Christians can pursue neighborliness by bringing communities together to solve mutual problems. Conservationists trying to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, arranged for Anabaptist farmers to meet Methodist shellfishers, so the farmers could better understand the effects of their fertilizer and manure runoff on the shellfishers' oyster beds.

THE FIFTH PRINCIPLE, that of a Christian land ethic—including a sabbatical for the land—can be easily translated into a Christian forest or ocean ethic. Ancient Hebrew farmers were to rest their animals on the Sabbath and their land every seventh year. They were not to glean their fields for stray grain, nor harvest the corners. Exodus 23:10 explains that the sabbatical fallow for the fields is "so that the poor of your people may eat; and what you leave the wild animals may eat." Not only must something be left for the widows, orphans, and others who cannot harvest for themselves, but also the wildlife must have access to the productivity of the land.

The principle of sabbath suggests that fishing "every day" and thereby allowing no escape for fish to reproduce does not honor God's creativity. Each area that is fished or logged should be periodically "rested" and allowed to recover. Christians can support loggers who leave stands of trees for use by wildlife—a variant of not cutting the corners of the fields.

Christians can play a special role in improving environmental management by finding new, imaginative ways to apply sabbath concepts such as gleaning to environmental issues. Folks working with food banks have campaigned to modify fisheries regulations to allow donation of edible by-catch to charities. Oregon's whitefish trawl now sorts and counts salmon by-catch on the dock and freezes them for a local food bank. The fishers and processors receive no payment for the otherwise illegal fish.

Some of the world's fisheries are now so badly degraded that the fish themselves can be counted among God's orphans. An alternative salvage strategy for stressed fisheries, such as the salmon populations of the Pacific Northwest, is the collection and sale of salmon that is by-catch, with the income donated to a fund for salmon restoration or enhancement. Many fishers would enthusiastically participate in programs that used economically valuable by-catch to help fund the conservation of fish.

BOTH NEIGHBORLINESS and the land ethic are foundational to the sixth principle, that of maintaining community health and integrity by respecting the disadvantaged. Proverbs, for example, teaches that we should not drive the poorer members of the human community out of business or interfere with their livelihood. God's provision is intended for all, and greed should not negate God's will for the common good.

Christians can serve as advocates for those who bear the impacts of waste and environmental abuse. As a matter of justice, high levels of by-catch should not threaten the livelihood of inshore, poorer, low-technology, or family fishers. Capture of elite species for the restaurant market should not deplete the livelihood of those fishing lower on the food chain. Loggers should not drive indigenous cultures from the rainforest by "starving them out." In our municipalities, landfills and polluting industries are often disproportionately situated in poor neighborhoods. Christians can seek just zoning regulations and urban plans. European strategies require manufacturers to provide for disposal and recycling of their product, stopping pollution at its source and preventing injuries to unsuspecting neighbors.

The last ethical principle is that of prudence in developing new ventures, particularly those concerning fluctuating natural resources. Greed can blind us to our own destructive business practices. Proverbs 20:21 admonishes, "An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end." The rush and unrelenting work of the Protestant ethic can backfire when we damage forest soils and the forest does not regenerate; or we capture far too many juvenile redfish with the shrimp hauls and the redfish population collapses.

Christians should discourage complete efficiency and speedy implementation of new technologies in harvesting natural resources. It is better to test each new scheme carefully and seek selective and lower-impact methods of resource harvest. Although environmentally sound methods of resource extraction may cause small increases in the cost of fish or timber, the patient consumer will find that respect for the normative working of divine providence is the superior business strategy.

The overall impact of Christian values should be to "rewrite" scenarios like the encounter between the inexperienced crew member and the captain at the beginning of this article:

A commercial fisher winches up his net. A new crew member sees him tossing salmon into an ice-filled chest. "Hey, why are we keeping those?" the novice asks. "Isn't our license just for bass and rockfish?" "My wife and her church group were heartsick at seeing all the discards just wasted," replies the fisher. "When a food bank contacted them about starting a program to collect the by-catch for donation to charities, they were on it in a flash."
The fisher smiled. "I almost couldn't believe it when the trucking company said they were willing to take a few boxes of fish to the food bank each week, as long as they have room. We made it clear to the drivers that any illegal sales would get us all in trouble. My wife takes an inventory so the food bank can confirm they got the whole shipment. Now three or four churches are working at this." The fisher looked sternly at his new helper. "If you find any live salmon, release them gently so they're more likely to survive."

Susan Power Bratton was director of the department of environmental studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, when this article appeared.

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