The active consumer
The most conscious shopper can make decisions about the packaging they buy, the distance their food travels, or can choose against buying overfished stocks. But yet, we lack the power to know exactly how our food gets to us. The food chain, to this day, is only transparent where it is convenient for it to be so. So, can we look to the law to protect us from making decisions that are only based on potentially biased information provided to us as consumers?
The role of the law
For example: should it be illegal to sell foods directly responsible for the extinction of species? A recent US Court of International Trade decision may say so. In brief, the USA has a federal law which states that no imported food, to be sold domestically, can lead to the extinction of a marine mammal species. The case was brought to highlight the plight of the Vaquita, a small porpoise (about 4.5 foot long) which is native to the Gulf of California and which has a desperately dwindling population of 15 individuals. At the current rate scientists calculate these porpoise could be extinct within 3 years. And, their number one threat? It is via bycatch in gillnets used by commercial fisheries in the Gulf. However, thanks to the decision in the US Court, the imports of fish caught by gill net (mainly mackerel and shrimp) have been stopped with a temporary injunction, until practises are changed or when there is proof that the fishing isn’t leading to the extinction of the Vaquita.
The case of the Maui Dolphin
To the Kiwi reader this plight sounds remarkably similar to that of the Maui Dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. It too faces extinction due to unsustainable fishing practises; set nets are threatening the estimated population of 45-42 individual animals. A similar court case to the US Court of International trade will likely be brought regarding the likes of snapper, mackerel and John Dory, which are fished and exported from within the Maui Dolphin habitat. If that action is successful then it would act to get the attention of the NZ government and provide economic (trade) incentives to reduce bycatch.
The role of government or consumer?
This convoluted form of protection raises the question: is conscious consumerism enough to save a species? It may be that as long as the food chain is not fully transparent we will need regulations to stop unsustainably caught, or environmentally detrimental products from reaching our shelves in the first place. The likes of unsustainable palm oil, blue fin tuna, shark fins could be in the sights of regulators and thus be stopped at the border instead of the supermarket shelves.