A short story by Heinrich Böll titled ‘Anecdote Concerning the Lowering of Productivity’ describes an encounter between a European fisherman and a tourist, who makes suggestions to the fisherman about how he could improve his life. Many versions and interpretations of this story exist. ‘The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman’ is the most popular one. A parable is a story about an event that is used to make an ethical point, and involves an individual who faces a moral dilemma, or makes a controversial decision and has to accept the negative consequences. Reading this story started me thinking about how it could be interpreted in an environmental context, to help inform my understanding of fishing and the importance of sustainable ocean management. I know my interpretation is not as romantic as embracing simplicity, or knowing what is truly valuable in life, but it has enormous relevance in a modern world.
Here is ‘The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman’:
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied “Only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, and eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich; you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
The fisherman doesn’t need to go through the process as suggested by the investment banker, for he already has what he is told he can achieve. This parable is also an excellent example of the potential over-development of the marine environment. Imagine the scenario operating at a larger scale. It’s the collective and cumulative effects of our actions that have the greatest impact. If we make controversial and questionable decisions about how we handle the ocean’s resources, without sufficient planning and forward vision, we may be left with catastrophic consequences – depleted fish stocks, out-of-balance ecosystems and a degraded planet.
From an environmental perspective, here are my insights from ‘The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman’:
- Our fisherman takes a few fish from the ocean every day. Fish are a vital source of protein, particularly for indigenous coastal communities, but many of the world’s major fish stocks are exploited due to overfishing. Current industrial fishing practices are unsustainable – instead of regulating the amount of fish we take so populations can replenish, we remove too many, which leads to fisheries being over-exploited, depleted or facing total collapse. If, like our investment banker, we make the decision to support large-scale fishing practices, we run the risk of taking more fish than we should, and pushing species to extinction.
- Every marine organism plays an important role in the healthy functioning of the ocean. Fish are a vital part of the marine food chain, and provide energy and protein for larger carnivorous fish and marine mammals. Does depletion of fish stocks lead to changes in trophic structure within marine food chains? If we take too many fish from the ocean, will there be less food for whales, dolphins and seabirds?
- Our investment banker wants the fisherman to build a fleet of fishing boats. Raw materials will need to be extracted from the environment to provide the building materials for the boats. A greater number of boats requires more fuel, creates more pollution, leading to increased atmospheric greenhouse gases and global warming. Climate change is altering marine ecosystems.
- Depletion of fish stocks may lead to over-population of other species. There is evidence that the effects of over-fishing, pollution, ocean acidification and increased greenhouse gases are altering the chemistry of the oceans and contributing to higher populations of algae and jellyfish.
- Big isn’t always better. Permaculture teaches us that small is beautiful. We need to build slowly. Rapid growth and progress cannot be maintained indefinitely. Slow growth over time is more sustainable.
We don’t need massive amounts of wealth to be happy. We have everything we need within our own hearts. We have already arrived at that place inside of us that we are constantly striving to reach. We are enough. Once we know this, we can simply live. Remember, it’s about balance, not deprivation, and managing the Earth’s resources in a more sustainable way.