Parashat Shemini

An Abundance of Fish

We do not have the right to drive fish to extinction.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

In this week's Torah portion, Shemini, the Jewish people are given the laws concerning fish consumption. Leviticus 11:9-12 explains that all creatures in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers with both fins and scales are acceptable (kosher). However, those creatures that do not have fins and scales and that swarm in the waters are an abomination, and we shall not eat of their flesh. If a fish loses its scales upon removal from the water, it is permissible.

canfei nesharimThe first time in the Torah that God speaks to any living creature, the speech is directed at fish. Genesis 1:22 relates, "And God blessed them saying: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas…"  

A Fertility Symbol?

The Torah uses fish to connote fertility and abundance. Perhaps this is because many fish are capable of giving birth to so many young at one time. When Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh, he says to them, "and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:16)." The Hebrew word in that verse translated as "grow" is v'yidgu and seems to be derived from the root word dag, which means fish.

In today's world, however, fish could not be used as a symbol of fertility and abundance. In its 2006 State of the World Fisheries report, the FAO estimated that in 2005, 52 percent of the world's marine fish stocks were fully exploited and therefore producing catches that were at or near sustainable limits, with no room for expansion.

Another quarter of the stocks were overexploited (17%), depleted (7%), or recovering from depletion (1%). This means that more than three-quarters of the world's marine fish stocks are currently being fished at their maximum or have already been overfished beyond their maximum and are now in decline. For all these fisheries, there is no room for further growth.

Driving Fish to Extinction

Looking at the top ten wild-caught fish stocks, most are fully exploited or overexploited and thus cannot be expected to produce major increases in catch. For example, Alaska pollock is fully exploited in the North Pacific, and several stocks of Atlantic herring are either fully exploited or recovering from depletion in the North Atlantic. Cod fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank are overfished, and overfishing is still occurring.

The ocean cannot keep up with our desire to consume fish. Sending more boats is not the answer. We will merely be sending more boats to find fewer and fewer fish.

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Candace Nachman is a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, Permits, Conservation and Education Division. She is the president of the Green Group at Congregation Kesher Israel in Georgetown, Washington, DC.