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Bison Sustainability, Seafood Sustainability

Posted on February 23rd 2012

The North American Bison has a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. Although it is commonly called a Buffalo, this is not an adequate description because the Bison is not related to either the Water Buffalo or the African Buffalo.  The Bison is a huge hardy animal with the males growing to over 1000 kg. As an herbivore, the Bison is ideally suited for the grasses and climate of the North American prairies. The life expectancy of a wild Bison is approximately 15 years and can be up to 25 years in captivity.

The population was quite large when the European settlers arrived in the 1600s and was considered the most numerous species of wild mammals on earth with an estimated population in the millions. The early hunting methods of Native Americans involved corralling the Bison into large chutes made of rocks and branches and then smashing the heads. Another method involved stampeding the herds of Bison over cliffs. The introduction of the horse and gun changed the hunting methods and by the mid 1800s, natives were killing close to 300,000 Bison per year. Bison not only had value for clothing and food for the natives; it also had great economic value with over $3 per hide, a small fortune in the early 1800s. The US army sanctioned the wholesale slaughter of Bison for a number of reasons, including decreasing competition for forage by domesticated cattle and also to weaken the Native Americans by eliminating their food supply.

By the late 1800s, bison were basically extinct with the population reduced to a few hundred. Today, after 150 years of conservation and domestication efforts, there are approximately 500,000 bison on 4,000 privately owned ranches. The total population of bison in conservation herds is approximately 30,000 and only 15,000 are considered wild bison living in the natural range in North America.

On February 7th, 2012, The Prince of Whales, through the Charities’ International Sustainability Unit, released a comprehensive multi-stakeholder report called “Towards Global Sustainable Fisheries - The Opportunity for Transition”. The report outlines the monumental challenges facing the world’s Oceans and the fisheries. Although it is a very comprehensive report on the state of the worldwide capture fishery and the economic challenges along with the pressure to harvest more seafood for a growing population, there is only passing reference to the contribution that can be made by aquaculture.

With over 50% of the current harvest of seafood from aquaculture production, management of the wild fishery must include a discussion on aquaculture development. I will not argue with the need for sustainable fishing practices and governance systems. But just like the American Bison, whose near extinction was without a doubt due to commercial market hunting, the fishery needs to be relied on less for food and more emphasis needs to be placed on the balance and diversity it gives to the marine eco-system. The only way to truly achieve seafood sustainability is through aquaculture.