by David Wills
Daily, among a myriad of activities we hope and believe will make a real difference to the earth and our neighbors around us, we constantly review hundreds of stories and reports offering conflicting and even contradictory versions of the state of fish and other marine stocks in our oceans.
We read articles on the effects of pollution and global warming on coral reefs and marine species’ habitats. We read about destructive practices including but not limited to bottom trawling; efforts to stop illegal, unregistered, and unreported fishing; and reports on the millions of pounds of wasted by-catch as well as intentionally falsified take documentation.
We monitor the deteriorating state of the world’s oceans and the plummeting statistics on wild fish stocks. Then with total amazement watch spin doctors of both industry and its opponents pronounce claims of robust catch numbers as they lobby for continued maximum harvest quotas while at the same time the complete opposite about the same stocks are decried by the other side of the issue. The back and forth would be laughable and reminiscent of the parable of the fox guarding the hen house if the real state of the oceans was not so tragic.
With no universal observer mechanism on the ships trolling the oceans for the various capture fisheries, governments and scientists and academia must rely on the “catch numbers” reported by the individual captains whose livelihoods depend on maximizing their catch against increasing operating costs.
As a small aside, “maximum sustained yield” (MSY) the mantra for fisheries management, was a practice developed in the 1930’s by the US Forest Service. It may work for trees because they stand still and are easy to count, but it definitely is not a practice that can be easily applied to or work as well for enormous amounts of biomasses of living, moving, animals.
In fact it is such a narrowly focused management methodology that the 20th Century’s most respected expert in marine fishery dynamics, the late Peter Anthony Larkin, wrote the MSY epitaph in 1977, four decades ago.
Larkin condemned Maximum Sustained Yield because it put marine species at too much risk. It left out too many relevant factors and left management decisions too vulnerable to political pressure to be accurate or objective. Its myopic view is weighted towards “benefits” (to the fishery) while at the same time ignoring relevant negative factors. It strives to impose a constant harvest rate without taking into account each species’ natural biological and environmental fluctuations.
In short, MSY is probably not the way to try and ascertain accurate population counts of global fisheries whose health and abundance depend on an integrated management approach.
Plato observed that human beings are motivated by four things: fear, empathy, altruism, and self-interest.
And the strongest of the four are fear and self-interest.
It does not take a scholar to see that if one’s living; one’s economy; and thus one’s well being depend on a species of fish, then it is in the “reporting” person’s self-interest to make sure the “facts” being reported concerning the population of that species are positive. Similarly, is it so incomprehensible that the very thought of a catch restriction or, heaven forbid, the closing of that species’ fishery just might generate a wave of debilitating fear?
That same self-interested bias is endemic in the respective marine industries. Unfortunately the actions they take to generate profits are also the actions that generate pollution, contribute to the warming of the oceans, and, quite literally, to nearly all of the problems plaguing the oceans.
So the bottom line: we need a new view and a new approach toward protecting our oceans.
What is in place is not working. It is not worth debating; it is simply not working.
Two years ago a very bright and accomplished young woman, Grace C. Young, wrote a very inspirational article entitled “How to Save Our Sick, Neglected Oceans.” It’s in the blog archives of her very thoughtful website (www.graceunderthesea.com) or accessed from TIME magazine at http://time.com/4029379/cern-for-the-oceans/
Take a moment and read it. Her vision is spot on.
We need a new approach to saving the oceans and in doing so maybe saving ourselves.
Maybe Grace’s reflections past and present are a good place to start.