Eminent coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson recently gave a talk at TED called How we wrecked the ocean, which presents a popular version of his research on the long-term human impact on the ocean.
Piracy has been in the news a lot over the past few years. Less noticed is the impact of’ roving bandit fishing fleets from the rich world that outfish local fisherman. The associated press reports on a perverse consquence of Somalian piracy Kenya fishermen see upside to pirates: more fish
A report on pirates this year by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said the value of illegal catches from Somalia’s maritime jurisdiction is estimated at between $90 million and $300 million a year, and that foreign fishing vessels hail from all around the world.
The report’s author, Clive Schofield, a research fellow with the Australian Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, called it ironic that nations contributing warships to anti-piracy efforts are in some cases directly linked to the foreign fishing vessels “stealing Somalia’s offshore resources.”
“This situation has led some pirates to justify their actions on basis of illegal foreign fishing activities — styling themselves ‘coastguards’ and characterizing ransom demands as ‘fines,’” the report said. “Without condoning acts of violence at sea, it is clear that the Somalis who hijack shipping off their coast are in fact not the only ‘pirates’ operating in these waters,” it said.
Piracy has not had a huge effect on Kenya’s overall fishing industry, which is not very well developed on the coast, according to the permanent secretary for Kenya’s Ministry of Fisheries Development, Micheni Japhet Ntiba. Kenya has brought in between 5,000 and 7,000 metric tons of fish off its Indian Ocean coast each of the last several years, he said, less than a tenth of Kenya’s yearly catch from Lake Victoria, on Kenya’s western edge.
Piracy “is a negative thing for Kenya fisherman. It’s a negative thing for the Kenyan economy. It’s a negative thing for the western Indian Ocean economy,” Ntiba said. “What I think is important for us is to invest in security so the government and the private sector can invest in the deep sea ocean resources.”
Still, Kenya’s sports fisherman say the pirates appear to have had a hugely positive effect on their industry. Angus Paul, whose family owns the Kingfisher sports fishing company, said that over the past season clients on his catch-and-release sports fishing outings averaged 12 or 13 sail fish a day. That compares with two or three in previous years.
Somali pirates, Paul said, are a group of terrorists, “but as long as they can keep the big commercial boats out, not fishing the waters, then it benefits a lot of other smaller people.”
Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness. What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power? In Reykjavík, where men are men, and the women seem to have completely given up on them, the author follows the peculiarly Icelandic logic behind the meltdown.
Fishermen, in other words, are a lot like American investment bankers. Their overconfidence leads them to impoverish not just themselves but also their fishing grounds. Simply limiting the number of fish caught won’t solve the problem; it will just heighten the competition for the fish and drive down profits. The goal isn’t to get fishermen to overspend on more nets or bigger boats. The goal is to catch the maximum number of fish with minimum effort. To attain it, you need government intervention.
This insight is what led Iceland to go from being one of the poorest countries in Europe circa 1900 to being one of the richest circa 2000. Iceland’s big change began in the early 1970s, after a couple of years when the fish catch was terrible. The best fishermen returned for a second year in a row without their usual haul of cod and haddock, so the Icelandic government took radical action: they privatized the fish. Each fisherman was assigned a quota, based roughly on his historical catches. If you were a big-time Icelandic fisherman you got this piece of paper that entitled you to, say, 1 percent of the total catch allowed to be pulled from Iceland’s waters that season. Before each season the scientists at the Marine Research Institute would determine the total number of cod or haddock that could be caught without damaging the long-term health of the fish population; from year to year, the numbers of fish you could catch changed. But your percentage of the annual haul was fixed, and this piece of paper entitled you to it in perpetuity.Even better, if you didn’t want to fish you could sell your quota to someone who did. The quotas thus drifted into the hands of the people to whom they were of the greatest value, the best fishermen, who could extract the fish from the sea with maximum efficiency. You could also take your quota to the bank and borrow against it, and the bank had no trouble assigning a dollar value to your share of the cod pulled, without competition, from the richest cod-fishing grounds on earth. The fish had not only been privatized, they had been securitized.
It was horribly unfair: a public resource—all the fish in the Icelandic sea—was simply turned over to a handful of lucky Icelanders. Overnight, Iceland had its first billionaires, and they were all fishermen. But as social policy it was ingenious: in a single stroke the fish became a source of real, sustainable wealth rather than shaky sustenance. Fewer people were spending less effort catching more or less precisely the right number of fish to maximize the long-term value of Iceland’s fishing grounds. The new wealth transformed Iceland—and turned it from the backwater it had been for 1,100 years to the place that spawned Björk. If Iceland has become famous for its musicians it’s because Icelanders now have time to play music, and much else. Iceland’s youth are paid to study abroad, for instance, and encouraged to cultivate themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. Since its fishing policy transformed Iceland, the place has become, in effect, a machine for turning cod into Ph.D.’s.
Thanks to Arijit Guha for the pointer.
Conservation magazine’s Journal Watch Online returns from a long hiatus to report on an interesting new paper on the problems of detecting regime shifts by resilience researchers Oonsie Biggs, Steve Carpenter, and W.A. “Buz” Brock (2009. Turning back from the brink: Detecting an impending regime shift in time to avert it. PNAS DOI 10.1073/pnas.0811729106). They write:
Like the stock market, ecosystems can dramatically collapse. But how much advance notice is needed to prevent a natural system meltdown? A paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the answer might be several decades, which means today’s warning systems don’t detect changes nearly far enough in advance.
Using Northern Wisconsin’s sport fishery as a model, University of Wisconsin researchers determined when an ecosystem reaches the brink of an unstoppable shift, then estimated when recovery efforts must start in order to avert collapse. They found that some rapid actions only need short timetables; angling cuts can prevent permanent damage to fisheries even if they’ve been declining for ten years. But other changes, like restoring habitat after too much shoreline development, must start as many as 45 years before ecological health indicators start wobbling.
The problem is, most indicators in today’s early-warning systems can’t detect serious shifts that far out. Even if they could, it might still take policymakers years to enact recovery schemes. Which leads the authors to plea for indicators that work on a longer horizon, and for policy makers to move swiftly once scientists buy them some time.
In a commentary Shifting Baselines, Local Impacts, and Global Change on Coral Reefs in PLoS Biology coral reef ecologists Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson write:
Imagine trying to understand the ecology of tropical rainforests by studying environmental changes and interactions among the surviving plants and animals on a vast cattle ranch in the center of a deforested Amazon, without any basic data on how the forest worked before it was cleared and burned. The soil would be baked dry or eroded away and the amount of rainfall would be greatly decreased. Most of the fantastic biodiversity would be gone. The trees would be replaced by grasses or soybeans, the major grazers would be leaf-cutter ants and cattle, and the major predators would be insects, rodents, and hawks. Ecologists could do experiments on the importance of cattle for the maintenance of plant species diversity, but the results would be meaningless for understanding the rainforest that used to be or how to restore it in the future.
This lack of a baseline for pristine marine ecosystems is particularly acute for coral reefs, the so-called rainforests of the sea, which are the most diverse marine ecosystems and among the most threatened [4–8]. Most of the world’s tropical coastal oceans are so heavily degraded locally that “pristine” reefs are essentially gone, even if one ignores changes associated with already rising temperatures and acidity . Most modern (post-SCUBA) ecological studies have focused on reef ecosystems that are moderately to severely degraded, and we have a much better understanding of transitions between human-dominated and collapsed reefs than between human-dominated and quasi-pristine reefs.
Knowlton and Jackson’s essay is a comment on an article in PLoS One Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands by Stuart Sandin and others that describes a large scale marine community assessment across a gradient of human dominated to relatively little impacted reefs in the Pacific. The study found that large predatory fish and reef-building organisms dominated the reefs around unpopulated islands, but around populated islands the reefs were dominated by small planktivorous fishes and fleshy algae. The reefs around populated islands exhibited more coral disease and less coral recruitment, suggesting that protection from overfishing and pollution may increase the resilience of coral reefs. The authors write:
Thus, local protection from overfishing and pollution may enhance ecosystem resilience to warm episodes and coral bleaching that result from global warming. To test this we need to determine how do coral recruitment, growth, and survivorship respond to changes in local community structure due to fishing, and how do these responses interact with episodes of warming measured by DHW. We also need to determine how fish productivity, i.e., the key currency of fisheries management, varies with changes in food web structure such as those observed between Kingman and Kiritimati. The only way to answer these questions is by investigation of reefs like the northern Line Islands that have remained remarkably intact in comparison to the global norm. They are among the only baselines that remain.