27 November 2008

More fish tales

As humanity's impact on the environment continues becomes increasingly apparent, more measures are being made to stem the tide of the over-exploitation of the world's fisheries.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) passed a "total allowable catch" limit of 22,000 tons of bluefin for 2009. This number is down from the 29 500 tons allowed in 2008, but well in excess of the 15 000 tons recommended by ICCAT's own scientists. This is the legal allowable catch; illegal fishing will likely drive the total number of fish caught much higher. Environmental groups call the measure a disgrace.

The agreement also includes stricter measures aimed at limiting illegal tuna catches, defines mechanisms for control throughout the marketing chain and closes many outstanding loopholes. The EU apparently played hardball politics to get the higher than recommended quotas passed, threatening to penalize developing nations present at the meeting should they not agree to the higher limits. It seems to me that more and/or stricter laws are unlikely to staunch the flow; the EU has simply chosen to make sure that the national interests of its member nations are met. They're getting theirs while the getting is good, while paying lip service to the idea of sustainable fishing.

The last great US fishery is also looking at a reduced quota next season. Fisheries scientists recommended that next year's catch in the eastern Bering Sea, the main walleye pollack-fishing region for US boats, be cut by 18% to 815,000 tonnes. This continues a series of cuts in recent years that have seen the quota drop from almost 1,500,000 tons in 2005. Many argue that further reductions are needed with a quota to a quota around 500,000 tons in order to give the walleye pollack a chance to recover from years of overfishing. Pollock stocks have declined 20 percent per year since 2003, dipping to their lowest level since the late 1970s.

Will these cuts work? Such limits have been imposed before, with mixed results. In Scotland, stocks of herring and mackerel are on the verge of being (re)declared sustainable, following several years of cooperative conservation efforts. This is being hailed a success by local fishermen. Despite this, the season is limited to about 8 weeks a year to ensure conservation efforts are maintained.

However, the results on the other side of the Atlantic are not as positive. Atlantic cod is a symbol of boom-and-bust commercial fishing. After 50 years of heavy harvesting in the late 20th century, the Canadian cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s. Total bans ensued, and fisheries managers expected to see a recovery. However, after 15 years of little to no fishing, local populations show no sign of rebounding. In fact, some will continue to spiral downward to extinction.

The main problem is that adult cod have been dying at an unusually high rate in recent years. No one knows why, but one cause might be increased predation by seals. The problem may be more widespread: The neighboring Scotian Shelf cod population also took a nosedive in the 1990s. While most other cod populations off Canada appear to be stable, the same could have been said about the southern Gulf population up until a few years ago.

It is not clear what the final outcome of these quota cuts will be. The ecology involved is complex and not fully known. And human actions further complicate matters. Over-fishing is but one of the many environmental disasters caused by human irresponsibility. We have a deleterious effect on the entire globe -- the short-sidedness of Our Way of Life. Strong economic incentives to curb our excesses are needed, while we discover new ways of living and co-existing with the ecosystem at large. A part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Image: Der Spiegel

25 November 2008

A sad tale: Antarctic whaling

As austral summer approaches and the 'high season' of the Antarctic opens up, Australia and Japan are gearing up for another round in the Great Game 2.0, the quest to control Antarctica and the potential resources it represents if and when the Antarctic Treaty breaks down.

The lead ship of the Japanese whaling fleet, the Nisshin Maru, has set out on its annual 'scientific whaling' expedition. The ship left from Innoshima in western Japan with little fanfare. A Greenpeace spokesperson said, “Constant pressure on Japan's whaling industry...has reduced the fleet to sneaking out of port in a fog of crisis and scandal, desperate to avoid attention”.

Last year, diplomatic tensions rose between Australia and Japan, a result of confrontations between anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd and the whalers. Protesters launched stink-bombs and boarded the Japanese ships without permission and were held captive for several hours. Ultimately, the whalers returned home with only around half the numbers of whales killed for their 'study' than had been planned.

This year, it is anticipated that Japan will have a quota of 850 minke and 50 fin whales. The Australian government is unlikely to send an official vessel to monitor the activity. Also, Greenpeace has decided not to send an anti-whaling ship this year amid expectations Japan may send a coastguard ship with the fleet to ward off activists. (Wouldn't this be technically illegal under the Treaty, which prohibits militarization of the continent?). Sea Shepherd again plans to disrupt the hunt, hoping to send two ships this season.

Earlier this year, Japan's scientific body in charge of the whaling endeavor published a paper claiming a 'key finding' from the research:

The new study analysed measurements taken from 4,689 adult whales killed by the Japanese whaling fleet between 1988 and 2005. It found that blubber thickness and overall fat weight had decreased by 9% over the period, which it called a 'substantial decline". Girth of the animals was down 4%. The study says: "This is the first time a long-term decline in energy storage in minke whales has been demonstrated."...

...[T]he decline in blubber was down to shrinking numbers of Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean at the heart of the food chain. The amount of blubber lost is roughly equivalent to 36 fewer days of intensive summer feeding.

Krill numbers in the water around the rapidly-warming Antarctic peninsula have collapsed by about 80% since the 1970s. This is blamed on the loss of sea ice, which provide shelter and food for krill.

The study says the impact of global warming on the minke whales is unclear because no similar krill measurements have been made in that region of the Southern Ocean. But it claims that competition for krill from other predators such as the humpback must also be "considered as a likely explanation".

Some criticisms:

  • They then claim that the Antarctic minke whales that they did the study on must be competing with other whales, like humpback whales that are increasing in numbers, for a limited amount of krill. We think the science behind showing those trends is very weak at best and the explanation they put forward is extremely simplistic.

  • Lots of dead bodies will provide robust data, so if you kill lots of whales then you will be able to get some information. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the number of whales killed and how they were killed. Scientific whaling is not about science, and there is no pressing conservation need that requires it to be done. (Link same as before)

I tend to agree with the critics. There is a lot of pointless slaughter for not a lot of benefit; a relatively minor finding with a fairly speculative conclusion*. And this is apparently one of the few (the first?) peer-reviewed article to appear describing the results of this 20-year experiment. Scientific whaling is obviously a sham, a cheap facade, a cynical ploy to evade the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

While there is no doubt that many in Australia care deeply about the whales, I still maintain that the Australian Government has an ulterior motive, namely reinforcing its claim to Antarctica by re-affirming its moral claim in the area. This season, rather than risk a potentially violent confrontation, Australia is sending a scientific expedition to prove it was not necessary to kill the ocean mammals to study them. Let the 'pirates of compassion' directly confront the whalers, while the government pursues legal avenues. Plus, if there is no official presence there is no pressure to stop the activists.

And make no mistake, the Treaty is failing. Already suggestions are being made to end the Treaty, under the guise of environmental protection. While the environment is feeling the effects of humanity, mainly through overfishing , allowing national claims opens the door for further exploitation to the continent. It's already happening in the rapidly degrading Arctic, it will happen down South given the slightest chance, despite good intentions and promises to the contrary. Something should be done to protect the Antarctic, I doubt this is it...

Another version of the tragedy of the commons is revealing itself and Australia is making some clever moves in the early rounds of this Great Game. Whales make a good cover story and it's popular domestic politics. Realpolitik says the game must be played, failure to do so automatically results in a loss. Unless the rules change, this is The Way the World Works.

Protecting the whales is the right thing to do, as well. Taking out the upper links of the oceanic food web will have unknown consequences on the ecosystem at-large. Further, some species of whales share brain structures that make us human, indicating the possibility of consciousness and high-level emotional functioning. Bluntly put, killing whales may be murder. Whaling in the Antarctic (or anywhere) is an ethical atrocity and should be stopped immediately (and permanently). Humans have done enough to the world around us. Let's evolve in our own thinking and draw the line here.

*Question: How do we know this isn't the result of consistently killing the biggest and best whales for the 20 years for scientific whaling, leaving only the less fit? An example of evolution in action? Or do the Japanese cull whales indiscriminately, killing whatever they see regardless of age, size or maturity?

Image: Reuters.
Also: The book Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling is a enjoyable read on the history of whaling.

14 November 2008

Teaching ourselves to fish

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he'll eat forever. Or so the old aphorism goes. But is it true given the current state of the evidence?

In Europe, the crisis is becoming dire as deep cuts to the numbers of fish extracted from the ocean are being proposed. For 2009,the following measures have been proposed:

  • No fishing at all west of Scotland for cod, haddock and whiting west of Scotland;

  • A 25% cut in herring catches in the North Sea and west of Scotland;

  • A continued a ban on anchovy fishing in the Bay of Biscay;

  • A new ban on fishing for spurdog and porbeagle, two species of deep-sea shark.

Ironically enough, these cuts come after a poorly thought out 11% increase in the numbers of cod taken agreed to last year...Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic are also threat of becoming depleted.

Sharks are also under extreme duress, with a quarter of sharks and rays threatened with being fished out of existence in the Northeast Atlantic. Critically endangered sharks in include the gulper shark, prized in the cosmetics industry for its liver oil, and the two sharks most valued in Europe for their meat -- the spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks.

The shark's path to extinction isn't confined solely to Europe. Rising affluence in Asia is stoking demand for shark fin, widely viewed as a delicacy when shredded in soup. Much of this is supported by illegal fishing activity, with 'hotspots' found off Central and South America as well as in the western and central Pacific. Tragically, most of this catch is a complete and utter waste, because in many cases crews on illegal vessels slice the fins off sharks and dump the less valuable carcasses overboard.

Even the fish that aren't merely tossed overboard aren't particularly utilized in an efficient fashion. Nearly one third of 'forage fish' –anchovies, sardines and the like -- are ground-up into meal and fed to pigs, poultry, and even farm-raised fish. Domestic pigs and poultry are such gluttons for seafood that together they consume six times the amount of fish eaten in the United States and double the amount in Japan. These fish provide food for seabirds, marine mammals and larger fish; their removal may be putting the entire oceanic food web at risk.

Aquaculture -- fish-farming -- is apparently no better, particularly in the ocean. While perhaps feasible at a small-scale and as part of a larger process with multiple uses of water, a group is claiming that ocean salmon farming is devastating the world's oceans.

Three or more kilogrammes of wild fish is needed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The ocean bottoms under and around the open-ocean net pens are usually devoid of any life, buried under the excrement of up to a million salmon overhead...

Other impacts of the farms, including rampant disease and salmon as invasive species, are described in the linked article.

Overfishing (and its disruption to the biosphere) is but one of the many consequences of humanity's reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The ongoing Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment is also having strong impacts: Increasingly rapid ocean acidification; ecosystem changes driven by the unusual(?) melting of the Arctic ice caps, Indian ocean circulation oddities wrought by both natural variability and climate change. Humanity takes from the natural world, contributing little (if anything) back.

Because the oceans are owned by everyone and no one, a classic 'tragedy of the commons' scenario arises. All take, few give back. Laissez-faire rules the day. Some toothless attempts are made to curb the excess: agreements, quotas, licenses and such are easy to write and impose. We have heaps of them now regarding fisheries. Unfortunately, only those law-abiding souls with a conscience are bound by them; the dominant economic and social paradigms dictate that such people are losers, in both the literal and pejorative sense*. The oceans are too big to effectively police; people can and will (and indeed do) take what they want when they want it. Given the performance to date, this strategy is unlikely to succeed.

The parable cited above is remains true. Metaphorically speaking, Gaia has just been giving us fish; the earth is finite, unlike our seemingly insatiable demands. Humanity has not learned to fish yet, because we have failed to heed the lessons. The most straightforward path, as twisty as it may be, is to make the cost of extracting resources (like fish) prohibitively expensive when done at unsustainable levels. Given that money is about the only thing(s) that gets anyone's attention, the changes must be economic. Proper valuation of environmental considerations must be made in the general economy. This pretty much requires a change in the value system (of the global North in particular, but everyone really) lives by. Consumption must once again come to refer primarily to tuberculosis, not Our Way of Life.

It is late in the piece, and dramatic changes to the planetary ecosystem could be 'locked in'. Or not, we don't know for sure. The risks are large and we should act as best we can. It is time to listen to the lessons being taught and learn to fish.

*Summarizing the paradigm, not a personal viewpoint...
Image: Spiny dogfish shark found dead in a net. From
The Guardian.