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Seapocalypse: Doomed Oceans or Much Ado About Nothing?

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The research debate over the state of our ocean ecosystem and fisheries is not a pleasant one. Is a massive fisheries collapse eminent? In 2006 many researchers and respected institutions presented research and predicted the worst. The United Nations, renowned Fisheries Researchers, and even Prince Charles got on board and warned the world that unless radical changes were adopted, our oceans would be doomed. Since then came the technical and conceptual critiques from within the science community. Climate change skeptics and anti-conservation groups smell blood in the water.

In the 2006 article ‘Impacts of biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,’ Marine Biologist Boris Worm and colleagues warned that if trends in global fishing and ocean related activities were to continue, we would soon see the major collapse of fisheries, which would have profound effects on people throughout the world. The disappearance of many marine species, means there would not be enough food for ever growing coastal populations. Such a collapse would also make the idea of recovery untenable; forget being able to restore the ocean ecosystem.

Many non-governmental organizations, international media, and leaders throughout the world took note of these warnings, which would become the smoking gun in the case for reforming fishing policies. The problem was unrestrained over-fishing and the depletion of numerous types of marine life. The aforementioned researchers, at the conclusion of their article, recommended adopting “sustainable fisheries management, pollution control, maintenance of essential habitats, and the creation of marine reserves,” in order to avoid the looming global disaster for the world’s oceans (Worm 2006). A recommendation that was echoed two years later by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in a report entitled ‘In Dead Water’(Nelleman 2008). In it they focused on the effects of climate change which had further added to the breakdown of the ocean ecosystem caused by over-fishing and pollution.

Since the publication of research showing an eminent and massive crisis if no major changes occur in the commercial fishing sector and governmental policies, numerous critiques of that research have also come forward. Their loudest grievance is with how data has been used to bring this issue to the forefront. One recent article, “Apocalypse in World Fisheries? The Reports of their Death Are Greatly Exaggerated,” aims to show how such research has been both “conceptually and technically” flawed (Daan 2011). That is not to say that unsustainable fishing practices aren’t a problem, but rather, as the title suggests, as researcher Niels Daan explains, “we did not state in our article that the situation in the world fisheries is not to worry about. There is overexploitation and many stocks have collapsed. We only degraded a method used to convince the public that an apocalypse is imminent.” The method Daan is talking about is an algorithm that researchers have used that results in the total collapse of global fisheries (Pauly 2009). Along with his colleagues, Daan shows that this algorithm is flawed as it cannot, for example, identify improvements in fishing stocks which have been made by nations adopting a smaller catch policy. “Interestingly, the algorithm does not allow for any improvement through management actions. Even when the international fisheries would be completely forbidden (no catches), the algorithm would say that all stocks would be collapsed.”

So while the criticism by fellow researchers of studies that point to an ocean apocalypse is not suggesting that there is no major problem that requires action, groups that wish to halt the push for sustainable fishing and environmental protection have sought to make use of them. Criticism of an algorithm to them has turned into their own proclaimed smoking gun that all the fuss about fishing is mistaken and unnecessary. Or as Daan puts it: “We were thinking of the errors found in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, which did not affect the main conclusions, but which have been used by the climate change skeptics to publicly undermine the procedures.”

Representatives of the Commercial Fishing Industry such as the National Fisheries Institute in the United States actively work to publicize any critique of research that points to the mass extinction of marine life. As part of their PR and Lobbying effort they even have a section on their website called “The Truth Squad”, where there is a section dedicated to politely discrediting Boris Worm’s research as “bad science.” They also mention Greenpeace and Oceana as extremist groups with an erroneous message.

In 2006 Boris Worm explained to the BBC what he and his colleagues had concluded: “What we’re highlighting is that there is a finite number of stocks; we have gone through one-third, and we are going to get through the rest…. we’re learning that in the oceans, species are very strongly linked to each other – probably more so than on land”. Methods and time tables may continue to be disputed and picked apart by scientists, it is, after all, part of their job. Theoretically when evidence consistently points to a major disaster that must be averted in order for people and the planet to survive, this should affect what strategies are adopted by policy makers and the industry. But this is not necessary happening in the halls of government. Needed changes still go unaddressed or under addressed in many parts of the world. New research with any sort of critique of existing research is subject to be used as a tool to justify making to changes to business as usual. But the reality is that even the critical minds of marine life and ocean research are in agreement, sustainable fisheries management is needed because the risk of oceans becoming dead zones is real.

The future scenario where people can no longer live off of the products of the sea, where the essential function of the marine ecosystem is damaged beyond repair, is possible without some significant change in the status quo. Yet even with all this evidence and agreement among the experts of this field, research does not always manage to be translated into policy. Limited or lack of political will when it comes to fishing regulations continues from actors who have a major role in global fisheries. Somehow, time and again, politics trumps science as we move ever closer to an ecological point of no return.

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