Biology in the News Explained

Conservation works — for economics

I like to carry around in my wallet the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s pocket guide to ecologically sustainable vs. unsustainable seafood.  Since I started doing so, many years ago, I have felt much more comfortable with the impact my seafood choices make on the long term health of the planet.

But I’m obviously in the minority.  Seafood is big business, and our growing ability to use technology to harvest vastly higher quantities of fish than were possible historically has put entire oceanic ecosystem at risk.  Fortunately, the U.S. is finally taking the lead on the attempt to impose catch limits (see the pdf fact sheet about the new rules) in order to at least slow this process down.  There is now another piece of good news as well:  Some fish stocks are showing signs of recovery (based on a pdf NOAA report), which means our policies are headed in the right direction.

Pretty much all resource extraction industries are about making as much money as possible, with no thought or care about the future.  The mentality is, “if I don’t get it first, someone else will anyway.”  Conservatives use this “tragedy of the commons” argument to support private vs. public ownership of resources — even though there is plenty of evidence that people are often no more protective of resources they own than those they don’t, because the short term is always weighted economically much higher than the long term. But even if that argument actually held, there is no real way to allocate ownership of oceanic resources.  Even when countries maintain sovereignty of their coastal waters, these “borders” are impossible to defend.  There is no way to prevent overfishing other than by government-mandated catch limits, because there is no way for this system — like nearly all extractive industries, I would argue — to self-regulate for sustainability.

We can’t control the rules other countries make, but there’s no doubt that when the U.S. fails to weigh in on an environmental issue, or actively spurns an international effort to deal with one (such as the Kyoto climate change agreement), that significantly reduces the likelihood that other countries will continue to do the right thing.  Although containing just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes roughly a quarter of the world’s resources, and so any claims about why we should not be held to the same standards as the rest of the world ring hollow.  So U.S. policy positions on world ecological problems carry a lot of weight, whether we like it or not, and we may already be seeing the fruits of this in the 2011 fisheries report, which classifies six fish species now as “rebuilt.”  This contributes to a promising trend of higher sustainability in the way we are fishing (details on how the FSSI index is calculated can be found in another pdf):

This comes with caveats, of course.  First of all, the definition of “rebuilt” has nothing to do with historical levels, but rather is calculated as current biomass divided by the maximum sustainable yield (which also must be determined for every species).  Any number above 80% is assumed to be within “normal” fluctuations.  So “rebuilt” is not truly “rebuilt” in ecological terms, just in economic terms. According to Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environmental Group, this corresponds to 40% of historical levels (although that number must be different for different species, so one assumes he means on average). There’s no understanding (let alone consideration) of what levels are sustainable ecologically.  All creatures exist as part of the greater food web, not as separate, distinct populations, and in the longer term, economic sustainability is dependent on ecological sustainability.

The second problem is that inevitably, labeling a stock as “rebuilt” will cause political pressure to increase catch limits again, pretty much the opposite of what you want to do in the case of a recovering species.  Politics is injected into nearly all resource decisions, even when the government tries to rely on science, so any gains should be considered fragile, and the constant pressure short-term economic gain makes long-term planning difficult.  But you can follow yourself how this story progresses at the NOAA site.


Addendum:  Like clockwork, the GOP and their moneyed interests are trying to eliminate funding to help regulate catch shares.  Ironically, the commercial fishermen have seen clearly the value of the program and wish to keep it in place; it is the recreational fisherman (and their guides dependent on rich people) who have decided that  “catch shares are no different than any other inside-the-Beltway-style tactic determined to destroy every aspect of American freedom under the guise of conservation.”  That’s right; once more, any attempt, no matter how tepid, which represents an effort to slow down the exploitation and degradation of our planet so that there is something left for future human generations (let alone other species) is an attack on freedom, or better yet, an attempt to “destroy jobs.”  We are in deep do-do if these people are allowed to hold onto power this fall.



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