Friday, July 31, 2009

Gone Fishin'?

I've been on Cape Cod for the past few weeks, and realizing just how much has been written about this narrow spit of glacial till jutting into the North Atlantic.  From Thoreau's walks to Henry Beston's The Outermost House, to the Brewster-based essays of John Hay (especially his book The Run, about alewives) and Robert Finch, modestly passing by Mark Kurlansky's Cod: The Fish that Changed the World and Annie Dillard's oddly ecstatic novel The Maytrees, the literary waves keep on rolling in.

 A recent installment is Tim Traver's Sippewissett, a set of essays about the salt marsh just north of Woods Hole (home to the Oceanographic Institute), the site, since the days of Louis Agassiz in the mid-19C, of pathbreaking research into the eco-systemic functioning and contributions of salt marshes.  Traver grew up going to a marsh-facing summer house, spent some years as a commercial fisherman, and now writes as a conservation-minded science-journalist: the book juggles the different perspectives lightly, meditating on how they might come together: "How can different ways of knowing places--through science, through memory and history, and through self-discovery and spirit--become synthesized into stewardship, which is the work of sustaining the world?" (13).  How does caring about a place translate into caring for it?  How can the different demands of the soul be satisfied? or even brought to speak to one another?

In spite of excellent science, the oceans are going to hell in a handbasket, and it's the journey from good science to good management and policy--a minefield of unexploded stakeholder ordnance and political razor wire--that gets us every time (24).
So, as Travers discovers, we know more and more--down to the microbial level--about how the delicate web of micro-niches woven together in the salt marsh, the feeding- and breeding-grounds, the filtering and purifying functions, help sustain the health of the oceans, but find that fish stocks and marshlands continue to decline. 

Comes now a report in the NYT--with credit to NPR, which may yet save the world--about overcoming the barriers (or rather: the differing premises) between ecologists and fisheries managers:

In a research paper in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, the two groups, long at odds with each other, offer a global assessment of the world’s saltwater fish and their environments.

Their conclusions are at once gloomy — overfishing continues to threaten many species — and upbeat: a combination of steps can turn things around. But because antagonism between ecologists and fisheries management experts has been intense, many familiar with the study say the most important factor is that it was done at all.

They say they hope the study will inspire similar collaborations between scientists whose focus is safely exploiting specific natural resources and those interested mainly in conserving them.
Turns out the two fields have different understandings of what "depletion" means in relation to "sustainability," based, it seems, on different starting-points and assumptions about population-cycles.

Dr. Hilborn said he and Dr. [Boris] Worm now understood why the ecologists and the management scientists disagreed so sharply in the first place. For one thing, he said, as long as a fish species was sustaining itself, management scientists were relatively untroubled if its abundance fell to only 40 or 50 percent of what it might otherwise be. Yet to ecologists, he said, such a stock would be characterized as “depleted” — “a very pejorative word.”

In the end, the scientists concluded that 63 percent of saltwater fish stocks had been depleted “below what we think of as a target range,” Dr. Worm said.

But they also agreed that fish in well-managed areas, including the United States, were recovering or doing well. They wrote that management techniques like closing some areas to fishing, restricting the use of certain fishing gear or allocating shares of the catch to individual fishermen, communities or others could allow depleted fish stocks to rebound.
It's good to hear that US waters count among the "well-managed areas" (there's a good crop of lobsters on the Cape this year, oysters are making a comeback, and, I hear, the whales are feasting on abundant krill).  Elsewhere, though, the conflicts between market-values and sustainable management are much sharper: witness the recent news that Chile uses 350 times more antibiotics (718,000 lbs) in its farmed salmon than Norway.  The information was released by the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture following a request by the environmental group Oceana.

As I discovered, Oceana also offers some helpful hints for sushi lovers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rivers in the news

Monday's NYT had a couple of revealing articles about the fate of waterways. One was an account of efforts to rethink Bombay/Mumbai's perennially vexed relation to the water, thanks to a couple of UPenn-based landscape architects, Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur. Their book-and-exhibit project is called Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary: "Ms. Mathur and Mr. da Cunha ... said they set out on their work in part to provide an alternative interpretation of Mumbai — to have it be recast as an estuary where salt and fresh water coexist rather than as an island that has to be protected from the water."

Their findings show that a series of natural features like mangrove swamps and interconnected creeks once protected and shaped Mumbai, just as the bygone swamps of the Mississippi River delta once protected New Orleans. But those defenses were weakened over the years, dating to the days of British rule, as swamps were filled in, land was reclaimed from the sea and creeks were narrowed or diverted.

The historical maps and documents show little appreciation for those long-lost natural features. Most old maps make no mention of swamps, which were often labeled simply as “badlands.” There are few images of the trees and plants that made up these areas.

Moreover, boundaries between land and sea were never drawn as they existed during the monsoon, when the wetlands of the estuary expanded, only as they stood during the summer or winter. “The monsoon was seen as foul weather,” Ms. Mathur said. And “all of the planning is based on fair weather maps.”
Mathur and da Cunha have a series of fascinating suggestions for how to deal with an estuarial landscape, short of trying to restore it to its primordial status. Needless to say, their proposals have not yet had an impact on official planning in Mumbai, where proposals for flood control continue to dominate.
From abundance to scarcity: the other article reports on the drying-up of the Euphrates in Iraq, consequence of a prolonged drought and up-stream damming projects by the governments of Turkey and Iraq.
Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Syria; a two-year drought; and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now. The shrinking of the Euphrates, a river so crucial to the birth of civilization that the Book of Revelation prophesied its drying up as a sign of the end times, has decimated farms along its banks, has left fishermen impoverished and has depleted riverside towns as farmers flee to the cities looking for work.
The water-shortage exacerbates Iraq's cultural and political identity-crisis. In a region where massive hydro-projects--from Nasser's Aswan dam in Egypt to Saddam's draining of the marshlands--have always been testimonies to political power, the current scarcity testifies to the weakness of the Iraqi state, both internally and in relation to its neighbors. Any effort to think through the future of development in the region has to be linked to reworking the hydro-regime.

Encouraging post-script: I'd just finished this post, when I glanced over at my blogroll to discover this gem on Dot.Earth: "A River Runs Under It." "A community’s relationship with its waterways is a reflection of its stage of development.," Andy Revkin writes, spotlighting worldwide efforts to daylight buried streams.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Friendly Whales

Sunday's NYT Magazine brings a bit of wish-fulfillment: the story of a group of whales in Baja California who seem to be encouraging humans to study them.  The whales come in close for a careful look, give scientists a ride on their backs, and generally seem to be welcoming a human presence.  The writer, Charles Siebert, goes so far as to use the term "forgiveness" to evoke the sense of emergent, restored interspecies trust.  There's also a nice description of apparently spontaneous outbursts of ecstasy on the part of human observers--bursting into song, or tears, on contact with the whales.