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.

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