Learning from the Aquacalypse

June 15, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This is part III in a series of articles on human-caused destruction of life in the oceans. I combined parts III and a planned part IV, so this will be the last post in this series. Part I, called Peak Fish And The Age Of Slime, was published June 12, 2011. Part II, called The International Conspiracy To Catch All Tuna, was published on June 13, 2011.

There are many lessons about Human Nature to be learned from the aquacalypse—human-caused destruction of animal life in the world’s oceans. I shall pinpoint several of them today.

In An Unnatural History Of The Sea, Callum Roberts “concluded that overfishing is not new, but can be found even at the dawn of commercial fishing more than one thousand years ago.” (See the video below). Writing in the UK newspaper the Telegraph, David McCandless stumbled across the graph below, and comments on his research about it. From Information Is Beautiful: Plenty More Fish In The Sea?

This image shows the biomass of popularly-eaten fish in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1900 and in 2000. Popularly eaten fish include: bluefin tuna, cod, haddock, hake, halibut, herring, mackerel, pollock, salmon, sea trout, striped bass, sturgeon, turbot. Many of which are now vulnerable or endangered.

Image Removed

Researching this image, I read Professor Callum Roberts’ harrowing book, The Unnatural History Of  The Sea. He uses historical accounts of the ocean to depict the sheer fecundity of the sea in the times before industrialized fishing.

These early accounts and data on the past abundance of fish help reveal the magnitude of today’s fish stock declines which are otherwise abstract or invisible.

They also help counter the phenomenon of “shifting environment baselines”. This is when each generation views the environment they remember from their youth as “natural” and normal. Today that means our fishing policies and environmental activism is geared to restoring the oceans to the state we remember they were. That’s considered the environmental baseline…

So this is a kind of collective social amnesia that allows over-exploitation to creep up and increase decade-by-decade without anyone truly questioning it. Today’s fishing quotas and policies for example are attempting to reset fish stocks to the levels of ten or twenty years ago.

But as you can see from the visualization, we were already plenty screwed back then.

It is clear from Roberts’ work that humans have been exploiting the sea for thousands of years. What we see today is merely a tiny remnant of what once existed. McCandless has hit on the problem of social amnesia, which I first described in The Empire And The Boiling Frog. Year after year, humans adapt to new conditions which are gradually worsening over time, thinking of current conditions as “normal” when they are anything but. As Roberts demonstrates, a look back over a thousand years shows us how impoverished we have become today.

Over-exploitation of the sea is an exercise in collective self-delusion. In Time Magazine’s Oceans: From Climate Change to Overfishing, Bad News for the Deep Blue, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly tells us how we’ve been fooling ourselves.

For all the reports about overfishing, it can sometimes be hard to except that we really have a problem. After all, if we’re supposedly fishing out the seas, why is it easy—and cheap—to get salmon, crab, tuna and any other delicacy you want at the local sushi counter? Why have McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwiches skyrocketed in cost? If fish are going, how come they’re still around?

Ocean advocates have an answer for that—as we’ve fished out some parts of the ocean, we’ve simply moved to untapped waters, often with the aid of better and bigger ships. (Callum Roberts’s great book An Unnautral History of the Sea traces our nomadic fishing habits.) That shift, along with the rise of the farmed fishing industry, has kept us swimming in seafood. Now environmentalists have the data to back that claim up. In a study published yesterday in the open-source journal PLoS One, a group of fishery experts and oceanographers showed that global fisheries have expanded geographically over the past 50 years, keeping a fresh supply of fishing—but that the world’s fishing fleets are now running out of ocean. (Download a PDF of the study here.)

Charting the movements of fishery fleets since 1950, the researchers showed that boats have been expanding southward at about one degree of latitude a year, moving away from the long-exploited waters of the Northern Hemisphere.

While the fleets migrated, the global fish catch rose from 19 million metric tons in 1950 to a high of 90 million at the end of the 1980s, before declining to 79.5 million tons in 2008. As Daniel Pauly, a researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center and one of the paper’s authors, told Juliet Elperin of the Washington Post:

Global seafood catch is dropping “because there’s essentially nowhere to go.” The fact that fish catches rose for so many decades “looks like sustainability but it is actually expansion driven. That is frightening, because the accounting is coming now.”

Essentially we’ve been digging into our capital stock of fish, and the bill is coming due. Short of significantly reducing our catch of vulnerable fish, we are looking at a future where wild seafood may become a rarity.

Wild-caught food from the sea may indeed become a rarity. In fact, simple extrapolation of current trends tell us that it will disappear altogether by 2050. Overfishing is a classic example of limits to growth. And yet, those urging us to act on the problem are ignored. Human behavior maximizing exploitation of ocean resources has not changed over thousands of years, but what has changed was that technological advances allowed humans to do so with far greater efficiency, as Elizabeth Kolbert describes in her New Yorker piece The Scales Fall.

Fishing, [Thomas] Huxley said, had failed “to keep pace with the rapid improvement of almost every other branch of industrial occupation in modern times” and still lagged “very far behind scientific agriculture . . . as to the application of machinery”…

In the meantime, “machinery” beyond Huxley’s wildest imagining was being developed. Purse seines were introduced in the nineteen-thirties. These giant nets can be played out around entire schools of fish, then gathered up with drawstrings, like huge laundry bags. Factory freezer trawlers, developed after the Second World War, grew to be so gargantuan that they amounted to, in effect, seafaring towns. In the nineteen-fifties, many fleets added echo-sounding sonar, which can detect fish schools long before they surface. Today, specially designed buoys known as “fish aggregating devices,” or FADs, are deployed to attract species like yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. So-called “smart” FADs come equipped with sonar and G.P.S., so operators can detect from afar whether they are, in fact, surrounded by fish.

In the short term, the new technology worked, much as Huxley had predicted, to swell catches. But only in the short term. In the late nineteen-eighties, the total world catch topped out at around eighty-five million tons, which is to say, roughly 1.9 billion tons short of the Interior Department’s most lunatic estimate. This milestone—the point of what might be called “peak fish”—was passed without anyone’s quite realizing it, owing to inflated catch figures from the Chinese…

We are ready sum up what overfishing the oceans tells us about Human Nature. These lessons come with the usual disclaimer: all views presented here, no matter how realistic, are solely those of the author, so feel free to dismiss them if they make you feel uncomfortable.

  • Human behavior doesn’t change over time, despite many superficial differences between the current era and those that came before. Homo sapiens is a species, what you see is what you get. In short, don’t expect any fundamental behavioral changes in human exploitation of the oceans.
  • Humans are extremely good at technology, but have little or no insight into the causes and consequences of their own behavior. Thus all solutions presented to fix problems attending our compulsion to grow and grow without limit are technological in nature—or geographical, in which we exploit virgin territory to get the resources we need. See Star Trek. Behavioral changes are out of the question.
  • The compulsion of our species to grow and grow without limit is biological in nature. If this isn’t obvious, I don’t know what is. Thus do we deceive ourselves that so-called “resources” (like fish) are inexhaustible. If only we had better technology, we would never run out of fish (or oil, coal, phosphorus, and so on). In this view, standard theories of economic growth (following John Maynard Keynes) are at their profoundest level merely rationalizations of our biological need to expand. We are animals, after all, despite our obviously malfunctioning Big Brains.
  • The view that humans are fundamentally rational, as economists assume, is laughable. Overfishing the oceans to the point of total exhaustion is a case in point. A few people—they are the rare exceptions who prove the rule—urge wise policies following the Precautionary Principle, under which we assess the risks of our behavior (in overfishing, peak oil, climate change, and so on) and act to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm. But such wisdom goes against the grain. The Precautionary Principle is incompatible with Human Nature as described above, so humans are doomed to stumble blindly into disasters of their own making.

These are the truly important, real lessons of the aquacalypse. And there are other issues we might touch on. What gives current generations the right to deprive future generations of wild-caught fish? By what right does Homo sapiens play God in extirpating all these species of marine animals?

These are important questions, and that’s why I have spent so much time exploring our destruction of life in the oceans. Unfortunately, if I am right about Human Nature, the aquacalypse is inevitable; there’s nothing to be done about it. I do not expect future events to prove me wrong. Human over-exploitation of the oceans will end when all the fish populations are commercially extinct. If something can’t go on forever, it won’t. That’s how the story ends.

Bonus Video — Callum Roberts talks about overfishing.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Food