The Unnatural History of the Sea

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I found this book quite by accident in an English book shop in Amsterdam. Originally published in 2007. Callum Roberts’ book looks at the way that fisheries and the world’s oceans were around 1000 AD and the way that we, principally Europeans, have changed this over the past millennium.

It is a bit of a tale of repetitive destruction, the depletion of species, eradication of habitats, plundering of stocks and the absolute squandering of a pre-existing wealth. At some point I was beginning to get desperate that there would be no respite from this onslaught of tales of destruction. As we have turned clear streams brimming with swarming fish and delicious shellfish into muddy, depleted collections of slime, jellyfish and small species, we have apparently not learnt the error of our ways. However it seems that we had already learnt, that as long ago as the 14th century, that some ways of fishing are destroying habitats. However the fishers who have voiced this have been drowned out, it seems, by the fishers who are using the destructive techniques. It has taken until now to realise how far we have pushed this process. As each generation has seen only a small change abundance, they think that things have not gotten much worse. This so-called “shifting baseline” problem means that we, like the frog in the pot slowly heating, have little chance of noticing that it will soon be too late.

It is at this point that Roberts relents with his encyclopaedic collection of tales of fisheries self mutilation. Based upon gatherings of experts, a collection of seven basic reforms is introduced to reverse a large art of the damage we have done (Chapters 24 and 25). It is worthwhile having a quick look at them.

  1. Reduce the amount of fishing. Almost a no-brainer. If we are taking too much, perhaps taking less would be good. Which would mean doing less fishing.
  2. Eliminate risky decisions. This is an interesting call. Get rid of politicians in the fisheries management process. This is likened to the existence of central banks, where finance decisions are made, not by politicians seeking to gain votes at the next poll, but by some kind of independent experts. Much as my scientist heart likes this, I fear that removing political possibilities to keep the decision makers in line might be problematic. The US “Fisheries Management Councils” are dominated by the fishing industry. Something to do with foxes and chicken coops comes to mind.
  3. Eliminate catch quotas. Yowzah! This seems quite nuts. If we are catching too much, then why would we get rid of quotas. But this is related to the first reform. Quotas encourage fishers to fish as hard as they can until their quota is filled, discarding everything that does not fit within it. I was watching some people fishing and they realised that there was the possibility that they would catch an even larger fish than those within the boat limit (i.e. quota) they already had. It was “clear” that the smallest fish would have to go back in the water, already dead. As it turned out, of the two fish that were hooked at the same time, one escaped and the boat came ashore with precisely two of the quota fish. These fish almost never survive the haul from 40m depth to the surface, so there would have been no way to even throw back the one too many, even it was the biggest. Thus we get to:
  4. Require fishers to keep what they catch. Another near-no-brainer. If we are taking too much, then keeping it all would mean that we could take less in the first place. We do not get over quota fish thrown back in already dead, nor do we get bycatch thrown overboard because it is not valuable enough or within the ship’s quota.
  5. Use the best available fishing technology to reduce bycatch. If we agree that seatbelts and life jackets are good ideas, then we can agree that using technologies to minimise the unwanted dangers of some activity are a good idea.
  6. Ban or restrict the most damaging fishing gear. This is the third no-brainer. If trawls are destroying complex ocean floor ecosystems, necessary for so many things including being a safe place for juvenile fish, then don’t do it. At least not where it is damaging things: mud, gravel and sand are probably fine when trawled, like fields can be plowed. But forests should not be trawled. The comparison with dragging a chain through the forest, destroying all the trees, to catch the rabbits and deer hiding within, is still useful.
  7. Implement extensive networks of marine reserves that are off limits to fishing. This has recently caused a rucus in Australia and will probably continue to do so. The main problem with this rucus is that there are so many good reasons to have reserves that the rucus seems pointless. Roberts cannot pinpoint an exact value, but calculations show that somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the ocean should be off limits to fishing, in order to allow the re-creation of abundance. And this is probably the whole point of this book; so much so that a whole chapter is devoted to it. Based upon rough calculations and the recommendations of scientists, we get something like the following. Current fish populations are around 10 percent of populations a millennium ago, i.e. natural populations. Fisheries science says that in order to maintain  the fisheries, we should fish to keep the population at 30% of “no intervention” levels. So that means that we should have a fish population around three times what we have now. While this sounds hard, his rough calculations and the references he cites show that we would need the 20 to 40 percent reserves. However, this would lead to much higher reproduction rates for fish in the reserves and thus to something like double the current fisheries production outside. So thus would lead to at least a 20% increase in fisheries production. This is reinforced by some observations on existing reserves, where crayfish production and game fish record catches skyrocket around the reserves.

There is no point going into more detail here. Buy the book. Preferably from your local bookshop, who might have a few other good reads on hand. But I digress.

The thing that most rose to my attention as I read these, is the significant overlap with the 12 principles of Permaculture. This arose immediately upon reading about reserves: one important idea in permaculture is Zone 5, the wilderness, which needs to exist within the highly managed system of a permaculture farm/garden. A farm needs wild edges, as does the sea. As does everyday life, I suppose. So I had a bit of a look at the 12 principles and found that some of the principles were well-referenced in Roberts’ book. The first that arises is the core of fisheries. “Use and value renewable resources and services” is precisely what fishers need to do, it is these renewable resources that they base their living upon. So destroying these ecosystems, for instance by destroying the ocean floor structures, destroying the oyster beds and their rocks or massively pillaging fish stocks to below levels of regeneration, is a bad idea. Valuing these renewable resources by creating reserves is also a clear application of this principle.  Reserves also seem to fit well with the “Use edges and value the marginal” principle, with reports showing that the peripheries of reserves are abundant with wildlife emerging from the reserves. Fisheries also use edges in so many ways, with the focus on coastlines, river mouths with their saltwater / freshwater interfaces, reefs, canyons and other features for fishing success. So it would seem that it might be valuable to have not only large reserves, but to have many, smaller reserves, creating large edges with their increased fecundity. The marginal in fisheries is often that which is discarded, with Robert’s list of reforms insisting that nothing be wasted once it is caught. By-catch is one example. Here we hear the echoes of the “integrate rather than segregate” principle, where rather than keep only one species, fishers need to be keeping all the product of their fishing. “There is no such thing as waste” is a paraphrase of one principle, and it seems that fisheries need to see it this way too, as well as “using and valuing diversity” by having no single species fisheries (unless that happens naturally).

Some of the other permaculture principles point to other changes that might be of value. “Use small and slow solutions” might indicate that the use of megatrawlers as well as factory ships and massive industrial style fisheries is not so sustainable, perhaps smaller, hook and line based fisheries are better for communities, people and the sea. Permaculture avoids self exploitation by “obtaining a yield” and this would be indicated by finding optimal yield (as Roberts’ calculates with the reserves) and making sure that the fishery can deliver a yield. If a fisher invests heavily in a huge vessel, then investors demand returns which lead to exploitative behaviour. Perhaps there s further reason to take on small and slow solutions, perhaps akin to Schumacher’s call for “appropriate technology” and that small is, in fact, beautiful.  “Observe and interact” seems to indicate that the fisheries need to use science, adapt their strategies and pay attention to what is happening. Lastly we see “apply self-regulation and accept feedback as an indication that the industry itself needs to acknowledge what is happening and respond, not with more extreme techniques, but with appropriate change.

Not all of the permaculture principles lead to ideas that emerged from Roberts’ book, or ideas that would take them further. But several do, as far as I can see. A strange idea, that fisheries can learn from contemporary agriculture and see that ploughing everything flat and using huge combine harvesters and megachemicals is perhaps not the solution.

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