Written by Jen Finn
October 29, 2012
"Give me a place to stand," said the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, "and with a lever I will move the whole world."
This is heady stuff, even if you're not a physicist or an astronomer. In a handful of words Archimedes comprehends the utility of mechanical advantage even at the scale of the universe.
But it was Thomas Paine who many centuries later in "The Rights of Man" applied Archimedes' theory to the affairs of men. "What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers," Paine wrote, "may be applied to Reason and Liberty... The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics."
Unfortunately, the notions of Archimedes and Paine break down when applied to the U.S. fishing industry. Fishermen have no real place to stand, no lever with which to center discussion with respect to commercial fishing and the larger issues that attend use of natural resources.
And I sense revolution isn't in the cards.
Meanwhile, we are at a time and place when conventional wisdom holds that overfishing is the single greatest challenge to U.S. fisheries (a view advanced by the acting head of NMFS), when in fact overfishing is among the least of our worries today.
Now, overfishing as a term of art will always be with us because it does not speak to mortality but to biomass, which is constant only for rocks.
But speaking in more practical terms, we have shown over the course of the last 10 to 15 years that when we find we are overfishing, we can slow down.
As a result, overfishing today is a matter of temporary inadvertence, not willful or serial depletion of the resource.
However, we can tell that to each other until the cows come home, for all the good it will do us, if we're not reaching mainstream Americans.
And so there is no debate. Americans argue about taxes and spending, war and peace. We vote for the best dancer and the ultimate idol. Yet when it comes to the harvest of fish, there is no discussion, only allegations of serial depletion.
Here is something else we ought to debate: Should resource use be determined by scientific declaration or democratic consensus?
I'm not talking about setting quotas, which — to me anyway — is clearly the province of scientists armed with data (as opposed to precautionary impulses). Rather, I am talking about the philosophical questions that surround resource use.
For example, I don't happen to agree that bottom trawling is a destructive practice, but even if it were, is every square foot of seafloor sacred? Why not weigh economic benefits against adverse impacts? Or at least, why not discuss doing so?
What about the Endangered Species Act, which often imposes strictures on the harvest of non-endangered species? Should we not factor the price of such constraints into discussions about ESA listings? What about human misery?
It's a debate worth having, and one we probably won't. Advocates love to remind you that in a democracy, the ESA is an expression of the will of the people. We go to great lengths to protect the right whale because, we are told, the people declared through their elected representatives that preserving such creatures should be a national priority.
But what if the people change their mind? What if they elect a Congress that wants no part of right whales and spotted owls?
What will the advocates say about democracy and the will of the people then?
I think we know the answer to that one.
And then there is the carbon footprint business. It's only a matter of time before the fishing industry, among others, is scrutinized about its consumption of carbon fuels. We might have one green choir advocating for more artisanal fisheries while another is calling for more efficient fleets, with existing operators caught in between.
Is it worth mentioning that all the world's fishing fleets account for a pretty minute slice of the black smoke belched into the atmosphere?
You might even want to make the case that the harvest of seafood, like anything else, requires setting priorities and making choices. What of a little black smoke?
Forget it: The eco-consequences of production must be factored into everything you do, you'll be told, at which point fishing will be impractical or seafood will be unaffordable.
For all of Archimedes' intellect, the Earth remains where it was when he first envisioned himself prying it heavenward.
And while Paine correctly viewed government as a guarantor, not giver, of liberty, I'd be wary of a revolution: They've been done to death, and ours turned out better than any of them.
Our mission is clear, so let's get out there and keep beating our heads against the wall.
— Jerry Fraser
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