Paved paradise

Most of you have by now heard the uproar following the publication of research in the Nov. 3 journal Science suggesting that loss of biodiversity has drastic impacts on marine ecosystems.

The report, authored by Boris Worm of Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, among others, concludes that, given the "ongoing erosion of diversity," the "global collapse" of commercially fished species will occur by 2048.

No way USA Today could pass up this front-page news. "Oversight of commercial fishing must be strengthened or there may eventually be no more seafood," wrote reporter Elizabeth Weise, leading the charge for mainstream publications from coast to coast that routinely demonize commercial fishing.
It's one thing to jump to a conclusion; it's quite another, as Weise has, to jump over it.

Worm and his cohorts have assembled data that suggest to them that biodiversity is an asset in marine ecosystems, a conclusion I suspect most of us have long since arrived at, via intuition if not observation. They lay out the consequences, near as they can figure, if we fritter biodiversity away.

But where USA Today, and no doubt others, sees only factory trawlers and men in oilskins, Worm and others have a much more nuanced vision. "Changes in marine diversity," they write, "are directly caused by exploitation, pollution, and habitat destruction, or indirectly through climate change and related perturbations of ocean biogeochemistry."

This is the crucial point. It is all well and good for USA Today and others to lay all that is wrong with our oceans at the feet of commercial fishing, but clearly exploitation is but one of several factors that must be considered when modeling marine ecosystems.

Moreover, of all these factors, commercial fishing — in this country in particular — is by any measure subject to the most control, and going forward, is likely to produce the fewest adverse impacts.

Clearly we will continue to regulate fishing, but let's be candid. The U.S. commercial fleet is but a fraction of its former size. Our gear is more selective every season, and although habitat impacts from fishing gear have yet to be quantified, other than by emotional exhortation, the industry has embraced the goal of reducing friction across the sea floor.

And the fact is, terms like "overfished" and "depleted," while suggesting that a species is being over-harvested, refer only to the biomass of a stock versus an historical benchmark. A stock subject to little or even no harvesting is often classified as overfished or depleted, leaving the public and uninformed reporters to conclude that rapacious fishermen are plundering away.

Meanwhile, we flush millions of tons of fertilizer and other agricultural runoff through our rivers into the sea and develop our coastlines far beyond the ability of residual terrain to absorb runoff. We build power plants and other facilities that simmer seawater with their outfalls. No one may know for certain what is going on with rising temperatures in various places around the world, but we can observe their effects on polar icecaps and in some of our oceans' most prodigious currents. And of course, we continue to flirt with the catastrophic consequences of oil spills.

So as it happens, we in the U.S. fishing industry know exactly what Worm and his fellow researchers are trying to say. We may lack the wherewithal to say whether time will run out in 2048, but we know the clock is ticking.

It is high time our fellow Americans (and for that matter, the citizens and governments of the world) stopped deluding themselves with the notion that if commercial fishing would somehow disappear, the oceans would bloom with primeval abundance.

Whatever our past sins, the U.S. fishing industry in the last decade has emerged as a true steward of the resource. But it is not in our power, or Boris Worm's, for that matter, to be the ultimate steward of the resource.

That is the challenge for an enlightened society with the resolve to make crucial decisions about the way it interacts with the oceans.

It's a free country, and we can make these decisions or not. But focus only on commercial fishing and whenever 2048 arrives, it will be sooner than you think.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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