I read a story yesterday about how fishermen in California are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for illegally abandoning an agreement to maintain an “otter-free zone” in Southern California.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Jim Curland of the Friends of the Sea Otter claims that the shellfish industry flourished when the fur trade wiped out sea otters, which are a voracious predator of shellfish.
Times writer Louis Sahagan editorializes the effect sea otters have on shellfish populations by referring to the creatures as “furry, button-nose marine mammals” before quoting Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood’s claim that they’re “ravaging fragile nearby fisheries and destroying local economies.” It leaves the reader dubious of the destructive capability of those fuzzy-wuzzy critters.
Yes, it’s true: Sea otters are much more adorable than pinchy-prickly crabs. That shouldn’t matter, but it always does in the court of public opinion.
But what is worse is that this NGO is claiming that the biomass of crabs was artificially high because the sea otter population was devastated by the fur trade, and therefore, the fishermen should not expect to be able to make their living by marginalizing the crabs’ predators. But what side are these groups on when the biomass is artificially low (as a result of climate change, habitat destruction, poor water quality, etc.)? Most often, they just defer to calling it overfishing.
Part of the problem is that in determining the ideal biomass of a species, we look at the high points, which may or may not have been artificially high. And then we aim to get all species to that high-water mark at the same time. We’re aiming for the 100-year flood every year.
What we are missing is the fact that fish eat fish, humans eat fish, and marine mammals eat fish, too. When one species is high, invariably, at least one other species is low. Untangling the complex web of predator and prey is no simple task. It may even be impossible.
The question is: Can we move beyond calling a low biomass “overfished”? Can’t we just recognize that this is what fish populations do? If so, then we also have to recognize that supporting healthy fishing communities is going to depend on supporting healthy fishing portfolios — making it possible for fishermen to buy and use permits in various fisheries so they can avoid the pitfalls of boom and bust by moving from a low-biomass fishery to a high-biomass fishery, as needed.
Let’s not fool ourselves by imagining that this is a new concept. This is what fishermen used to do before there was a management system in place. Why fish for a fish that’s hard to find?
I’m not advocating for an end to management. That would be like calling for an end to the Internet because you’re afraid of being hacked. It ain’t gonna happen. That ship has sailed.
But what we need to do is learn to move with the data and make better use of the data available to us. Overwhelmingly, the information shows that the ocean is not and will never be a place of perfect balance — with or without human influence. But what we can do is make it a more malleable place to make a living.