Monday, November 12, 2012

Spending the principal

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, environmentalism

Scenario 1: Everything seems normal in the forest. Squirrels scurry about seeking nuts or mushrooms or fruits; birds fly hither and yon; deer forage in the shadows; a puma is stalking the deer, but as yet undetected; and a fox sniffs for a field mouse track in the undergrowth. All seems well in upstate New York. Unseen to them all, something is floating a mile above, nearly invisible. Then a shape separates from the dirigible, slowly lowered on cables, and unfolds to exceed it in size. Down it comes, until it thuds to the forest floor in a clearing. It looks like an enormous wind sock with a flat, heavily armored and weighted bottom. A few animals scatter, but at first the interloper is still, and quiet returns, as the cables begin to pull taut. They jerk taut, and the "wind sock" shudders through the forest, dragging down trees that its clever shape pushes aside, but it is moving faster than even puma can run, and drags together a multitude of animals and smaller plants. Several acres of forest are leveled to bare dirt. Then the cables tighten and pull harder, and the filled "sock" rises into the sky, to the waiting dirigible above. After an hour or so, things begin raining from the sky: Plants of all sizes and branches from trees, then dead squirrels and mice and foxes and skunks and badgers and even some birds. The puma and the deer do not return, dead or alive. They and they alone were the targets of the ship above.

This is how ocean dredging for halibut or other near-bottom-dwelling fish or shellfish would be, were the technique used on land.

Scenario 2: A different forest, perhaps a tropical rain forest, perhaps the Siberian taiga, perhaps the savannah, and it all begins the same, with a nearly invisible shape floating above. What descends is not a dredge, but a pair of thinner cables bearing baited hooks. They are miles long, with gas-filled floats keeping the full weight off the ground. They are dragged along, much more slowly. Predators smell the bait and trot alongside, perhaps wolves, perhaps lions or tigers or jackals or hyenas. Some take the bait and are hooked. Their cries scare others from the vicinity, but further up or down the line, others are not deterred and are similarly hooked. So are smaller predators, even perhaps a meat-hungry primate or bear. Eventually, the lines are hoisted back into the sky, dangling a dismal variety of dying creatures. After a time, many dead, everything but the wolves or lions or tigers, rain down again, all dead.

This is how long-line fishing would seem, were it carried out on land.

Now that your imagination has been primed, imagine how a purse seine trap might work on land, or drift nets. Nearly every method of large-scale fish or shellfish "harvesting" wastes more tonnage than is kept. Suppose our taste for meat paralleled our taste for fish. People prefer the big predators of the sea, and disdain most of the herbivores. There is a huge market for tuna, cod, ling and other large predators. The market for herbivores, which are often denigrated as "bottom feeders", is smaller. This is just the opposite of our land meat appetite, which is almost exclusively for herbivores such as beef and sheep. Imagine the meat market piled with the carcases of lions, wolves, foxes, hyenas, and tigers. That is the analogue of a typical fish market!

This is just one issue raised in The Ocean of Life by naturalist Callum Roberts. It is not the largest. As you might expect, the book raises an alarm about the condition of the oceans. By far the greatest threat to the oceans is a nearly universal attitude. The oceans are so big, and contain so much life of so many kinds, that they are considered beyond our grasp, untouchable, eternally replenishing. For the first half million years of human existence on Earth, the oceans were truly oceanic, hardly touched by the level of fishing and shell-gathering practiced by our ancestors. Then came the industrial revolution. Since about 1830, first using sailing craft, then ships powered by steam and then petroleum, fishing became an industrial enterprise that has reduced the total mass of fish and sea mammals to less than a tenth of what it was 200 years ago.

But our more distant ancestors were not entirely feckless in their depredations. Careful study of the middens of shore dwellings, in America in particular, demonstrates that over a period of a few centuries, the variety of shellfish used decreased, along with their average size. Some shell beds were cleaned out completely and abandoned, long before Europeans arrived. We are hungry critters, we humans, and as omnivores, we pretty much eat the land down to the dirt, we or our domestic animals. That is why the "fertile crescent", swinging in a gentle arc from near Baghdad northwest, is no longer fertile.

It reminds me of a story told me by a fellow geologist. He was prospecting in Canada, for a mining company. He met an old Indian who told him, "When the first Europeans came to Canada, they shot all the large game and hauled away the meat. Later they came again, trapping all the small game and hauling away the furs. Then some came that cut down all the big trees and hauled away the lumber. Others cut the small trees and hauled them away to make paper. Now here you are again, to take the rocks!"

The book is in two parts. The first part, with 15 chapters, outlines the changes wrought upon the oceans over time. Chapter 1 covers the first 4 billion years or so. Then the human race arrives, and the author shows how we've impacted nearly everything about the sea, and nearly always in a negative way. I used to think, for example, that global warming is nothing new, and that there have been past episodes of high carbon dioxide, but sea life survived and we still have shellfish. I didn't know about the fossil evidence that these carbonic episodes were periods of very low shellfish abundance. The extra carbon dioxide made the seas acidic, which made it harder for a snail to produce its shell. Only a few particularly robust species were able to produce shells, for millions of years at a time. We are making it happen again.

Here is an interesting fact, brought up several times in several chapters. If an area, say several tens of square miles, is protected, not only do the large fish return (it can take a few years), but once they do, they do not stay put, and fishing in a large area of surrounding waters gets better and better. Late in the book, the author compiles work that indicates a total of around 30% of the seas need to be "no fishing no taking anything" zones, and that this will lead to a gradual increase in abundance of many, many species. Fishing will get better, and it may just be possible to support the 9 or 11 billion people that are expected to be on this planet in another 50 years or so. The problem is, we have to start now, and nobody with any power wants to.

Side note: What if scientists had genuine authority and power? Could they run things any  better than "politicians", the most despised class of humans (yet the most fawned over by way too many of us!)? Suppose the President and Congress were REQUIRED to take the consensus advice of scientific advisers in any areas in which they did not have personal competence? My father is of the opinion that nearly all members of the Legislature are lawyers who were too incompetent to make a living in the "real world" so they went into politics. You don't have to be competent at anything but giving rousing speeches, to be a legislator.

To spin another analogy: A man inherited $2 million in 1960, and began living like a king. At the time, you could get 5% if you just kept the money in a bank, and 7% from Money Market accounts or CD's. In 1960 an income of $100,000 or so was like a million today. But our greedy fellow found himself spending more like $120,000 a year (and didn't have the wisdom to build a CD ladder). After 20 years, he finds a third of his money is gone, and he is earning about $69,000. He has grown up a little, so he cuts back, and manages to keep his expenses to $75,000 yearly. You could live very well on that kind of money in 1980. Another 20 years pass, and not only has his fortune shrunk more, but the rates have dropped. He still has a million left, but the income is barely $10,000. He reasons, "I am getting old. I'll probably die before I run out." He keeps spending $75,000 which buys a lot less in 2000 than in 1980. He never had income, so gets no Social Security. Today he is still alive, to his surprise, and he has only $100,000 left. Now what?

Suppose instead he had kept his expenses in the $80,000 range in 1960, and allowed them to grow only 1% yearly. By 1995, when interest rates began to fall precipitously, he has nearly $3 million, and if he didn't cut back, he'd still have more than $1 million today, in spite of interest income in the $10,000 range. Now suppose that the 5% rate had continued to the present. He'd be able to enjoy $130,000 yearly and he'd have $3.5 million in the bank. This last represents managing your stock so you don't deplete your principal. It also represents what fish stocks can do if appropriately managed. Interest rates don't fall if the capital is sufficient.

Our fisheries have been taking the principal for 150 years or more. The year 1860 is not in living memory; nobody living can remember the abundance of fish at that time. We think today's situation is "normal" because it hasn't changed much in the past 10-20 years. But we are not "harvesting" the sea, we are mining it. We are taking fish so fast we truly will take them all within the lifetime of people now in college. A comparatively small investment now can raise the "interest rate" on our fishy "savings account", so in the near future, taking a smaller percent of the fish in the sea will actually yield a larger total harvest.

The matters I have discussed here are just a few of the many the author presents. We are taking the oceans from our children. The second section of the book, in 7 chapters, discusses measures some people are already taking to improve the situation, and what needs still to be done to ensure a living ocean in the future. It is by no means clear that we will do enough soon enough. Today, a percent or two of the oceans have been set aside for protection. An appropriate level for long-term health is 30-35%. If we do not do so, the earth simply won't have a population of 10 billion in 2050 or even 2100, because so many will die of starvation. No matter what "green revolution" still may be in the works, the planet is finite, probably a lot more finite than we think. The author estimates that we are now using 150% of the earth's "earnings".

Take that last statement to bed with you, and do try to sleep well.

1 comment:

Enon said...

Very vivid description of destructive fishing practices. I have been urging people for some time to 'vote with their dollars' and purchase only seafood that has been harvested sustainably. The analogy with a forest will be very useful.

This can help when you shop, a Guide to Good Fish Guides.