TRANSCRIPTS - Dr. Daniel Pauly Interview
Daniel Pauly is a fisheries biologist and Professor at the
Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia. He is also
the Principal Science Advisor for the International Centre
for Living Aquatic Resource Management (ICLARM) in the Philippines.
What in your opinion is the most grave problem we face regarding
the conduct of world fisheries?
different facet of the same problem. Some people say its overcapacity,
there are too many boats. Some people say its too much fishing
effort, which is another way of saying the same thing. Some people
say its the damage that boats do upon the ecosystems, but
all of this is the same thing. Some people say its open access,
really anybody can start fishing or invest into fisheries. But these
are all different aspects of the same thing.
We hear and read a lot that the total world catch has plateaued
at around 90 to 100 million tons a year. What do you think it really
is when you take by-catch into account?
That is a really
important issue. There are two processes here. You find that lots
of people say, "Oh there are a hundred million tons we have
now that are sustainable" because this is what in the past
people estimated to be the potential yield. Youll find that
estimates of potential yields from scientists in the 50s and
60s range from 60 million tons per year to several billion
tons per year. Thats the optimistic outlook. And the reason
why there are lots of estimates around 100 million pounds is because
the people could see the catch were going that way. In other words,
people have adjusted their estimates of potential yield. Actually,
the catch globally is not 100 million tons at all. Its probably
around 150, because to the 90 million tons that are caught, you
have to add the estimate of roughly 30 million tons that is being
discounted. So you have to add that. And its quite clear that
in addition to the catch being reported by the FAO, the Food and
Agricultural Organization of United Nations, the FAO can only report
what the member countries report to it. And its quite clear
that a large fraction of the catch is not reported. And large could
be 20% or so.
Because in many
case the countries are not looking, for example, at small scale
fisheries, inshore fisheries, they are not including discounts.
They are obviously not including illegal catch which is a size of
the fraction, so you are easily getting 250 million tons. Therefore
the impact is much stronger than you think it is. And we have a
project here, a research project here at the center to try and address
the issue, of how much is the real catch. But most fishery scientists
working in government labs, and I dont want to put them down,
but they really cannot come up with high estimates of illegal catch
because it would make a very strong statement to what the governments
are doing. So illegal catches is a very difficult issue. Even though
in some places its staring at you, youre not supposed
to write about it.
In what way do you think it might be possible for the total world
catch to actually grow in a sustainable manner?
It is one of
the strange things about fishery science or one of the paradoxes
about fisheries. That is that the catch could be increased by fishing
less. It has to do with the nature of fisheries that basically are
not harvesting something that you have sewn like a farmer does but
you are really grabbing a part of natural production. Now if your
grabbing is in excess of what the system produces, then youre
depleting stock, so the trick is to really adjust the level of fishing
to that amount that is being produced, exactly. If you go beyond
that, you reduce your stock. So I think that globally if each of
the fish populations were exploited at its potential level, you
would actually see an increase. Now when I say that, then it looks
like, it sounds like I am saying we can fish more, but its
not what Im saying.
We should fish
less. We should re-establish some of the population, as many as
possible of the population of fish that we have devastated. That
would require less fishing for longer term but I think we could
then increase catches quite a bit and also we would also increase
the value of the catches enormously which is a different story.
See the value would increase because we would catch different fish,
bigger fish, higher value fish, but we would also increase the value
of the catch because it would cost less to go catch them. And so
the cost, the net value would increase enormously. This is not science
fiction. It could be done quite straightforwardly and everywhere
it has been possible to break this cycle of despair and it has been
possible to massively increase catches, and so in a sense its
possible in fisheries to eat your cake and have it too but for this
you have to break this notion that fishing more is the thing.
Could you speak about how excessive fishing capacity and new government
subsidies have defeated the potential benefits of establishing total
The best way
to represent the tragedy of over fishing is to take an analogy that
everybody will understand. You have some money in the bank, lets
be modest, you have $1000 in the bank. Now you can extract out of
this if this is well invested, maybe $100 a year right, you get
10%. Now you can also get far more, you can take $300 but then the
interest rate will not support that, therefore your capital will
go down. So if you do that after a short while you will end up with
a very small capital. Now the capital is the fish that you have
in the water. So if you leave as much as possible of the fish in
the water and you extract the growth rate and only the growth rate
of that capital, you get the maximum interest you can get.
is the transfer of value, essentially from one sector of the economy
to another. If fisheries are subsidized, the cost of fishing declines.
That means the individual fishers can earn money exploiting over
fished stock because a fish population is very much reduced, it
becomes very difficult to exploit its profitably. So at some point,
you have what is known as a commercial extinction. Its not
worth it to continue exploiting that stock because its so
depleted. Thats what they teach us (I will get back to that)
but if you subsidize the fishery it continues to be worth it, exploiting
that depleted stock. Now there is another problem which is what
were told about commercial extinction. It doesnt apply
in the first place because once a stock is say, commercially extinct,
say a population of large fish, the fishery will tend to create
for itself a market of say small fish. Now as it catches the small
fish, it will have a by-catch of large fish rather than juveniles
of large fish and it will actually continue to exploit that large
fish population and prevent its recovery. So it is not even true
that the fishery, as it renders one population after the other commercially
extinct, moves on to another one, it continues to keep it down.
That is a tragedy that is due to the un-selective nature of the
gear that is being used in many cases.
Do you care to comment on how banks and funding agencies seem to
ignore the resource scarcity and continue to bankroll?
Now this business
about development agencies and development banks funding the development
of fisheries is something that is extremely puzzling. And the notion
that if fishers had more boats they would catch more, right? And
this assumes that the fishers dont know what theyre
doing. Its kind of a very strange notion. Just imagine you
had a large field with a population of rabbits and you have a few
hunters and they reduce the population of rabbits such that the
catch per day of rabbits declines to a very low amount. What the
bank would do then, in analogy to fisheries, is issue some machine
guns. Because the perception is they are not earning enough because
the guns they are using to catch those rabbits
they do not
conceive that the natural production of rabbits is a limiting factor.
So there is all this implied stuff. If you ask yourself, where does
this come from, one reason is that the people in the banks are either
engineer types or agronomist types who are used to production functions
that increase, as one can say, monotomically that increase
if youre increasing the input.
See in a farm
or in a manufacturing plant, if you have more input you will have
more output, not necessarily in proportion, but you can expect that
a bigger plant produces more of whatever it is you are doing. And
in agriculture its true. The more input you have in a farm,
the more output there will be. And at the end of the day you can
even add to the duration of the day by putting in electrical lamps,
so that the plants can grow longer, you can add water, you can even
put a greenhouse on top of everything so you have all that carbon
dioxide. In other words essentially there is no limit to how much
input you can put to get more output. That notion cannot be translated
though. It does not translate with fish population because its
not you, its not your inputs that generate the output.
Its the sea. And all youre doing is harvesting or killing.
Hence my analogy with the guns.
guns is not going to produce more rabbits, but a boat is nothing
but a gun in that context. And so when we have a bigger boat, we
have a bigger gun, and thats not going to generate more rabbits,
but the analogy makes it that the boat corresponds to fertilizer
in a plant, or a tractor. Now a tractor increases the fertility
by bringing nutrients deeper into the earth when you plow. But a
boat ripping up the bottom of the ocean does not increase its fertility,
it reduces it. And that is the false analogies that I made. And
essentially it also assumes this incompetence of the fishers. The
fishers dont know. They dont have the means, lets
give them the means. The fact that they are too efficient and thats
the reason why theres no fish left doesnt seem to work
Why is it that small scale fishers tend to pay more attention to
resource abundance when theyre planning?
Now one reason
why small scale fisheries tend to have, lets say, a better
environmental record and less insanity in the way they operate is
because they tend to suffer the results of the action. At least
that is what happened in principle, until now. If you have more
or less a close community and a few members of that community rip
up that resource and other small fishers suffer from it, these fishers
may have means of social pressure. However, the small scale fishers
of the world are increasingly disconnected from one another. They
are increasingly less homogeneous and if a few fishers within these
communities connect themselves with the world market, they can establish
a pipeline between the resource and the world market that bypasses
the neighbor. So this privileged role that small scale fishers were
playing or continue to be playing is being questioned by these communities
or members that are plugging themselves into the global economy.
But on a whole,
small scale fisheries are more rational. They use less energy per
amount of fish that is landed, they discard far less because the
fish is closer inshore. They dont burn that much. They tend
to use passive gear, where its the fish that do the moving
to get caught, as opposed to trawlers for example, overwhelming
the fish. So in terms of social benefits, the small scale fisheries
are clearly better. But there are resource types that are not accessible
to them and thats where the industrial fishery has a role
to play. However, quite often what you have is the industrial fisheries
unleashed into areas where the small scale fisheries could do the
job very well so they superimpose on top of each other. And because
the large scale industrial fishery very often has political access,
its also favored in location so the small scale fisheries
suffer a lot.
Now there is
the additional problem that in developing countries the small scale
fisheries are a social dump where lots of landless farmers end up
working. And that undermines the environmental credibility or sustainability
of small scale fisheries because these fishers that come from non-fishing
backgrounds dont have the knowledge. They dont have
the skills, they dont have even the ethics of the small scale
fisheries. They also are not embedded in the same type of communities
so they are the ones likely to break the taboos, or to break laws.
They are the ones likely to use dynamite and so on, and to be unrestrained
by these traditional arrangements. And so, I call this "Matthusian
Overfishing"; when you have population growth pushing people
from the land to the coast where they overwhelm the established
local and traditional fisheries . This process is going on throughout
the developing world. When ones speaks about small scale fisheries
being sustainable, Im talking about small scale fisheries
communities that are not rapidly expanding such as we have in a
developed world. In the developing world, essentially the problem
is un-retractable as long as the population problem is not addressed.
How would you define a "precautionary approach?"
There are different
interpretations of what the precautionary approach is. But basically
its the notion that absence of knowledge is the reason for
restrain rather than for moving ahead. Its the much-needed
reversal of the burden of proof.
you had this absurd situation where you had to prove that fishing
had an impact on the population
a deleterious impact before
you could propose that fishing should be restrained. Its an
absurd proposition. Obviously fishing must have an impact on the
population because that is the very way it is meant to be! Its
meant to kill fish. If it doesnt then the fisher is not fishing.
And so to revert the burden of proof and to show that forcing those
who will intervene, who will impact on the population,
to actually provide evidence that their impact is not going to be
deleterious to others and also to themselves, its a good thing.
And its going to be very hard. Because there is this notion
that anything goes.
culture we should really be doing everything. Its only upon
demonstrating that there is a negative impact which we should work
on, but it is potentially dangerous this thing, because we can easily
overwhelm our natural system now. They are small compared with our
technology. Natural systems are small. A few hundred years ago,
a big tree was a challenge for people who wanted to chop it down,
now its just a question of a few minutes with a chain-saw.
So nature is small. This is the potential impact. Thats why
we have to make sure we dont hurt it. Its kind of absurd,
but thats really how it is.
What is the real danger indicated by research that weve begun
steadily fishing down the food web?
I think fishing
down the food web implies that its a trend and that if it
continues unmodified, unchanged in the next decades it will mean
that we will fish plankton soup. Essentially it means that there
will be no big fish around. Perhaps its immodest, but I compare
it a bit with the increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere. You can extrapolate those trends and you
can get into Venusian type hot greenhouse runaway effect. I presume
were not going to get there. I dont know why I think
that but lets say Im an optimist at the end of the day.
But reversing the trends such as the production of greenhouse gases
is a massive undertaking.
the trend that tends to eliminate big fish and then suggests that
we should go after the smaller fish reversing that trend
is very, very hard. And it is not due to any single country or skipper
on a boat having decided to do something or not. It is based on
hundreds and thousands of skippers in hundreds of countries, hundreds
of fisheries deciding every year, that given the scarcity of the
big fish, they will move towards smaller fish. And that is an obvious
thing to do and the overall result is that were going
Now there is
a huge variance around this mean that is declining, this mean trophic
level that is the average position in the food web, which is declining
of the landing. Now there is a huge variance, that means you still
get a few big fish. First of all there will be lots of people that
will argue this is not the case because these big fish are still
around. So, until the last tuna is caught, people will argue that
it is not happening. Just like on land, until the last large marine
mammal is caught, say a lion or zebra, people will argue that were
doing okay. The people who think that biodiversity can be maintained,
they will argue right until the last animal. And so its very
hard to reverse and that is the real danger. It is not something
that can be reversed by a few minutes just coming and writing a
declaration. It implies a big change.
is also there is really lots of plankton out there. And so if we
have developed technology to catch it, we will. And if we catch
the plankton and we find a way to market it, well be able
to feed lots of people. And if we do that, well modify the
food web such that the big fish will never re-establish themselves
because we will even strain the larvae out of the water, just like
when were catching shrimp, were catching the juveniles
of big fish. If we go from the shrimp to the next lower level to
plankton, then we will also catch the larvae of the juveniles and
of the shrimps, so it is very hard to get back because there is
a whole logic that drags you down. And once you get commercial interest
established, say in filtering plankton out of the water, how do
you say youre not supposed to do that? They will produce products.
This product will require wiping out the big fish but they will
have product to say what do we need the big fish for, we can turn
this plankton soup into fake big fish, and everythings fine.
After the conference in Lisbon, one of your colleagues wrote in
a study on fish and prey species that "fishing down the food
web is like eating ones seed corn if youre a farmer,
or killing the goose that laid the golden egg." Is this an
notion that you cannot fish a certain kind of fish but also catch
their prey, the public at large understand it. That makes sense.
It resembles kind of the common sense logic that one applies. Its
only in fishery circles that this notion exists that you can do
something without influencing something, and thats because
our models require this independence of the species from each another.
And therefore we make that assumption in order to be able to work.
I mean I was taught models that require the species to be disconnected
from the rest. We would like to maintain the fiction that the species
are not connected.
Last week I
was in Iceland. Iceland is a very harsh, as you well know, cold
place and the system around Iceland is very simplified. There is
cod, there is capelin, a few other things around, but for the first
time, I noted, even among fishery scientists, an acceptance of the
notion that if you want to have a lot of cod, you cannot also have
a capelin fishery because the cod consume huge amount of capelin.
Now in that system around Iceland, the players are so few that the
players in terms of animals that feed on each other, that people,
the scientists can even develop a sense of what it means to have
a food web. But in other systems, say of New England or say in the
Pacific or somewhere, the systems are so complicated that you can
fool yourself that this animal is not dependent on the others because
there are so many others, and there is always uncertainty. In the
case of cod and capelin, which incidentally, is also the combination
of New Foundland.
But in Iceland
they know that if there is no capelin, there would be no cod, because
they can see that the cod consumes almost exclusively capelin. So,
there is no denying. They know. But I guess if we cannot manage
the inter-species fisheries rank, how are we going to manage that?
In a sense one would not only have to say, "Okay, the cod fishers
also have to restrain themselves so there will not be an over fishing
of cod", but you also have to say "OK you guys who would
like to catch capelin, you have to not fish too much because
And that kind of arrangement is easy to challenge. You can question
the need of capelin by cod, you can argue and argue and argue, especially
if the system is complex. When the system is very simple, its
more difficult to argue, but usually the systems are complex enough
for people to deny the need for these kinds of arrangements.
Why is fishing down the food web a potential concern to seafood
levels? Here Im getting at the fact that the lower trophic
levels might be less appetizing and the fact that the price of smaller
fish has been going up pretty rapidly.
Well the big
fish that are gradually reduced by fishing are either high energy
fish like tuna or sharks which have red flesh which one may or may
not like. But most of the big fish actually have very firm white
flesh and people like that. They like the fillets. And so very firm
white flesh indicates an animal that is very quiet, that it doesnt
move much, and it grows very slowly. So these fish are disappearing.
They cannot withstand very strong fishing. This long lived firm
fleshed fish, and the replacement of fish which are not of very
high quality, even though the price of small fish over the last
50 years has increased very rapidly, more rapidly than the price
of big fish. Now small fish are quite unappetizing for most people.
In America for example, there is no tradition with anchovies nor
in fact sardines really, like raw sardine in Spain for example.
So what you
do is you process the small fish through another fish, for example,
you feed the fish meal to salmon. That becomes then a new value-added
product, or you turn it into surimi, that is fish paste. Its
actually fish flesh fiber. You scrape off the flesh off the bones
and then you actually process the stuff and you end up with some
dead paste that you can shape and then you paint it and it looks
like fake crab, fake this, fake that. Now this is a substitute,
it is not good quality. And I recently discovered to my horror that
in order to prevent surimi from spoiling in cold storage, you have
to add up to 15% in sugar to it. I discovered it because I was the
chair of a thesis defense in food processing here at UBC and the
thesis was about reducing that percentage from 15 or some absurdly
high number, 12 or something, to less that 10%, because people who
have diabetes, and that is increasingly a large fraction of our
population, are affected by eating suremi.
Did you know
that surimi contains sugars? Theyre not sweet, but they are
sugars still. They work chemically as sugars. And surimi is not
really food, its junk. Thats the way you have to process
them in order for them to be marketable. You have to process them
and its like dead cheese. Im speaking here as a French
man, its like dead cheese. Dead, dead everything, and essentially
there is no other way we could process plankton. It would have to
be turned into a slurry and then it would have to be processed chemically
and then it would have to be shaped to look like fish or like some
fake product. And so then you end up with dead product and so I
presume that given the changes now that have happened in the perception
of the public in GM food, genetically modified food, even though
these products will not be genetically modified, they are going
to be put in a " franken-food" category. And they probably
will have a low level of acceptance. Just imagine if people knew
that surimi contains up to 15% sugar. And therefore its bad
for your health if you already have diabetes of something, which
incidentally an increasing fraction of the population has, through
obesity right, so these are issues that are very grave in a sense.
Its much better to eat natural products and the perception
that this is so has now left the fringe and gone mainstream, that
products should be as natural as possible. Well natural fish is
becoming very rare. And there is no way you can process plankton
without going into a very unnatural food.
You spoke a little bit about fishing down the food web and the impact
its having on commercial fisheries predators prey species
and so on, but what about the impact its having on marine
wildlife such as Steller sea lions?
want to speak specifically about Steller sea lion because its
a very generalized issue. Its obvious that the animals are
deprived of their food. I think its unavoidable and its
that we are now fishing the food of large
marine mammals from right under their nose. You could call them
anecdotal information that this is happening, that the animals are
responding in all kinds of weird ways. You have dolphins starting
to attack seals. This never happened before. Thats a report
from the North Sea that I read about. You have animals that are
very thin outside of the season where they are supposed to be thin.
Maybe the Steller
sea lion is a story of inadequate food. And you have this story
of as the marine mammals decline, you have the killer whale shifting
their food away from the normal food that theyre supposed
to eat which is marine mammal, large marine mammal and starting
to eat otters. They eat otters, the otters are not there to eat
sea urchin and the sea urchin take over the place and there is no
more kelp and the whole system collapses. Now these kinds of changes
are very hard to document solidly, convincingly, but you can do
a back of an envelope calculation; what does it mean that an animal
such as a humpback whale that requires 100 kilograms of herring
everyday finds itself in a situation where there is a herring fishery.
But it has to imply that the density of food for that animal is
diminished. Now reduced food density means longer searching time,
for a lactating animal it means that you produce less milk. Less
milk means lower survival. Now you combine this with the challenge
to the immune system of the animals by PCBs and other toxin in effect
and you have a nightmare scenario.
Now there is
somewhere in the population where they are increasing and they have
to because they have been reduced to such a low level that the carrying
capacity is actually unused. But there will be quite soon increasing
conflicts between humans on one hand and marine mammal on the other.
That is unavoidable. I mean a strategy decision has to be made about
what were going to do about it. We certainly cannot maintain
the fiction that we are not going to touch the marine mammal and
exploit their food. And last week when I was in Iceland I was confronted
with this because the Icelanders, a good fraction of them are fierce
marine mammal eaters right, and I was challenged quite a bit there.
Can we afford to fish and not touch marine mammal? No we cant.
But then again you can have whale watching industries that are more
profitable than the fisheries, so thats where the accounting
has to be done, what do we really want?
How has the globalized market helped to mask the real economic impacts
of diminishing fish stocks?
We have to realize
that fish products are the most globalized of the major commodity,
for example, rice. Most rice, that means far more than 50% is consumed
within a few kilometers of where its produced. So rice is
a major commodity. A large amount of it is traded, about 10% of
it is traded internationally. I mean thats enough to determine
the global price, what is traded, but its not a globalized
commodity as fish.
Over 50% of
fish is sold in other countries than where its caught. So
it is really a globalized commodity and because its so globalized,
you can have a situation where the price of fish in a certain place
is completely in panic of the supply of fish, for example, when
cod, in New Foundland collapsed, the price of cod didnt go
up at all because there was enough cod to compensate for that scarcity.
So there is really no connection between how much you produce. If
you ever produce locally, you dont get punished by falling
prices because you have essentially insatiable markets. And these
markets are Europe, Western Europe, the United States, Japan and
These are essentially
insatiable markets. These are the how much the system can produce,
and essentially if a certain area, say a village that was producing
reef fishes for the fresh fish market in Hong Kong, if that village
has no fish, then that market can just go somewhere else. I mean
the demand will pop up somewhere else. And so you have these waves
of expansion, a wave of destruction that sweeps over entire areas.
The consumers never notice because they are confronted with ever-renewed
apparently wealth of new products. They dont know that the
fish that they were used to consuming from a certain place does
not exist anymore. They dont know that. And they cannot. Because
one is used to all this diversity. One doesnt know that this
diversity actually implies the destruction of lots of local stocks.
What is the "shifting baseline" syndrome?
Well the shifting
baseline syndrome is the title of an essay. One time I was asked
to write something for a magazine called "Tree" and I
had been brooding over an issue. And that was the fact that we do
not complain much over what we have lost, in fisheries specifically.
And I was wondering why. And basically its because we dont
know about it. And then I thought about why we dont know about
it and thats because from one generation to the other, the
knowledge about it has not been passed on. So shifting baseline
means that over time, if the supplier of goods from a natural resource
declines we end up unaware of it because we dont know that
this resource was available before. We dont know about it
anymore. If we read now, the accounts say, from colonial Canada,
about how it was then, it just sounds incredible and infact it is
treated as anecdotes. So the title of my essay was called "Anecdotes
and Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries". It sounds like
stories that shouldnt be believed.
Now if we moved
even to the beginning of the century, you have accounts of lots
of fish. But the scientists method, the discipline that were
using at the beginning of the century is very different from the
ones were using now. So we can pretend that their work is
not really relevant because they werent as precise. And so
we move on from one generation to the other. I mean it is also a
personal thing. When I was a young student in fisheries, the world
fisheries had certain resources that I knew of for having seen them.
For example, I was in Indonesia in the boom of the trawler industry.
Now Im older and in a few years I will retire. But my students
will know of the abundances that are now the case. When they get
old they will have missed something but it is not the same thing
they will have missed that I have missed. And that which I have
missed is not what my predecessors have missed. And so we live like
the fire in a cigarette, you know how that moves, and the ashes
of the past. They are just ashes of the past, we have no return
to them. We dont look back.
stuff is written, the ancient accounts are written in languages
we dont understand, whether its Latin or the language
of the colonial characters that were there in the developing countries
that are not accessible. For example in Indonesia, I lived two years
there, the accounts of the fishery were written in Dutch. Well the
young in Indonesia do not speak Dutch. The books are not available
anywhere what the Dutch wrote. So what they wrote becomes irrelevant.
So for a young Indonesian, the fisheries now in their depleted state
are the abundance that they start from. To me that shifting baseline
has become a major explanation for why we tolerate or why we end
up accepting by default this immense destruction because we dont
know about the past. And because we think it was in there, we think
its a story.
You have said that we have just 10% of the fish in the sea that
were once there. Can you explain?
if we compare the amount of fish, the biomass of fish before the
introduction of industrial fishing in various parts of the world,
what is left, the relationship is about 1 to 10 roughly; that is
you go into the Gulf of Thailand, you catch if youre 20 kilograms
per hour with a standard trawl. Then in the 60s you would catch
200, 300 kilogram per hour with a standard trawl so you have a fact
of 10. And this fact of 10, thats what you find in a lot of
They say the
economics of the present fisheries we have, given the subsidies
and technology, that they kind of break even with biomasses that
are about one tenth of what was the case before the industrialization.
However before industrialization, there were already humans operating
with small scale fisheries . And the small scale fisheries were
catching things of easier access, an example would be sea cow which
went extinct before industrialization came in. But sea cow is an
animal that would shape the environment and probably turtles and
other things that are more accessible were probably reduced even
in pre-contact or pre-industrialization time by local Aboriginal
communities or small scale fishery communities. So ten percent is
an underestimate of the average probably.
For things like
seabirds and sea turtles and large marine mammals, we probably have
much less than 10%, perhaps 1%, perhaps even less. Turtles, its
a disaster. Some species of marine mammals are extinct. Caribbean
Monk Seal is extinct for example. So that is like a big ratio and
for the large whales, I think the ratio is also of that order, except
for gray whale which is approaching current capacity. So I think
the rule of thumb would be 1/10 but thats an underestimate.
What evidence is there that today there are fewer fish in the sea
than a century ago?
I would say
that overall fisheries of the world or all species that are affected
directly or indirectly by humans, I would say that we have at present
about a tenth left in the sea of what we had before industrial fisheries
began. That is about 100 years ago. That is not a guess. But that
is kind of a generalization based on lots of observation. Now this
is a precise figure when you look at, say the gulf of Thailand where,
within 15 years the amount of fish that you would catch per hour
which is a measure of its abundance, went from about 300 to about
20 kilograms per hour. So from 300 kilograms in about 15 years
its a factor of 1 to 10. Now that factor is different when
youre looking at very vulnerable species such as turtles or
certain marine mammals, but I think overall that figure is something
that one can remember and use for orientation. It has to do with
the level of catch per unit of fishing that commercial fisheries
find profitable. When the catch goes lower than that they cannot
continue or they do not start an operation in the first place. So,
one in ten.
How about the impact of distant water fleets on coastal, artisenal
fisheries in West Africa or elsewhere?
The impact of
distant water fleets, obviously on small scale fisheries in coastal
areas, for example West Africa, is devastating because they are
exploiting the same stock. And so you cannot have both fleets and
any semblance of sustainability.
I must add though
that the small-scale fisheries in some parts of West Africa are
ill-named. They are small scale in terms of the origin but they
have grown to absolute monsters. Monsters in the sense that they
are unmanageable by the countries. They are the typical social dumps
that I was talking about, in that lots of young men are coming that
are not traditional fishers at all. They are completely unregulated.
The government is completely unable to control them. It is like
riding a tiger, you just cant. And they exert immense pressure
on the stocks. And that pressure is obviously compounded by the
presence of foreign fleet, but even if you got rid of the fleet
you would just gain five years of time and then you hit the wall.
So, for example in Senegal that problem of so called small scale
fisheries is immense, and the boats are absurdly big but they dont
have what you expect boats to have, such as safety equipment for
the crew. None of them. Its just big canoes that go way off
shore and put themselves in enormous danger and just wipe out the
resource. And for a country like Senegal, its almost impossible
And the only
hope is that young men get attracted out of fishing. Were
talking jobs, and these jobs would have to be in agriculture but
thats precisely where they come from because they dont
have land. So its a nightmare, it really is a nightmare.
Is it possible for developing nations to work with distant water
fleets in a sustainable way that will enable the fishermen to benefit?
Is there a way out?
Well in principle
the law of the sea that emerged in the 70s and early 80s
does provide a context for developing countries to benefit from
distant water fleets. If, for example, there is a large resource
there and it cant be exploited by local fleets, then in principle
you should be able to let the surplus be cropped by foreign
fleet and that foreign fleet then pays you. I have seen such arrangements
work in Mozambique. There was a very effective little institute
that was evaluating the total allowable catch. In this case it was
a Korean fleet. And the European advisors of that institute had
no commercial or national interest at stake. The European advisors
were Scandinavians and Scandinavia was not fishing. So Mozambique
was benefiting quite substantially from that arrangement because
at the time no small-scale fisheries were developed. So this was
an arrangement that worked.
On the other
hand in Sierra Leone, I remember there was a distant water fleet
that was operating. The company that had been hired to watch them
was in cahoots with them. So the government was not getting anything
out of that foreign fleet operating. On the other hand it wasnt
losing much because the small-scale fishery was not in direct competition
with them. However as Sierra Leone becomes more peaceful, the Civil
War is over, the fisheries develop, they obviously cannot afford
to have their resource pillaged that way.
So it really
depends on the strength of the national government, on the honesty
of the ministers - whether they will go in cahoots with the companies
or whether they will defend their countries. Interesting. The international
organizations play very important roles because they can provide
advisors that will tell for example, the small countries that do
not know what the big companies are doing, they can tell them the
implication of certain policies.
When a fishery is mismanaged, do the lost revenues translate into
a lack of money for infrastructures, for example schools?
We have to realize
that potentially, fisheries, for countries that have them, are a
social revenue. You have nature producing fish, you dont do
anything except catch them. So that should be a money generating
revenue. Its like a press; the permission to print your own
money in a sense. Now very few countries benefit from these fisheries
and thats one of these paradoxes.
I said that
I was in Iceland last week. Iceland is one of the very few countries
that has a net gain from having a fishery. Most countries in the
world, including developing countries, lose by having fisheries.
They lose because these fisheries, in order to have them, must be
provided with infrastructure. Not only infrastructure in terms of
ports and roads and refrigeration but also a financial infrastructure;
they have to have capital, they have to have a tax break on this
and import duty breaks on that. At the end, the countries end up
losing money because they subsidize them. This is particularly tragic
in countries that are poor because that machine that should be generating
money for hospitals and schools and things is not.
And since agriculture,
in many countries also does not generate money, no sector generates
money. Sometimes the only sector that generates money is the mining
sector because its very difficult to not make money when you
have diamond fields. But then that money is realized by just a few
accolades of the ones in charge. That really is a tragedy. But mind
you, this is not something that is specific to developing countries.
Throughout the world fisheries are really a losing sector. The world
would gain by not having them. Its an absurdity.
Mind you, its
the same thing in this province. Even the logging industry is not
making money. Can you imagine? You have this tree standing there
and all you have to do is harvest them reasonably? And you still
manage to lose money on it? I dont know. Fisheries are like
that. Very few countries make money out of having fisheries and
it has to do with the subsidies, too many fishers. I mean in a sense
you could even say that poverty subsidizes fisheries. See, if you
view subsidies as the transfer of wealth from one sector to the
other, and because fisheries have no alternative, even catching
a few fish is a net profit, so they will continue fishing and attract
people. Now in economic terms, the cost of fishing and the cost
of labor is a cost of fishing. When this costs stands to zero because
there is no effective alternative, then you end up with a big social
disaster. Now how do you prevent that disaster from spilling over
into an uprising?
As I saw in
the Philippines you have to have lots of police, you have to put
the army there. You have to maintain all sorts of operations that
are a drag on the general economy. And that is really an absurdity.
I remember one of the fisheries in the Philippines that I studied
very well, called San Miguel Bay Fishery in northern Luzon. There
were 5000 families in that fishery. 85% of the net benefits obtained
by the fishery was appropriated by 25 families and the rest of the
5000 households appropriated the remaining 15%. Now that absurd
distribution of benefits within that community was the core reason
why they had to station a division of the army in there because
the whole province was in uproar all the time. Infact with a study
we did in the mid-80s, we were not able to go there, because the
province was in uproar and people were being killed. There is a
price to pay to maintain this poverty.
How can marine protected areas be a plus for fisheries?
I would say
theyre not a plus, I would say they are a necessary condition
for the continued existence of fisheries. Fisheries means catching
fish. And if we exclude for a second the notion of catching zoo
plankton, given that our fishing effort is really too strong for
the ability of the fish to sustain that, if we want to sustain to
keep some of the big fish, we have to give them places where they
are not exposed to fishing. Its quite simple. If I may make
an analogy. Fishing is like people running around with chain-saws.
If you want to have trees that are not cut down, given the existence
of people running around with chain-saws, you have to have areas
where you may not go with a chain-saw. And so all kinds of parks,
national parks, these trees can only keep standing and survive if
no chain-saws are allowed. Its not a question of having a
few chain-saws, or every second Sunday, the point is, no chain-saws
in the park. There is no way a chain-saw and the park can be mutually
accommodated. Now trees take many hundred years to grow and if you
want them, no chain-saw.
Same thing for
some of the very big fish we have. They take decades and decades
to grow. The mortality we can inflict through fishing is very fast
and the benefits we hope to get are essentially infinite. I mean
greed, or needs, are infinite relative to what the resource can
produce. So what you end up with is a complete mismatch between
what the fish can produce for us and what we want from them. And
the only way to kind of accommodate that mismatch is to create areas
where the fish are not caught at all. And one must point out that
this is not crazy, in the sense that first of all, in the past,
we couldnt fish everywhere. In other words, we used to rely
on the fact that we were not fishing everywhere, so marine
protected areas is another way of saying lets not fish everywhere.
Thats the number one point.
And until very
recently we could not fish everywhere. Now we can fish everywhere
because we have these big boats and they even break the ice and
fish under the ice water. There is nothing new about marine protected
areas. This is the reason why fisheries were sustainable in the
The second point
about marine protected areas, and this is the crazy part really,
is that they do benefit the fisheries. Its not only that they
benefit the animals - in the sense that they grow the continued
existence. But it also benefits the fisheries because you end up
catching more. That obviously is more in the long term. So unless
we find a way to regulate our fisheries such that the long term
becomes the present, we cannot avail of the benefits that the marine
protected areas are giving.
Look at terrestrial
systems. Do we have a set up in any country, including the States
where people can fish anytime, anywhere? No. Essentially what we
have on land is that you do not hunt. Thats the default setting.
And then some areas are open sometimes. In other words the default
setting is no hunting, right? The world is closed to hunting and
then you hunt in certain periods in certain places. Now the seas,
they inverse, right? There are certain areas where you cannot fish
during certain periods but you can otherwise go everywhere. Now
why do we have a few mammals left in a few trees? Because really
on land we perceive going after animals as the extraordinary thing
and not going after them as the normal thing. But in the sea, its
not going after them that is perceived as the extraordinary thing.
Small wonder there is nothing around, right?
So what we have
to do is we have to realize, as I was saying before, that nature
is small relative to our capability now. I mean I know it sounds
crazy but really nature is small vis-à-vis what we can do
to it. So really if nature is small, we have to step back and thats
the precautionary principle. We have to anticipate what our impact
is going to be. And thats the impact that we limit. Its
not the non-impact that is to be limited. Thats about the
ideal marine protected areas. Now the implementation of marine protected
areas is a whole different story because its going to be difficult
to get this change in our heads.
Could you state what percentage of the oceans are currently protected
by actual "no-take" zones?
Well the area
protected by no take zone in the world ocean is less than 1%. I
mean its ridiculously small. Its almost not worth talking
about it. Its like these major fashion trends and when you
try to find out who does it, it turns out theres two designers,
one in New York and one in Milan and the rest of the world is completely
untouched by it, so everybody is doing this. It turns out nobody
is doing this really, except 2 or 3 persons. And its the same
thing with marine protected areas, we talk about them, and the public
thinks there must be lots of them.
"Oh marine protected areas, theyre going to ruin our
existence". Where are there marine protected areas? No no-take
ones, no permanent ones, none. Just think about how much land has
trees on them that youre not supposed to go chop. Right? I
dont know how it is in areas between North America and Europe,
perhaps between 30% of the land is not available for chopping down.
Well, on shelves around the continent, how much is protected from
us going and grabbing and removing everything? Literally, almost
nothing, perhaps .1%, .2%. Its an absurdly small number. Its
not even worth talking about. Why are we talking about MPAs
in the first place? There arent any really.
What about the notion of the advocates of Marine Protected Areas
trying to make them a reality, to get a start somewhere, in addressing
the fisheries crises?
Now one issue
that comes up all the time when we talk about marine protected areas,
and remember, all we do about marine protected areas is talk about
them right? So when we talk about these areas, one point that always
comes as objection is "Can you demonstrate they will have a
spill-over effect?" Now, just go back in time to Roosevelt
I think it was who created all these National Parks in North America.
You say to him, "Well Mr. Roosevelt, can you prove that if
you create those parks, the seeds of the trees from those parks
will actually benefit the forest outside the park?" He would
say "But thats not the point. The point is to actually
keep the trees alive that are inside the park." The spill-over
effect is the part that deals with "Will the fishery benefit
from this?" Now if the fishery catch the fish, do they have
any spill over? No they dont. So its quite clear that
having the fish is better than not having them in the first place,
since really the alternative to protecting them is eradicating them.
So the next one is how about the spill over effect. How can you
get an idea about what a spill over effect will be? Well, just have
a marine protected area and do experiments with it.
Now are these
experiments being done? No. Why? Well because it would remove fish,
it would prevent fishing everywhere. So you are in a vicious circle
where the proponents of marine protected areas have to prove an
effect additional to the one they would like to do - that
is, at the minimum, protecting what it is meant to protect. They
must demonstrate that it will benefit the fisheries - the fishery
will wipe out those animals anyway if they are not protected. Its
an intellectual debacle if you think about it. What has to follow
from it, is that we have to set up marine protected area, as many
as possible, in as many different places as possible, evaluate the
effects of having them and from that modify the next move or from
that, derive where we should put the next ones, so that they will
protect more and the fishery will benefit more. But if these things
are raised as an objection, to having them in the first place well
never find out, and we will never be able to protect.
Can you speak about potential benefits of marine protected areas?
Now, one question
that one could come up is, "Why does nature put those big fish
there?" The point of being a big fish, or a big animal in general,
is that you can afford to lose part of your brood one year because
you are going to survive to the next and to the next and to the
next. So what you have is that big fish occur in the habitat in
which variability is such that you cannot guarantee your brood surviving
next year. Animals that are big have reserves that enable them to
withstand bad conditions. Furthermore, if you have a large biomass,
you can afford to lose a certain amount because there will be enough
next year. Now, eliminate the big fish, the long-lived fish and
reduce the biomass. What do you get? You get a biomass that is driven
mainly by young fish and you get a low biomass. OK, you reduce the
biomass through fishing, you eliminate the big fish from the population.
Now you throw in an environmental variation. What does it do?
It reduces the
biomass further if its a negative one, the population crashes
and because it doesnt have fish that can withstand one year
with no eggs that survive into young fish, the crash can be long-lasting
until the area is reinvented. So what you have is that the variability
that seems to come from the environment, actually does not come
from the environment, it comes from you having reduced the biomass
of fish and having turned it into a thing that is mainly a function
of small animals, short lived animals. Marine ecosystems before
industrial fisheries were dominated by big fish. So what it meant
was that it could afford to not bring their young through. That
means unfavorable environmental conditions had no effect on the
biomass because it consisted mainly of big fish that would last.
Now with the biomass consisting of one year old or two year olds,
it swings with their environment. And so this whole discussion in
fishery science about the complexity of marine ecosystems and the
fact that is environmentally driven is largely missing the point.
The point is that we have created that variability. We have made
the system susceptible to environmental crashes.
Earlier you talked about the idea of fishing at a level where youre
harvesting the interest rather than by the principle. Could you
elaborate on that.
Well you have
to realize that fishing is essentially a question of extracting
just the right amount, so the best is to use an analogy. Lets
imagine your fish population is a certain amount of money in the
bank, lets say $1000. Now if its wisely invested, it
will yield say $100 a year. Now thats how much you can get
without risking too much. Now you can obviously catch more,
you can extract more than $100, but what you have to do is go into
the capital. You can catch $300, $400 or whatever dollar a year
but you can do that only for two years. Then the capital is gone,
or maybe not completely, maybe you still have $10 in the bank, which
will again yield $1 which is the situation of fisheries. Because
theyre greedy, they do not want to depend only on the interest,
but rather on the capital. And so we have eaten up the capital of
fisheries and if we really want to maximize on the long term return
from fishery, we have to rebuild the capital in the bank. That means
letting the fisheries rebuild, hence this talk we have that we can
ensure the future of fisheries but rebuilding them as they were
With such a bleak picture painted, what keeps you going?
I travel a lot. Ive been going to South East Asia from Europe
so much that I can actually see the difference from the plane in
the forest cover of different places in South East Asia. So here
is the shifting baseline, I can see it. Indeed what I see around
is very bleak in terms of the same nonsense happening everywhere
and the same people in the same situation doing the same mistakes.
On the other hand over my life, my professional career, Marine Protected
Areas have emerged, the ability to understand what has happened
to the system, the species modeling type has emerged, people realize
there is a serious problem, intervention by the public has become
national. Last year, big companies got really hit hard and they
seem to be ruling the world toying with the genes etcetera,
and they seem to be ruling the world, what has happened to their
stocks? They just disappear!
going to be a bit pathetic in a sense of pathos, but Ive been
very much influenced by a previous generation which went through
the bleak 40s in Europe where fascism was running and it was
far worse as a threat to humanity than our bad ecological ways.
Far worse. And what is it that stopped it? Were lots of people.
It was like a big machine. And lots of people threw themselves,
or were thrown into this big machine like sand grains. And there
were so many sand grains the machine came to a halt. There were
no heroes. I mean its not Saladine or Charles the Great or
something. It was lots of people. Lots of people throwing themselves
in that machine which then came to a halt in Stalingrad or Omaha
Beach or whatever. Now its a bit pathetic what Im saying,
but that previous generation, it solved a problem that was there.
A monstrosity in its amorality and we are now as humans faced with
a similar challenge which is how are we going to live on earth together,
without trashing and destroying the base of our life? And basically
all you can do is decide to be a sand grain and throw yourself into
the big machine.