Friday, March 23, 2007

OCEAN FISHERIES: Gloom & Doom - Daniel Pauly

[to hear the full version, with many quotes from the Pauly speech, click the title above. You may have to wait a minute, it is 47 minutes long, 45 megabytes]

What would it take to be the Grand-daddy of fisheries researchers? On-site experience in many places. Five hundred papers published, working with a dedicated team, and with other top scientists all over the world.

Then, what if that top scientist sees, and can now prove, that humans are killing off their own food fisheries, and creating giant deserts, on the bottom of the sea?

Now you understand the predicament of Doctor Daniel Pauly, Director of the well-respected Fisheries Centre, at the University of British Columbia. He is almost a global citizen - French national, raised in Europe, worked decades in the Far East, studying the fisheries from his base in the Philippines. In 1994, he accepts the post leading a dedicated research team on Canada's Pacific Coast.

This is a man, and an institution, that asks the big tough questions. How do present fish catches compare to those of the early 1900's? Are marine mammals a danger to fish stocks? Where do developed countries get fish for restaurants, and home tables, once their own fish stocks have crashed? Are we killing off world fisheries?

Canada knows this situation very well, after its five hundred year old cod fishery collapsed in 1990 - and hasn't come back. Is that an isolated incident?

To find out, the Paulian researchers gathered catch data collected by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO. Along with other scientists, they soon realized that while specific FAO information was very valuable, the total catches being reported were larger than life. Pauly says that China has been exaggerating fish catch reports, as they exaggerate wheat harvests, and other production statistics, to reflect the success of the State. The FAO said the overall world catch was going up. Dr. Pauly, and a chorus of independent fisheries scientists, said the global ocean harvest is actually declining.

The catch is dropping despite bigger, faster boats going much further, burning more fuel that ever before. Even satellite and sonar gear cannot increase the catch. Europe has exhausted many species in the North Sea, and must now go down to the coast of Africa to feed the European diet of fish, including the mandatory Friday seafood meal sanctioned by the Church.

We will hear about trawlers creating new deserts hidden at the bottom of the sea. Dr. Pauly explores the possibilities and problems of aquaculture, which he concludes cannot save us. Even eating seafood using a green guide may not be enough to preserve enough edible species to our grandchildren. On the East Coast, Doctor Boris Worm has predicted the fisheries will crash globally by 2048.

Where does that date come from? What do these scientists really know? Welcome to the first part of "Killing Off the Oceans" - an ongoing series on our impact on ocean life. Will we really force up to 90% of ocean species into extinction? From over fishing, or due to carbon pollution turning the seas acidic? You can download this program, and the rest of the series, free, from Radio Ecoshock at Just look for "Oceans" in the audio on demand menu.

I'm your host Alex Smith. This week we'll be working with a speech made by Dr. Daniel Pauly at UBC in Vancouver, March 10th, 2007. It was part of the top-rated Vancouver Institute series.

To study the state of world fisheries, scientists begin with reported catches, locations, and a mountain of other data - to place each fishery on a kind of curve. If the fishery is very new, relatively untouched - it is labeled "undeveloped." When the catch reaches 50 percent of the possible, it is called "developing." At the peak, when the most fish possible are being caught, that is "fully exploited." Usually, shortly after the peak of an over-exploited fishery, there is a sharp, sharp drop to "crashed."

Using computers, it is possible to calculate each fishery, and merge all those curves into a general pattern for Earth. When this was done, the results showed there were hardly any "fully exploited" fisheries in 1950 - and none had crashed. By the 1980's, a majority of fisheries were "fully exploited" and some had crashed. By 2000, there were almost as many crashed fisheries as exploited ones.

In Eastern Canada, Dr. Worm used fed this date into a computer model which showed a global crash somewhere around 2048. That was a wake-up call for the public and their politicians, but little action has followed. In fact, as we'll see, governments have become part of the problem, prolonging fisheries beyond their real life spans, by paying off the fish industry with billions of dollars in subsidies. Likely, that includes your own government.

Actually, the figure 2048 was not in the scientific research paper, but appeared in the press release. It caused a controversy. Dr. Worm's model created a projection, which assumed we go on fishing as now. If humans fail to change their fishing practices, and rein in the excessive fleet. But no one can predict the future. Perhaps you and I will act in time. Dr. Pauly gives concrete suggestions of how we can change, and this is why he accepts the state of gloom about world fisheries, but not yet the sense of doom.

Meanwhile the press attached the 2048 figure, rather than realizing the immanent threat.

[Pauly Quote #1 "Finger pointing."]

Pauly's "Sea Around Us" project mapped out where humans fish. The richest fisheries are on the continental shelf areas. That's is where we can catch enough to pay for the fuel, the fishers, boat, and allegedly a profit. There are some fish in the open ocean, but they are so dispersed it is not economical to catch them. The open ocean contains ten times fewer fish per square kilometer than nearer the shore. Most of the world's ocean wealth hugs the coastlines.

China is a concern in all this. The billion Chinese love their seafood and count on it for protein. The government must always announce success, but Dr. Pauly finds their catch is decreasing.

[P2 "China catch decreasing."]

Here is another pitfall. The FAO has been reporting an increase in fish catches - but that is because they add aquaculture to the total. The real ocean catch is declining steadily, at an alarming rate, Pauly's team has found.

[P3 Decline Continues FAO Aquaculture]

The FAO didn't count the by-catch - more than 30 millions tons of sea life wasted annually, tossed over-board as non-target species, dead. Now more of that is being kept, and counted as catch tonnage, to be fed to other fish in aquaculture. That addition also hides the real decline in species that humans like to eat. And the catch effort is increasing all the time. Ships have to go much further, perhaps thousands of miles, burning up low grade diesel, spewing out tons of carbon and pollution.

The scientists can measure the "biomass" of the fish - the number of fish per square kilometer (or mile). The biomass is dropping rapidly - and Pauly shows this decline, compared to 1900 and 1950, on slides.

As Europe fished out its own waters, they moved to West Africa. They were joined there by the Russians and Asians. Corrupt and failed states were easily bought out and bribed. Some, like Angola, were fighting civil wars. As a result, while Africans went hungry, their fish went to European dinner tables, as a healthy alternative to other meat. Local people starved because they could not afford to buy fish from just offshore, and some were forbidden to fish. Dr. Pauly compares this to the Irish potato famine, in the 1840's, when Ireland was exporting wheat as millions starved.

The African countries get very little for their fishing rights. Almost all the value goes to Europe, Russia, or the Far East.

The same rapid decline of over-exploited fish is now happening off the coast of Africa, and is shocking to see in East Asia.

There is one glaring exception. The billionaire Sultan of Brunei, an absolute monarch, doesn't want fishing boats around his offshore oil platforms. So the Sultanate has become one of the few fish preserves in the region. It works. Fish are plentiful there, while wiped out in neighboring countries.

Next Pauly investigates the emotional question of whether marine mammals are to blame for falling fish stocks.

Should we kill off whales, seals, and dolphins - to protect the fisheries? After all, marine mammals do eat more than the total human catch. Scientists have calculated their populations, and mapped out where these wild creatures overlap with important human fisheries. That overlap is high in Europe and in East Asia, and consequently there is more pressure from the fishing industry. Some fishermen demand a "cull" - a killing - of marine mammals to leave more fish for humans to scoop out of the sea.

Canadian officials have repeatedly tried to blame seals for the collapse of the cod fishery - instead of the hundreds of mega-trawlers that scraped the bottom into lifeless mud. It is typical human denial - yet it leads to a seal slaughter every year. Pauly says Canada makes about $40 million selling seal products, mainly pelts. But Canada may be losing up to $200 million a year in tourism - from people who refuse to visit Canada because they think the seal hunt is so barbaric.

So what does Pauly say about the prospects of saving the fisheries by killing off marine mammals:

[P6 - Killing all marine mammals plus Japan whaling - Pauly's team research showed that killing off every marine mammal on Earth would not save the fisheries. Humans are responsible for their decline. Japan is trying to tell poor countries to support whaling, to improve their fisheries, but the real culprit is trawlers, including Japanese trawlers.]

We learn that humans start with the largest fish, such as the giant tuna, predators that live at the top of the food web. As these disappear, as tuna are now disappearing, we go down the food chain, to hunt their food. We catch juvenile fish, crashing the larger species, and smaller fish.

Our worst practice in the sea is trawling - otherwise known as "bottom-dragging." Huge weights and rollers cause a net to scrape up everything on the sea floor and haul it to the surface. Most is then tossed overboard, lifeless. In this speech, Dr. Pauly stressed a small but very important concept. Up in the ocean, microscopic algae are the staple of the sea. When algae drops to the bottom, it is consumed by other very tiny animals, often anchored to the sea floor. These animal forms (some look like plants) help to control algae, and hold the ocean floor together.

When the ocean floor is scraped clean by trawlers, the algae control animals are killed off, along with bottom plant life. The result is a lifeless muddy bottom, suitable only for some types of jelly fish. The heavy rollers and net create a muddy wake of turbid water, which Pauly compares to the contrails of jets. In the lecture, he showed, for the first time, photos taken from space - showing the muddy contrails of trawlers, deep under the sea. One startling slide showed long lines of Chinese trawlers dragging the China Sea, side by side. It looked like a thousand tractors plowing up the Great Plains. Nothing will be left there. What will the Chinese people do? We can expect the launch of a new international Chinese fishing fleet, burning still more carbon-laced fuel, to take fish from the far corners of the world, just as the Europeans and Russians do now.

[P7 Trawler damage.]

[P8 incredible clear cut ocean bottoms]

When the process of taking everything in the sea has been complete, and the algae control animals are gone, the result is deadly algae blooms followed by long-lasting dead zones. Dead Zones are popping up all over, and Pauly thinks trawling is a major contributing factor.

[P9 dead zones in America, Europe & elsewhere - latest off the coast of Oregon.]

Meanwhile, you the consumer don't really notice the tragedy playing out on the ocean, because fish keeps showing up in the supermarket. Hardly any of it is local anymore, those stocks are gone. No one asks where the seafood comes from, how far away, who went hungry while you could afford more.

Here is another problem. If you follow a green guide to sustainable fish, you still may not avert a global crash in the fisheries.

[P10 - choosing the right fish important, but will not save fisheries in a real way. More of an "indulgence" for our sins, he says.]

But there are some things we can do.

[P11 He advises strong political pressure, plus more pressure on bureaucrats who "manage" fisheries.]

Meanwhile, marine protected areas, which we desperately need, are growing slowly around the world. Only point 6 percent of the ocean is protected, and at the rate we are going, we will miss all the conservation targets.

[P12 Targets aimed for 2012 may be reached by 2082 at the current rate - too late.]

The really crazy thing: governments who should be acting to preserve ocean food stocks are actually paying more people to go out and destroy it. While dead and dying fisheries would be totally uneconomic - nobody can make a living from such thin catches - the boats keep arriving, due to billions of dollars in government subsidies to the fishing industry and fish boat owners. Over $34 billion a year in subsidies!

[P13 subsidies keep dead fisheries going over $34 billion.]

It gets stranger. When some European governments agreed to buy out old boats, to reduce excess capacity - owners used that promise to go to the bank to get loads - to buy brand new, even larger trawlers. The biggest subsidizers are Asian governments, followed by European ones. Strangely, the United States is one the right side of this issue. The U.S. doesn't offer big subsides to ocean farmers, as it does to land-based agriculture. America has called for an end to fishing subsidies in the World Trade Organization.

Part of the answer, beyond ending deadly subsidies, is to move toward small scale fishing again. Pauly says there are two types of fisheries: the industrial scale and more localized small scale. Research and history show that small scale fisheries, run by locals, can be sustainable.

[P14 advantages of small scale fisheries]

But Dr. Pauly says aquaculture is not the answer. It cannot replace declining fish stocks, and aquaculture as understood by North Americans and Europeans - fish farms raising salmon or trout - are terminally wasteful of ocean resources. Our style of aquaculture takes large amounts of perfectly edible small fish, and concentrates them in high value fish like salmon.

[P15 Eat Anchovies, not farmed salmon.]

I'll give you the conclusion to this speech by Dr. Daniel Pauly on March 10th, 2007 - but don't go away. As often happens, important answers come when the public gets a chance to question the scientist. We even find out the worry that makes a would-be optimist like Pauly admit a fear of ultimate ocean extinctions.

Here is the wrap up, your call to action.

[P16 conclusion, What you can do (pressure governments right now, and join environment groups.]

The first question is this: should trawling be banned? And if so, what could replace it?

[P17 Should trawling be banned - he thinks it will end eventually, and is being banned in many parts of the world. Small scale fisheries, and other methods such as long-lining should be employed.]

Finally, we arrive at the castle of doom. A member of the audience asks why Dr. Pauly has not mentioned the problem of our carbon emissions dropping into the ocean, to make it more acidic. Here is his reply:

[P18 Doom - Ocean Acidification - a surprisingly gloomy view - perhaps 90% extinction in the oceans by the end of this century if carbon continues to pour from the skies into the ocean, causing the oceans to acidify.]

That is where we leave Dr. Daniel Pauly, and our thanks to him, and the Vancouver Institute for allowing this important speech to be recorded. You can download the whole one hour lecture, plus the question and answer period, free, from the Web at Look for "oceans" in the Audio on Demand menu.

Learn more about Dr Pauly's work. His ocean modeling system is Ecopath software (see ), the online encyclopedia of fish types he helped establish is FishBase, at, and the global mapping of fisheries trends is available at

I'm Alex Smith, Thanks for tuning in. Keep your ears out for the next part of this series: "Acid Ocean Meltdown."