Home arrow News arrow Opinion arrow It should have been Acrockalypse Now - Another Perspective, October 8, 2009
It should have been Acrockalypse Now - Another Perspective, October 8, 2009
Nils Stolpe responds to The New Republic article Aquacalypse Now: The End of Fish by Dr. Daniel Pauly, and takes issue with "it’s-the-fishermen’s-fault ocean alarmism."

Remember a couple of years back when satellite photos revealed the “devastation” due to sediment trails kicked up by shrimp trawlers? A staggered line of shrimp boats were shown, each preceding a plume of cloudier water, and Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia researcher and one of the chief crepe hangers of the Pew funded “let’s blame it all on commercial fishing” campaign, was quoted widely as saying "these images of trawler mudtrails confirm that this mode of fishing is terrible. Think of the story about China’s Great Wall being the only human artefacts (sic) visible from space. Now we can add the mudtrails of trawlers.” 

The satellite pictures are at a level of resolution that is available to billions of us (for free) on the web’s Google Earth, as it was when Dr. Pauly was waxing catastrophic on trawling. Now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time messing with Google Earth, and while I’m not an expert in satellite photo interpretation, using it I can clearly distinguish the three skylights on my house, each of which is perhaps two feet wide and four feet long. The Great Wall of China is, I think, somewhat larger. So it appears that we can add to Dr. Pauly’s Great Wall of China and the mudtrails of trawlers perhaps a billion or so other human artifacts (including my skylights) visible from space. But hey, why should anyone, even if he is a respected scientist, be held accountable for everything that he is quoted as saying to make his “doom and gloom” predictions more worrisome? 

But back to the shrimpers and their “catastrophic” sediment plumes. They were fishing on the Yangtze River delta. The Yangtze is one of the world’s largest rivers, until the recent construction of a series of dams it transported an average of 472 million tons of sediment to the sea each year. Needless to say, most of this sediment ended up being deposited on the delta. The finer sediment layer (these are the sediments that would be resuspended by trawling) ranges from about 130 feet thick at 60 to 100 foot water depths to 3 to 6 feet in thickness at 300 feet. It’s estimated that this “mud wedge” contains 500 billion tons of sediment. 

While I’m certainly not the fisheries scientist that Dr. Pauly is, I’d be willing to bet that the critters in and around the Yangtze delta are pretty much adapted to suspended – or resuspended – sediment in the water. Any bottom dweller that can’t deal with suspended sediments shouldn’t be hanging out on the Yangtze (or Mississippi, Nile, Amazon, Mekong, or you name it) delta, and the way that nature works, they definitely aren’t. In spite of this, Dr. Pauly convinced a bevy of media people that trawling was dooming us to yet another ocean Armageddon. Quintessential sound bite science. 

Well, Dr. Pauly and his somewhat less than compelling “science” is back, this time in the pages of that widely regarded scientific semimonthly journal, The New Republic

In an article provocatively entitled Aquacalypse Now - with no acknowledgement of Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando or Martin Sheen, but we all get it, don’t we? – Dr. Pauly once again tries to convince us, or at least those of us that read The New Republic, that the biological integrity of the world’s oceans is being destroyed. His ogre du jour; that the oceans are being stripped of their big and visually appealing (no kidding, he actually wrote “boats began to catch fish that were smaller and uglier”) critters by what he’s termed the “fishing-industrial complex,” whose operations he relates to Bernie Madoff as well as a “giant Ponzi scheme.” Sort of like the military-industrial complex that the talking heads of the Sixties were assiduously trying to make us all believe was well on the way to ruining the free world. In spite of the best efforts of what at the time was only a fledgling crisis industry to convince us otherwise, we did survive it. Now it appears we’re being threatened by its aquatic sibling, the fishing-industrial complex, but with more greed, corruption and rampant illegalities thrown in. The parallels are kind of staggering and, according to the best thinkers in the fisheries science/marine ecology world in a recent paper in Science magazine (Worm, Hilborn et al, Rebuilding Global Fisheries, 07/31/2009), we’ll more than likely survive this latest product of the crisis mongers as well. 

Dr. Pauly continues that this all began “in the 1950s, as their (the fishing industrial complex, I presume) operations became increasingly industrialized--with onboard refrigeration, acoustic fish-finders, and, later, GPS.” That makes a nice story for all of the Luddites who read The New Republic, but from what I remember about Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the cod fishermen on the Grand Banks a century ago did really well with salt, with an intimate knowledge of their fishery, with a compass and dead reckoning, and with not even an inkling of a fishing-industrial complex. And let’s not forget the Atlantic halibut, a still unrecovered casualty of the prefishing-industrial complex.

Interestingly, Dr. Pauly has the fishing-industrial complex developing at about the same time as the military-industrial complex. Perhaps the sun spot activity was at a peak in the 1950s?

He also resurrects yet again the specter of oceans filled with jellyfish and writes prophetically about “the end of fish,” even going so far in a strained and labored effort as to blame the oceanic dead zones – including our very own in the Gulf of Mexico – on trawling for shrimp, rather than on nutrient-laden agricultural runoff, their indisputable and long recognized cause.   

Most of this could be overlooked as artistic license, particularly if Dr. Pauly was an artist, but he’s not. He’s a scientist and I have to assume he’s writing as a scientist. 

But he seems to be moving pretty far from objective science and into the role of polemicist when he writes “one study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have ‘collapsed.’” Boris Worm, the lead author, has since recanted his position on this universal collapse in such a high profile manner in Rebuilding Global Fisheries cited above that even Dr. Pauly up there in the wilds of British Columbia should have been aware of it. I can only assume that he missed it because he failed to renew his subscription to Science. 

Most disturbing from the US fisherman’s perspective, Aquacalypse Now is underneath all of the doom and gloom hyperbole nothing more than another argument for catch shares, the form of fisheries management that has been adopted as the Holy Grail by NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, that has been touted by the Pew-supported “conservationists” as the only salvation of the world’s fisheries, that seems to be well along a path to self-destruction in the New England groundfish fishery, and that has been repudiated as unworkable by the fisheries managers in the European Union (whose lack of success based on catch share management speaks for itself). Not at all surprisingly, Dr. Pauly, the programs he is involved in at the University of British Columbia and the University itself have received on the order of 10 million Pew fisheries/oceans dollars. 

He takes the catch shares argument a step farther, suggesting that fishing rights be auctioned by government to the highest bidder (while doing this, he also manages a slam aimed at “most fisheries economists,” but that’s for another column). This definitely rang a bell for me, thinking back to one of the initial meetings on sector management in New England when the “marine conservationists” were rhapsodizing about what they were calling conservation sectors. How’d you like to co-own a fishery with the people at Pew? And he doesn’t miss getting in a plug or several for ocean zoning, another Pew priority that came to NOAA/NMFS with Dr. Lubchenco and is yet another way to wrest control of the oceans from the fishermen, and to wrest their future away from them as well.

On the other hand, the title Aquacalypse Now is particularly apt for this, Dr. Pauly’s most recent venture into it’s-the-fishermen’s-fault ocean alarmism. What he writes is identical in feel to the phantasmagorical world of Colonel Kurtz in the movie (minus the fog/mist/smoke, the tiger and the pyrotechnics, of course). But, not wanting to be outdone by anyone in the field of new word coinage, I’d like to offer my own humble effort - Acrockalypse Now.  


Nils Stolpe has written "Another Perspective" since 2005. He is communications director for the Garden State Seafood Association, and has been a consultant to the fishing industry for over two decades.  

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