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May 15, 2003

Buffalo of the Sea
Git along, little dogies

Not that I'm disputing the study, but what exactly does a white square mean? No fish, or no data?


graphic via yahoo

I suspect no data, not that such a conclusion necessarily undermines the conclusions of the study. Great swathes of the ocean are considered biological desert, so trawling in those areas would be a waste of time and money, though that does not explain why many of the white squares are so near land. Coastal waters are often among the most productive fisheries.

The problems with the study, even if it is essentially correct, are that

A.) It's the latest in a long line of environmental pronouncements of doom, of which Paul Ehrlich is best example. Like the boy who cried wolf, each successive pronouncement eventually turns out to be false, or overstated, reducing the amount of attention paid to the next one. One day such a pronouncement may indeed be correct, yet totally ignored.

and

B.) The conclusion drawn is that the only action that can be taken is to prevent a total collapse of fish stocks is to "reduce fishing in a very large-scale manner". This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the money for the study came from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a major funding source for the environmental movement. When faced with an imbalance in supply and demand, the inevitable choice of the environmental movement is to somehow legislate a reduction in demand, rather than work to increase supply. It's also understandable given the internal logic of the environmental movement: "People bad." Increasing supply would mean human manipulation of natural processes, and a movement that would rather see people starve than feed them genetically altered foodstuffs will raise all kinds of hell at "unnatural" attempts at growing fish stocks.

Though success is not always assured, large scale reductions in fishing have previously worked, but only for specific geographic regions and populations of a single species, affecting comparatively small numbers of people. A demand that commercial fishing the world over be reduced by fifty to sixty percent is so unprecedented and severe in its impact on the global population that the the answer is essentially going to be "No." It's not a question of whether such a drastric measure will work from a scientific viewpoint, though that question is certainly unanswered, it's that politically it won't be allowed. A ban on global fishing will have even less of an effect upon the world's fishing fleets than the ban on whaling has had on Japan and Norway, both of which thumb their noses at the International Whaling Commission on a yearly basis.

The last time there was a situation approximating the current state of the world's fisheries was in 1880, when the overhunting of the American buffalo nearly caused that species to go extinct. Numerous bands of hunters and skinners roamed the Great Plains,* often killing animals at the rate of up to 100 an hour. The buffalo were only saved from extinction because a rancher, Buffalo Jones, began to breed them in attempt to replace his range cattle, thousands of which froze to death each winter. A reduction in hunting didn't save the buffalo, and environmentalists didn't save the buffalo. Market forces saved the buffalo.

Market forces will save the oceanic fisheries as well, if they are allowed to. The problem isn't that the fish in the ocean are vanishing, it's that they are free for the taking. The solution to the declining fish stocks lies not in reducing demand, but by making it worth someone's while to increase supply. No one is going to be interested in providing more of a resource if they can't make money doing it. They'll be happy to harvest that resource until there's nothing left, which is why current fisheries are ostensibly in such a mess. Fortunately, the example of Buffalo Jones provides a nice methodology on how to turn an endangered free resource into a common costed one.

Cattle comes from a cattle rancher. The buffalo meat at my grocery store comes from a buffalo rancher. Why can't tuna come from Tuna ranchers?

Technically there's a couple of issues. Fish aren't cows, and pleasurable as the idea may be, we won't see young wiry guys on porpoises rounding up the herring herd to drive it to market, not that they'll need to. On the ocean the market can come to you. The problem is how to make sure the fish stay around long enough for the market to arrive , a problem solved with a few handfuls of powdered iron.

Experiments have also shown that in at least some areas, plankton blooms will start growing almost immediately even if iron is simply sprinkled into seawater from the stern of a ship.

The blooms typically last a few weeks. That's long enough, say some experts, for large quantities of the gooey green stuff to be consumed by tiny marine organisms. Small fish eat those little critters, providing in turn a food source for declining populations of larger, overfished species such as swordfish, cod, haddock, monkfish and Chilean sea bass. Provide more food for diminishing populations of fish, the reasoning goes, and they should mount a comeback. At the very least, say backers of this idea, more fish would start growing in places where they can't grow now.

Several companies have already patented various iron formulations they claim is best suited to the task. One such group, GreenSea Venture Inc., based in Springfield, Va., estimates that "farming" a 3 million-square-mile patch of the ocean, a bit less than the area of the United States, would produce 50 million tons of additional fish annually, or roughly 40 percent of the fish caught each year. Given that the demand for fish is expected to more than double over the next 100 years, say ocean-fertilization advocates, the only way to keep fish on the plates of the world's hungry consumers without depleting supplies entirely is by finding ways to restore the oceans to a more productive state.

A school of fish is not going to leave a food source, especially if the food source is surrounded on all sides by thousands of miles of relative desert. A GPS stabilized platform that seeds iron into many of the little white squares above will eventually produce immense shoals of fish, while providing a known location for the world's fishing fleets to come to. And there wouldn't be just one platform, there would be dozens, or hundreds. There will be as many as the market will bear, until sashimi grade tuna is as inexpensive as fish sticks. Depending on the size or position of the fish on the food chain, it might even be possible to skip the platform altogether and seed the ocean directly from an industrial fishing vessel. There will be more fish in the sea than there are........fish in the sea.

Heh.

Some in the environmental movement will cry "Pollution!" at the very thought of iron seeding, as if a few pounds of iron dust would upset the balance of an ecosystem primarily characterized by the a lack of life. Presumably they would do the same should someone have the gall to water parts of the Sahara. It's because the environmental movement as a whole isn't interested in solving environmental problems. The environmental movement as a whole is interested in using those problems to promote the power of the environmental movement.**

*aka "Sea of Grass" for those of you who like your metaphors overdone. Google as I might, though, I unable to find any reference to the buffalo as the "Tuna of the Plains."

**As always, when I say "environmental movement", I am excluding the Nature Conservancy. Give the Nature Conservancy your money, and give the rest of them your finger.

Posted by Bigwig at May 15, 2003 04:20 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
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