“We are chasing the last of the big fish” | Interview with fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly

The way we interact with the ocean, and with the world, is insane because we behave as if we had another planet, and we don’t. My name is Daniel Pauly, I’m a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. I think the biggest change in the ocean has happened already, forty, thirty years ago: the massive industrialisation of fishing throughout the world. Some countries, like the UK and France and so on, industrialised their fisheries already at the end of the nineteenth century. And in the beginning of the twentieth century, it spread in the north Atlantic and north Asia, around Japan and so on. But after World War II, it spread throughout the world, industrialisation of fisheries, the industrial catching of fish. And the industrial catching of fish was extremely successful, and it led to an increase in catches of fish from all over the place. But in ’96 to be precise, the world catch started declining, in spite of our effort to catch more. We are scraping the bottom of the sea, right? But the big change, the reduction of the abundance of all fish has already occurred in the 60s, the 70s and the 80s. We are chasing the last remnants of the big fish. Now there are fewer fish in the water, it must be said. If you look at a body of water like the Firth of Firth, or what ever do you call it? In Scotland? Yeah the Firth of Forth. There, if you look at accounts of fishing in there, it was full of huge fish 100 years ago, 150 years ago. It was full of huge fish. And the biomass, the amount of fish that you found there was immense. Now there is essentially not one fish. All you find is scampi. The modification of the habitat that has occurred in Europe, for example around the UK, is tremendous. And most people don’t believe it because they are not familiar with this older literature of 120 years ago. When a young scientist, a fisheries scientist or a marine biologist, starts his or her studies, they look at data only 20 years ago. They don’t look at data 120 years ago. And because of that, they cannot imagine the amount of fish that was there. I call this ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, right? Shifting baseline. Young people know only about 20 years, and if they listen to their parents, which they usually don’t, they will have 40 years of stories that they believe about the world, how the world was. But 40 years ago, the big stocks of fish were already wiped out. So basically if you want to reestablish the world as it was 40 years ago, you would not recover anything. Because 40 years ago, the great stocks of fish, the great stocks of whales, they were already gone. The number of whales in the sea, of different whales, were reduced in two waves of extermination. One in the eighteenth century, the Boston whaler, when we were using whale oil, the sperm whales and so on, for illumination. In London, for example, for street lighting and so on. That was one phase of the extermination of the great whales. And the second phase was especially after World War II, when the Soviet Union and Japan went into a spree of destruction especially in the north Atlantic. The result of this is that you end up with zombie species, species that are still around as individuals, but do not play the same ecological role they played before. For example, the right whales in the north Atlantic. There are, I think, 200 specimens left. They cannot, with 200 specimens, they cannot impact the ecosystem the way they did when there were 200,000. So we are exterminating one group after the other, or reducing it to a smaller level that is not commercially worth to exploit. We have done that to the great whales, we have done that for essentially everything. The oceans are enormously important in mitigating climate change because they have absorbed, up to now, the bulk of the carbon dioxide that is emitted by our industry and our transport and so on, which otherwise would have heated the atmosphere far more than presently. In other words, the oceans serve as an almost buffer, for carbon dioxide and also for heat. The ocean can store much more heat than the atmosphere. So if we didn’t have the ocean, we would already have a burning earth. At the risk of being boring, I think the only thing, the main thing that we have to do is reduce CO2 emissions. The rest is dancing, and invoking the gods, and hoping for something to happen. Basically, Basically if we don’t reduce emissions, we will be in deep doo doo. And that… that… There is no getting around that. I’m an old guy. And old guys, beside being grumpy, have experienced positive things. The optimism that I have, is that we usually cannot anticipate change before it happens. And then when it happens, it looks obvious. And I hope that something will come up that challenges the way we do things in time to avoid a catastrophe. I cannot imagine it now, but I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, I hope it’s going to happen.

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