We Want Seafood and We Want Hope

We like tension. It makes for good stories. But it has been recognized that the fair and balanced approach to science news (and otherwise) can be detrimental. As Al Gore pointed out in An Inconvenient Truth, climate scientists, as represented by their peer-reviewed literature, hold a consensus view on the carbon crisis while the media continues to report skepticism.

Last week, an article was published in Science on Rebuilding Global Fisheries. The paper worked to reconcile views of marine ecologist Boris Worm and fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn (which Cornelia Dean at the New York Times covered well in her take on the article).

As one can see in documentary The End of the Line, which also communicated this tension, Worm (an ecologist) and colleagues report that almost all big fish are gone while Hilborn (a classically-trained fisheries scientist) and his colleagues report that it's not almost all fish but just the majority (~70%).

This illustrates one example of when degree of overfishing was up for debate but not the question of whether there is overfishing. There clearly is.

In the Science paper, which brought Worm and Hilborn together, the authors report:

In 5 of 10 well-studied ecosystems, the average exploitation rate has recently declined and is now at or below the rate predicted to achieve maximum sustainable yield for seven systems. Yet 63% of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding, and even lower exploitation rates are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species.

If we read this phrase closely: "In 5 of 10 well-studied ecosystems, the average exploitation rate has recently declined," we can see how vigorously we are searching for hope in the marine world.

'Well-studied ecosystems' refers to a small portion of fisheries globally - ones with available quantitative stock assessments (primarily those from the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) and data rich fisheries are located in areas of the world also best equipped to deal with management. Furthermore, the average exploitation rate has recently declined. Rather than decreasing fish biomass at an increasing rate, we're decreasing it by a decreasing rate.

That's good news but it's not enough to say that marine life is in the clear. And nobody thinks it is. That is why the paper calls for catch restrictions, gear modification, and closed areas.

Various news outlets found the study a way of reinforcing existing views. Greenpeace read it as validating their approach, and note that if fisheries like Alaska pollock are among the best examples scientists can find, then we may be in even worse trouble than Greenpeace has been saying. Seafood.com, meanwhile, interpreted it as wild seafood is actually not in trouble (note: it is). Similarly, the Associated Press led their story with this sentence:

Crabcakes and fish sticks won't be disappearing after all.

Most crab cakes and fish sticks these days are made of pulverized white fish (known as surimi). What we are in greater danger of losing is real fish (not amalgamates of whitefish that are reflavored, reshaped, and reconstituted into fake fish). Fish like tuna, salmon, snappers, and groupers are severely depleted. That has not changed.

In efforts to make up for the dearth of seafood, we've given lots of fish we never thought would be eaten new names, as David Fahrenthold reports in the Washington Post article with a renaming twist.

Whatever way you choose to name it or frame it, the fisheries dilemma is still a dilemma. Yes, there is hope. There is always hope (if there wasn't, what would be the point?). But to transform hope into sucess, we need big changes and we need them soon.

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'Fair and balanced' has no more a place in science reporting than it does in math textbooks. Or the weather.

Glad to see your take on things. This story is so much better when some insight into the players is given, including the media.

By ABradford (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

Also, I thought you might be interested in this if you haven't already seen it. The band Modest Mouse has a song called King Rat for which Heath Ledger was supposed to direct the video. Ledger died before it was completed, but the production company finished the video. This all may be of interest to you because the video is a forceful anti-whaling polemic.

You can watch the video here: http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=61…

The media was reporting on the fact that Worm had previously stated in his Science paper that seafood would be gone by 2048 and now his new paper basically retracts from this position. The news story isn't so much to do with the actual paper in Science, but more to do with the change from End of times like predictions to a more realistic evaluation of the situation.

I'm not so sure Worm was retracting his "2048" paper. In that paper he was documenting the problem and showing that if we don't sort out the mess, well lose the fish.

In the recent paper he's showing that it is indeed possible to sort out the mess. IF we chose do the things the paper suggests - cut fleets, rebuild stocks to consider the needs of the entire ecosystem (human included), switch to more selective and less damaging methods, set up large scale marine reserves...

Do we chose to? And will it be in time?

By Cat Dorey (not verified) on 12 Aug 2009 #permalink

Did you read the paper? We already chose in North America - did those things, and it is working...

By my statement above I mean refer to Table 1 page 581 to see what has been done in different areas and then refer to the trends in those areas in Figures 3 and 4. Its not all bad and its not all good, but it is certaintly not the "end of seafood" and in some places like AK, New Zealand, CA Cuurent action has been taken and recovery is already happening

Marcia Earth - the management practice has been that any amount below Maximum Sustainable Yield (the point at which you can theoretically fish a population down and have it replace itself) it overfished and in the paper any stock that is below 10% its historical unfished biomass is considered a collapsed stock. These are some management tools that may need to be changed as MSY may not be a realistic sustainable level.