|First Posted by Ken Jones on Sep-21-07 9:03am
The Chronicle Herald (Halifax), December 7, 2006
"Faith-based science" and all that fish, by Jim Meek
ONE OF the world's leading fisheries scientists is taking on Dalhousie University's Boris Worm - the superstar ecologist who suggested last month that the world's major fish stocks could collapse by 2048. Ray Hilborn told me that Worm and his co-authors erred in their Science article by using fish catches as an indicator of resource collapse."The idea of using catch data to reflect trends in stock abundance is terribly flawed." A professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington in Seattle, Hilborn is the lead author of several research papers - including one written under the magisterial title "State of the World's Fisheries." Hilborn zeroes in on a recovering stock, Georges Bank haddock, to make his point that you can't use catch records to determine species health. Worm's data would show this stock has "collapsed" because of low catches. But Hilborn says Georges Bank haddock is now at the "highest level of abundance in 40 years."
Then why are catches still so low? Hilborn says U.S. regulators continue to curtail the fishing effort in the area, "having learned their lesson from 30 years ago when catches were 10 times higher" and stocks collapsed. Hilborn and a colleague also tested's Worm's data on fish species off California. "I extracted from the same database the fish stocks off of California. About one-third (120 stocks) were 'collapsed' by Worm's definition," he said. In fact, only a "handful" of those 120 stocks are in trouble. Hilborn is not alone in his concern about what he has called "faith-based" ecological science. One Canadian scientist told me Worm's dire prophecy was "spurious" and "without merit" because it was based on fish catches, not fish biomass. (I did interview Worm this week, and will describe his views in this space on Dec. 14.)
The Worm-Hilborn story is now part of a simmering debate within the scientific community about the alleged decline of effective "peer review" in several articles published by the journals Science and Nature. Hilborn wrote in one publication that the "peer review process has totally failed and many of these papers are being published only because the editors and selected reviewers believe in the message, or because of their potential newsworthiness." Let's face it: The collapse of world fisheries is big news - significant enough to capture the attention of The Economist, and to grab front-page headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post. This has in turn pushed the recent, failed effort to ban trawling on the high seas. But what if the doomsday prophets have been exaggerating since around 1993, when - according to Hilborn - peer review started taking second place to sensationalism? Steve Ralston, a senior fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently told a California newspaper that this issue is being driven by "enviro-sensationalism" and "an increasing 'Chicken Little' response."
Hilborn turns the volume down on the debate - usefully - in the paper "Moving to sustainability by learning from successful fisheries," which will be published by the Swedish journal Ambio. The paper tilts away from gloom and toward optimism, noting, for instance, that well-managed stocks sometimes recover - including Pacific sardines, the "icon of 1950s collapses." In addition, fish stocks offshore affluent nations, including the United States, New Zealand and Australia, are doing relatively well. Fishers in many poorer nations, by contrast, are overfishing as a function of that very poverty. The best remedy for this "Malthusian overfishing" may be reducing poverty and providing economic alternatives, Hilborn suggests. He also makes an argument that amounts to heresy in some environmental circles: Trawling is justified in some areas and may even have a beneficial effect on target species (notably shrimp). Hilborn, then, doesn't endorse a United Nations ban on high seas trawling. Instead, he suggests a UN treaty that would model high seas fisheries management on successful national fisheries. Allowable harvests would be set by independent scientists. Fleets would pay fees for access, perhaps through competitive bidding. If fees don't cover management and research costs, fisheries would be closed. And any effort would be subject to 100 per cent satellite tracking and 100 per cent observer coverage. Easier said than done, of course. But modelling high seas harvests on successful national fisheries seems sensible to many observers - and far sounder than a blanket ban on a single gear type. The idea, after all, is to sustain a resource AND an industry.
The Chronicle Herald (Halifax), December 14, 2006
Professor Worm answers his critics - gently, by Jim Meek
I wanted to learn more about the fish fuss, so I tracked down Boris Worm at Dalhousie University. Worm is a slight, 37-year-old marine ecologist who lives in Duncan's Cove and buys his fish at a co-op store in Sambro. He is also the lead author of a controversial study that suggests the world's major fish stocks might collapse by 2050 or so. I caught up to Worm at his smallish office in the Life Sciences Building at Dal - a concrete pile that feels a bit like an environmental crisis itself. Worm's a star now - even his critics would concede he's done important work. He's also a soft-spoken academic who runs a very open office. Three people just dropped in while I was there: a co-author of THE paper published by Science on Nov. 3; a woman trying to talk her way into an oversubscribed class; and a young man who had graduate student written all over him - a little too much corduroy and anxiety, if you know what I mean.
I came bearing questions about Worm's work - issues raised by University of Washington fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn. In email correspondence, Hilborn told me - as I reported last week - that Worm erred by basing his gloomy 2050 projections on fish catches. Hilborn says many stocks - like Georges Bank haddock - are doing quite well, thank you, and may not need to go to the rehab centre at all. When I put this to Worm, he started the conversation by calling Hilborn an “excellent” fisheries scientist. Then he told his story.
First, he's kind of frustrated that 10 per cent of his study - the part projecting the possible “collapse” of all major fish stocks by 2048 - is getting 90 per cent of the media attention. He concedes Hilborn's point that “biomass data are a better indicator than catch data” for projecting fish stock health. Problem is that biomass data isn't available for at least 50 per cent of fish stocks in the oceans. So as a marine ecologist, trying to model and understand the interaction of all ecosystem species, Worm and his co-authors used all the information they could put their hands on. This included “all existing data on how ocean species contribute to the good functioning of ecosystems” - and a bunch of other technical stuff not suited to a family audience.
This was an ambitious, pioneering four-year study. And its main finding is that the “loss of biodiversity is profoundly reducing the ocean's ability to produce seafood, resist diseases, filter pollutants and rebound from stresses such as overfishing and climate change.” To explain this, Worm compares marine ecosystems to an automobile. The stuff you hardly ever think about - like the axle and the drive shaft - are just as important as the steering wheel or the brakes. And a problem with any part of the car can stall you on the highway or put you in the ditch. It's the same with the oceans. “There is no trivial biodiversity,” he says. No one seems to be arguing this point - as far as I know, anyway. Nor does anyone dispute that many fish stocks on the high seas are in peril. And I left Worm's office wondering about the issue that dragged me - so to speak - into this big fish story in the first place.
Last month, Canada opposed the idea of a United Nations treaty banning high seas trawling. And I still agree with the implicit logic - that stopping bad high seas dragging would put pressure on the more responsible domestic fishery in Atlantic Canada. But I have to tell you - this high seas dragging stuff is an ugly business. Worm and Hilborn agree on this; the latter told me he “would support a ban on trawling in international waters for the reason that international waters are essentially unregulated.” And if that's not bad enough, these fleets are also heavily subsidized. A recent report published by researchers at the University of British Columbia shows that dragger fleets soak up more per year in subsidies ($150 millionUS) than they make in profits (about $100 millionUS). Subsidies have also increased with the cost of fuel.
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