Friday, May 27, 2011

Let's move backward to move forward

On the heels of this fascinating discussion prompted by Ray Hilborn's controversial op-ed in the NY Times last month*, I see that a New Zealand fishing executive decided to unload his thoughts on fishing and environmentalism on the world. I don't think I could add much to the extensive debate over at SeaMonster, so I'll stick to analyzing the Kiwi's remarks.

First, I'll just say right off that I think that picking the best country in terms of fisheries management is like picking the least painful way to get your finger chopped off. There's really no ideal option. New Zealand's management has some good points but also continues to fish for orange roughy, a fish that can live for well over 100 years and, as you might expect, grows pretty slowly. Bonus: it's caught by bottom trawling. Orange roughy is one of New Zealand's most profitable fisheries, although the fishery has experienced some tough times as managers realized (stop me if you've heard this story before) they didn't understand the fish well and had set catches too high. New Zealand also continues to fish for toothfish in the Ross Sea, although that area has far more value to the world as an unparalleled natural laboratory to study a (relatively) untouched ecosystem.

So in many ways I'm not surprised to hear a NZ fish executive passing off terrible, retro ideas as fresh and insightful. What is really LOL-worthy is his assertion that:

"We need a new balanced approach to environmentalism, one that recognises sustainable extraction, and one that recognises a higher ranking of mankind, that should rightfully be placed well above the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees."
This is revolutionary, and so perceptive, because if there's one thing that is clear from humankind's history of trying to manage nature, it's that it can be done, and that we're smart enough to do it. It's not as if our plans to redirect rivers or harvest large numbers of wild species ever go awry, and all we have to do to continue this happy state of affairs is claim our rightful place in nature, i.e., in charge of it. That's why we have so many environmental challenges! We have just never acted arrogantly enough with respect to the environment.

Humans keep trying to figure out ways to rise above the vicissitudes of nature. In that sense our big brains and dextrous limbs are a curse, because most creatures don't have the capacity to avoid the consequences of their actions like we do. Strip out all the fish near the coast? Invent gear that can fish in deeper waters! Humans have made great scientific strides in the last few centuries, but if you think that we know so much about how nature works that we should be confident in our ability to "manage" it, I'd like to treat you to a dinner of fresh Newfoundland cod.

*The discussion was on SeaMonster, an awesome new blog you should totally read.

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