#857 Oceans as sustainable commons

Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries
by Daniel Pauly, with a foreword by Jennifer Jacquet

Vancouver: Greystone, 2019
$34.95 / 9781771643986

Reviewed by Loys Maingon


…fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we. — Daniel Pauly (p. 24)

In a remarkable collection of essays drawn from occasional lectures spanning the past 25 years Daniel Pauly presents unusual but authoritative insights into the disciplines of “fisheries science” and “natural resource management” that have brought us to the brink of global ecological collapse. It is the rare honesty of these essays that makes them exceptionally important for anybody who is genuinely interested in understanding the foundations of our ongoing environmental crisis. Everything Pauly has to say is applicable, not just to fisheries, but to every “natural resource” industry. These essays unveil the mindset behind the systematic corporate and political corruption that has made our global predicament possible. Fisheries failures aren’t simply local. As Pauly notes early in these essays, the ongoing fisheries collapse is a global systemic problem. The entire global system is rigged for failure (p. 25).

UBC zoologist Daniel Pauly in False Creek, Vancouver. Photo courtesy seaaroundus
Seiners near Port Renfrew intercept the Fraser River salmon run, 1970s. Photo by Gar Lunney, City of Richmond Archives

In Vanishing Fish, Pauly peels back the historical and cultural cataracts that have kept the social and ecological implications of our current management practices hidden from public view. To understand the importance of the points he makes, it is worth considering how they are validated by recent research carried out independently of Pauly’s own research.

At a time when many British Columbians still assume that the salmon bounty of the West Coast is an immutable right, BC commercial fishermen have been calling for disaster relief.[1] They are likely to continue doing so for years to come, given the deteriorating ecological state of the oceans. While an urban tourism flogs a plastic version of “Supernatural BC” from the isolation of pandemic lock-downs, it is perhaps difficult to realize that the iconic totems touted as the very essence of British Columbia are fast disappearing. The wilderness of giant Emily Carr coastal cedars, southern resident orcas, and salmon is slipping away imperceptibly while its cultural and commercial exploitation endures in the minds of our urbanized consumer society as an unquestionable right.

The five dollar bill, 1972, showing a seiner in Johnstone Strait. Bank of Canada Museum
Postcard (c. 1910) showing gillnetters or sailing skiffs being towed near Claxton Cannery on the Skeena River

The current state of BC’s environment is just another adumbration of colonialism. Even as people talk of being “post-colonial,” and politicians piously incant an acknowledgement that they are on somebody’s “unceded territory,” they perpetuate colonial exploitation and despoilment of the lands and oceans that are synonymous with native cultures. The colonial exploitation of otherness as just another “resource” to be mined continues unabated. What both fishermen and BC residents often fail to realize is that this disaster has not been made by something magical out at sea, or in a nebulous “environment.” It is we who have made it. It is the sum of the gratuitous assumptions that underlie our management practices and economies, and it is these that Daniel Pauly questions openly.

Salmon canneries at Port Essington on the lower Skeena, 1909

A stunning SFU study published in August 2019 in Science revealed that since 1913 even the best sockeye fishery in the province, the Skeena River fishery, which has always been touted for its almost “pristine” conditions, has in fact been systematically plundered for the past 100 years.[2] As Pauly is at pains to repeat, throughout the world the biomass of traditionally-targeted fish “has been reduced by at least one order of magnitude.” (p. 9). “Normal” today is one-tenth of yesterday. Tomorrow it will be one-tenth of today. And today we crave for some abnormal “normal” to return?

In keeping with Pauly’s two central theses of “vanishing databases” and “biased fisheries science supporting a Ponzi scheme,” two findings make the SFU study particularly remarkable. First, not only have sockeye numbers and biomass declined by at least 75 percent, but, even more importantly, we have been generally as unaware of the magnitude of this decline as it developed as boiling frogs are of rising temperatures. For every generation of fishermen and fisheries scientists since 1913, the ever-declining numbers were considered to be high and “normal.” “Abundance” is the benchmark we know in our lifetime, if we do not know better. While the Fraser River salmon collapse that followed in the wake of the Hell’s Gate slide of 1914 is well-recorded and acknowledged,[3] the great abundance of the Skeena in 1913 and in previous decades became intellectually inconceivable to a succession of fisheries scientists who only knew a short-term dataset that Daniel Pauly has rightly called a “shifting baseline syndrome,” a problem to which he dedicates an entire essay.

The narrow and turbulent gorge created by the rock slide at Hell’s Gate, February 1914. Courtesy Pacific Salmon Commission

The “shifting baseline” is characteristic of most technocratic thinking. It has all the hallmarks of “insider” comfort that will never question the reality of the social and economic paradigms from which “insiders” benefit. It is a complete absence of any sense of “historical ecology,” basking in the rewards of tacit corporate complicity. Pauly defines it as: “each generation of fisheries scientists accept [sic] as a baseline the population size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers” (p. 95). What the absence of any sense of environmental and ecological history leads to is not that we fail to learn from our mistakes. We accept ignorance to be meritorious and self-satisfied corporate shills who revel in impoverished ecosystems brought to the brink, in which, for example, “the biomass of fish and other exploitable organisms along the North Atlantic coast of Canada now represents less than 10 percent of the biomass two centuries ago…” (p. 97). (And the situation in the Pacific ecosystem is not that different.)

Crews clearing the rock slide at Hell’s Gate, 1914, caused by blasting during the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway. City of Vancouver Archives

Second, the analysis of the Skeena data shows that this decline cannot be attributed to development, which is normally considered to be the biggest driver of biological declines. In the Skeena this massive decline is attributable mainly (95 percent) to overfishing, to greed, carelessness, and mismanagement. In places like the Salish Sea where, in addition to overfishing, development has altered 80 percent of the shoreline, with disastrous implications for marine ecology and water quality, one can only consider the multiplicative effects of a century of both development and overfishing. What remains today of the pre-contact, pre-colonial Salish Sea can only be a fraction of the documented 25 per cent that now “abounds” in the Skeena. The well-documented continuing demise of resident Salish Sea orcas bears witness to that fact.

The gillnet fleet off Steveston, 1900. Richard Trueman photo, City of Vancouver Archives
At a New Westminster salmon cannery, circa 1912

There is no magic to this, only the science of hard numbers. Pauly is an internationally recognized fisheries statistician and modeller. His life’s work, outlined in the last three essays (“My Personal Odyssey1-3,” pp. 145-196) has focussed largely on developing statistical databases of the global state of fisheries such as “FishBase,” from which to model ecosystems (i.e. “Ecopath”) and reconstruct past data. Fisheries do not really vanish: they are collapsed by a failure to recognize that nature is more than a set of “resources,” or as Pauly notes, more than “a larder” (p. 17).

At a Fraser River cannery, 1898

One of Pauly’s greatest contributions to fisheries science has been his advocacy for a long-term eco-systemic approach to fisheries science and environmental management. And he documents the extent to which this approach has long been unrecognized and unfunded and continues to be opposed by fisheries scientists who prefer to maintain the commercial status quo which funds their research (p. 17). This comfort depends on the political bias based on simplistic unscientific statistics, such as Wilbert M. Chapman’s “Maximum Sustainable Yield” curve, which Pauly ably debunks in the essay “Not the Fisheries Committee” (pp. 137-144). His analysis and historical presentation of the MSY curve is particularly significant because this is the basic tool of industry, corporate, and government environmental management in fisheries, forestry, and wildlife management. Its reality depends on one elusive thing: “reliable data.” Reliable data depends on understanding the ecological context of species dynamics. Without a good understanding of the ecological data and context, commercial management by single species simply results in the unravelling of the web of life.

What Pauly tells us about the discipline in which he is an internationally recognized expert, is actually applicable to all disciplines involved in “resource and environmental management.” As any scientist minimally aware of the growing list of depressing global assessments can attest, it is not just the fish that are vanishing. It is the kelp forests, the concentrations of essential nutrients, and the species that create entire “processing chains” that are disappearing in a massive global re-organization. A December 2019 report, “Pervasive human-driven decline of life on earth,” reviewing environmental declines since 1970, sums up the situation: “The fabric of life on which we all depend — nature and its contributions to people — is unravelling rapidly.”[4]

Ransom (Ram) Myers (1952-2007). Photo courtesy The Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

The ecological emphasis that Pauly advocates follows the work of the late Ransom Myers whom Pauly acknowledges for his withering critique of the DFO’s political motivation and ineptitude that resulted in the Newfoundland cod collapse. A critique so truthful, that it led to the political persecution and subsequent refuge of “Ram” at Dalhousie University. The ecological approach has meant shifting the focus of fisheries research away from market and larder interests of the fishing fleet and corporations, and asking the essential questions: Whose interests are being served? Who are the real stakeholders? Who should benefit from the fishery? Who has the long-term knowledge needed to maintain a “sustainable fishery? And what is a “sustainable fishery?”

At the heart of Pauly’s historical review of fisheries the central question that comes up over and over is that in spite of all the talk about “sustainability” and “sustainable fisheries,” particularly in the wake of the 1987 Gro Brundtland report which was a response to the 1972 Limits to Growth that has only led to the greenwashing of business-as-usual, we have had no “sustainability,” as noted repeatedly by Pauly (p. 165). On that matter Pauly provides a scathing indictment of “people who profess great environmental consciousness,” and of mainstream environmental organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council, but whose environmental practice has been just more “business-as-usual,” contributing to the collapse of marine ecosystems (pp. 11-32).

Newfoundland stamp, 1932

As Pauly notes repeatedly throughout these essays, the only really sustainable fisheries, the only ones that have endured for centuries if not millennia, have been small local fisheries sustained by the local knowledge of long-term resident populations. These are the very fisheries that international governments and corporations have destroyed. Pauly therefore makes a solid case for locally-based NGO science as opposed to corporate science that informs government decisions. He also advocates strongly for the importance of locally-managed, marine-protected areas that enable ecosystems to rebuild. Fisheries, as all natural resources, need to be managed not just nominally for the public good, but by local communities to protect their local environment. The “public good” belongs to the public, not the corporations.

Pauly makes the case that fisheries management, as we have known it since the Second World War, is paid for by the industry and aims to protect the interests of fisheries corporations, which are subsidized by taxpayers. In this regard Pauly anticipates the kinds of analyses carried out by UBC’s Dr. Jessica Dempsey, who has painstakingly analysed the accounting of natural resource industries which are 100 per cent subsidized by the taxpayer, with little profit and massive irreversible environmental destruction.[5]

Pauly came into fisheries science in the late 1960s when the world had an increasing interest in trying to collect reliable fisheries data. Remarkably, for the past 200 years humanity has been fishing on an ever increasing industrial scale, literally mining the oceans globally, and at all depths, with little regard for species conservation, with very little sense of the limits of the fish populations in the ocean, and with very poor and unreliable data only starting to be collected as of 1950 by the FAO. The question of assessing the number of fish, and the variety and condition of fish populations, is largely statistical. Pauly has throughout his lifetime been involved in developing a series of programmes aiming to collect and re-construct reliable fish population data. Fisheries peaked in 1970s and reached their limits in 1995, with world catch actually declining since, false reporting notwithstanding (p. 190). The oceans are a commons which belong to the public, and therefore fisheries science’s obligation is to the public interest, not government and corporations. There is therefore an obligation: “to convert fisheries and management into life-affirming disciplines” (p. 191).

Sustainable fishing: a stereoscopic view of a Stó:lō salmon fishing platform in the Fraser Canyon, circa 1900

Concern for long-term conservation and restoration of the abundance of the oceans that has sustained human life, and should continue to do so, is central to Pauly’s analysis that fisheries is primarily an ecological rather than an economic problem. As he notes he has deleted the use of the word “stock” from his vocabulary (p. xii). The ocean’s ecological populations are not a statistical market population. That sets him apart from fisheries scientists who have for decades treated the ocean as no more than a larder or stock of resources for the marketplace, that inform government objectives and decisions.

The SFU study is one of the rare long-term datasets that gives us a direct insight into generations of fisheries mismanagement. Independently, it is the kind of historical reconstructive data work that Daniel Pauly is best known for. It vindicates what Pauly has for the past four decades identified as the “toxic triad” responsible for the global collapse of fisheries: “(1) underreporting the catch, (2) ignoring the scientific advice available at the time, science, and (3) “blaming the environment” (p. 3).

“Siwash Indian splitting salmon for drying, Fraser River,” circa 1905. Hand-tinted stereoscopic view. Photo courtesy of eBay
William Faulkner

The title of Daniel Pauly’s collection of essays, Vanishing Fish and the Future of Global Fisheries, does not do justice to its broader implications and social importance. This is really a book of memory on a par with William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (1936). The three concluding essays even provide an insight into the racism that shaped Pauly’s career as an outsider in the scientific world of fisheries, and why he has gravitated away from the aegis of government and industry to the work of NGOs that are more concerned with the state of the planet than industry ever will be. Just as Faulkner unfolds the sordid reality behind the antebellum cotton economy that foreshadowed the collapse of the Deep South, Pauly unfolds that of the politics and science behind contemporary international fisheries.

Scott Wallace. Photo by Mark Wunsch, Greencoast Media

Although these three autobiographical chapters may seem too personal to the reader, they are in fact a key to understanding the logic that guides Pauly’s insights. Pauly’s personal and intellectual journey is that of an intellectual who is not an “insider.” Through both his racial and intellectual interests Pauly reveals himself time and again to be at the margins, as was obvious in his treatment by senior scientists at the DFO. Even when he became the director of UBC’s Fisheries Centre and needed access to DFO data for Scott Wallace’s reconstruction of BC’s fisheries data between 1873 and 2011, he was reminded that he was not part of the “insiders” when he was refused access to DFO data on the grounds that he might maliciously misinterpret it! So much for academic freedom and open access to public information in the world of Canadian Science!

Salmon tin label, circa 1906. City of Richmond Archives

Most of the essays detail the difficulties that come with doing objective research in an environment that depends on government and corporate funding and in which government regulators defend corporate interests. That is counter-balanced by his work with the Pew Charitable Trusts, which led to a programme monitoring the health of the Oceans, “The Sea Around Us,” which like much of his work over the past two decades provides the necessary scientific data for NGO advocacy work. What is interesting in these presentations is the divergence between official science and greenwashing “mainstream corporate-oriented environmental organizations” such as MSC, and environmental science, which seeks much-needed real change.

Daniel Pauly. Photo by Valentina Ruiz-Leotaud

Two short essays sum up the pessimism that inevitably arises from Pauly’s account. “Homo sapiens: Cancer or parasite?” reflects on the massive negative impacts that our economic system is having on the natural world, and on the need for human beings to reconcile their relationship with nature. That consideration forms the basis of the “Epilogue: Some Gloom, But Surely No Doom,” which leads to the simple consideration that most scientists accept today: “…there might be no need to describe what might happen to marine biodiversity if we don’t change the way our economy relates to Nature, because…. there might be no we” (p. 197).

Given our current situation in a global pandemic, and the opportunity we currently have to re-think our economy, this set of essays presents further ground to re-think the validity of the social structures and the assumptions that mislead us into thinking that what we have taken to be normal is in any way sustainable. Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries is a brilliantly thought out set of essays, carefully edited and heavily footnoted, to document every proposition set forth. It is also clearly written and an erudite pleasure to read.


Loys Maingon

A graduate of the universities of St. Andrews, UBC, and Saskatchewan, Dr. Loys Maingon first taught environmental studies in 1986. An avid naturalist and a registered professional biologist, he is past president of the Comox Valley Naturalists and current webinar host for the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists. From his home on the Tsolum River near Merville, he owns and operates an endangered plant nursery and oversees a number of regional conservation and heritage programmes. He is also Research Director of the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and does environmental consulting. Arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, Loys remains a strong advocate for social, economic, and environmental change. He contributed a chapter to Clayoquot & Dissent (Ronsdale Press: 1994). For The Ormsby Review, he has reviewed books by Collin Varner, Peter Wohlleben (The Secret Wisdom of Nature and The Hidden Life of Trees), Paula Wild, and Richard & Sydney Cannings.


Jennifer Jacquet wrote the foreword. Shown here with a red snapper at Granville Island market. Photo by Ian Lindsay

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/salmon-fishermen-disaster-relief-1.5255217

[2] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/08/century-old-salmon-smeared-notebooks-reveal-past-bounty-fisheries

[3] https://www.psc.org/about-us/history-purpose/our-history/

[4] Sandra Diaz et al. (2019). “Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change.” Science 366, 1327.

[5] Jessica Dempsey (2016). Enterprising nature: economics, markets and finance in global biodiversity politics (London: Wiley-Blackwell); https://www.geog.ubc.ca/persons/jessica-dempsey/

Unloading salmon at a coastal cannery, 1900. Leonard Frank photo, courtesy Vancouver Public Library
Fraser River Sockeye salmon box label, circa 1900. City of Richmond Archives
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