The Sciences

To Hell In A Handbasket


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When I checked email last night after returning from UVA, I was amused at how many folks sent over Andy's post on sea cucumbers from the New York Times. It's nice to be recognized for one's specialty, particularly when said specialty is the very charismatic cucumaria frondosa. However, amusement quickly gave way to frustration and anger... You see, a report was just released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warning that sea cucumbers are in imminent danger of being over-harvested. Uh, wait a sec... are you kidding me?! We've known this for years...

The very reason I worked on cukes in grad school was because they were an emerging fishery in the Gulf of Maine. The traditionally harvested large species of fish like Cod had disappeared so they provided a new market. On top of that, the sea urchin fishery had recently experienced a classic boom and bust scenario. That's generally what happens when there's little vested interest in maintaining populations beyond an initial gold mine bounty. Turns out folks aren't generally all that concerned about overexploitation. Go figure. Unlucky for cucumbers, fishermen are able to collect them with the same gear they already had for urchins. Thus, they have been dragged up en masse given they're relatively sedentary and congregate in piles. In other words, the little guys don't have a fighting chance. And the high discount rate associated with this scenario led to a situation of cukes collected at warp speed. Tractor trailers packed with critters were leaving the dock bound for processing plants every day. The Gulf of Maine fishery picked up in earnest in 1994 and now we're reading reports 15 years later that state the obvious about a worldwide trend: This kind of pressure on stocks is not sustainable. The thing is, you don't need a degree in sea cucumber-ology or even economics to figure out there's trouble with that kind of pillage and plunder model. Furthermore, the species of cucumber in the Gulf of Maine is not even particularly good to eat. (Sea cucumbers are a delicacy in the far east where they are shipped after being freeze dried.). The only reason anyone had been relegated to collect them there was because all of the traditionally harvested regions were already being depleted. And since human tastes are malleable, people adapt to what industry supplies. (For example, lobster and skate - historically the 'poor fisherman's dinner' - are now featured at NYC's finest restaurants). When one species declines, there is tremendous opportunity to cash in by exploiting the next that becomes readily available at a lower trophic level. Of course we're losing sea cucumbers--but it's not news. And with no history or family tradition in emerging industries, even the guys on boats harvesting them knew the fishery was bound to collapse quickly. 'We'll just move on to whatever's left,' they would tell me. On a related note, there's growing interest in algae. So in 2009, FAO comes out with a report stating the obvious... Bully for them. Now what? The oceans are in dramatic decline and cucumbers (and other animals) can't wait for the lag time associated with implementing new institutions. This isn't really about the loss of a single species because we're all connected by way of trophic interactions. In other words, humans are part of the whole system so when structure and composition of 'parts' is altered, we're all eventually affected in a myriad of ways. Shifting baselines have already resulted in relatively empty oceans–and sadly most of us accept the current status as pristine having no memory of what has been lost. Furthermore, I've a vested interest in this particular story given I spent so many years with cukes. As for these reports, it seems to me we're essentially documenting the loss of biodiversity when we should be spending the time and effort to mitigate the impacts of a flawed system based on perverse incentives. We can do better. And we'll have to.

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