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In Marine Reserves, the Promise of a Fish-Filled Future
Emily Gertz, 10 Jul 06

23998.jpgThe Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a string of islands, reefs, and atolls stretch about 1,400 miles northwest of Kauai, covers an area nearly as big as the entire state of California.

Thanks to a mid-June declaration by President George Bush, these islands are now the largest marine reserve on Earth. They join 14 13 other marine sanctuaries in the United States, officially protected from direct threats like fishing (especially if the current handful commercial fishing permits are bought out by conservationists) and poaching (presuming Congress eventually allocates the money to patrol against it).

Whatever the strategic political reasons for the move might have been (and lets just say there are next to no downsides in the declaration for the allies of an administration not noted for its progressive environmental policies, especially as they move into a tough election season), ecologically this declaration is worthy of a champagne toast. Nearly pristine, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands shelter one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the United States: vast coral reefs, sharks, most of the state's nesting green sea turtles, whales, more than 14 million seabirds, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and seven thousand-odd more other species.

Creating such a reserve is a significant act at a moment when the world's oceans are in crisis. About one quarter of the world's fish stocks are either overfished or recovering from overfishing, and about half being harvested at or near sustainable limits, while the human population of the Earth is skyrocketing -- at over six billion now, some projections anticipate more than nine billion people by the 2050s.

According to The WorldWatch Institute, the world's fishers took about 133 million tons of fish and shellfish from the waters of the world in 2002 -- seven times the global harvest in 1950. While the vast bulk of these were wild critters, the percentage of cultivated sea in the harvest is rising swiftly. Aquaculture is now a vital part of the world's fish-for-food supply, up from virtually zero in 1950 to almost forty million tons in 2002, and increasing at a rate of about 10 percent a year. Industrial-strength fishing has cut the oceans' population of large predatory fishes by 90 percent in the same time period, according to a 2003 study published in the journal Nature.

But now the "Blue Revolution" in industrial-strength breeding and cultivation techniques is coming on strong. The Blue Revolution emphasises highly refined fish-farming techniques to increase yields while leaving the wild ocean largely alone. On the face of it, increased aquaculture would take the pressure off wild fish stocks, but it also could profoundly alter ocean ecology. As Paul Greenberg recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine,

The ocean has been the heterogeneous alternative to humankind's homogenizing juggernaut. Wild, complex ecosystems are still the norm rather than the exception in its untamed depths. But can this last? While aquaculturists assure the public that the area required for fish farms is tiny when compared with the vast expanse of the ocean, the farms that dotted the countryside before the agricultural revolutions of the 18th century probably once seemed similarly insignificant. Taking a long-range view, there is little doubt that we are on the verge of a vast new artificial selection that will determine the characteristics of a future marine ecology. As recently as 20 years ago, aquacultured products were niche items — the bright red slab of lox from Norway, the crawdad from Louisiana. Today, dozens of mainstream fish are being domesticated and will soon appear at supermarket counters everywhere. Yellowtail, halibut, red snapper and even Volkswagen-size bluefin tuna are all coming under some kind of human-controlled production. And whereas animals like sheep and cattle were adapted to fit the farm over thousands of years, many of the ocean species under development today could be tamed in as little as a decade.

Advocates say the Blue Revolution is essential if we're going to meet the food needs of the globe's swelling human population and stop decimating wild fish. Critics like Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor contend that such intensive aquaculture creates a net food loss -- that it takes two pounds of wild prey fish to grow one pound of domesticated carnivore fish, leaving little for their wild bretheren. Wildlife advocates also fear that cosseted, gene-modded farmed fish could escape into the open sea and interbreed with wild fish, altering the wild gene pool and possibly weakening the ability of undomesticated fish to thrive in the wild.

And of course, all this is set in the context of other pressures: ongoing marine habitat destruction and pollution, and climate disruption, which has begun to alter marine ecosystems. Global warming is the likely cause of coral bleaching in the Caribbean and other reefs around the globe, for example, as well as marine life depletions elsewhere.

Still, for whatever reason -- from supporting ecological preservation to the desire for credibility on the world stage -- it's getting popular to establish marine reserves (although funding for their preservation and conservation is probably highly varied). In just a couple examples, the UN World Heritage Center is leading effort to create a massive marine reserve spanning the territorial waters of four Latin American nations; and in late March of this year, the Republic of Kiribati in the South Pacific designated a vast expanse of Pacific atolls, coral reefs, and deep ocean as a marine reserve, the world's third largest after Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Greenpeace's recently-released Roadmap to Recovery maps a compelling vision of a global network of protected areas on the high seas that would help fish species survive and recover.

Those not moved by environmentalism or international face-saving might keep in mind that wild fish are the genetic building blocks of cultivated fish, just as wild seed stocks help to bolster agriculture. We'll need that genetic information to keep farmed fish vital -- and the globe's expanding population fed -- well within the political lifetimes of many of today's world leaders.

It seems inevitable that aquaculture will grow exponentially in coming decades, as demand for food from the sea combined with depleted wild stocks creates ever-more lucrative markets for farmed fish. Expanded marine reserves around the globe could go hand in hand with aquaculture (assuming fish can be farmed safely) -- sheltering wild fish stocks that provide both the feed and the genetic material for farmed cousins, while preserving the conditions that allow the oceans to thrive. This makes marine reserves good economic sense as well as ecologically critical to the human food supply -- and a boon to the food supply of marine critters too. But don't expect that photos of soulful-eyed seals are all that's needed to sell marine reserves in the 21st century. Call it environmental security -- and maybe it will play on all sides of the political spectrum.

Image: The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States. Photo © James Watt, courtesy of NOAA/Dept of Commerce, via The Ocean Conservancy

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Surprising that this post, which offers a hopeful context for the role of marine reserves in our future, overlooks the likely impact of climate change on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument.

Oddly, the risk was reported a few weeks before Bush's designation of the monument, by National Geographic. They summarized a study led by Jason Baker of NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and the findings were not hopeful for the archipelago: "Their findings suggest that by 2100 up to 65 percent of some islands would be lost if the sea level rose 18.9 inches (48 centimeters), which is the average IPCC projection."


We can be tempted to put the best conservation face on Bush's decision, but it appears that his unilateral designation of the islands under the powers of the Antiquities Act was more another cynical exercise of executive power designed to burnish non-existent green credentials, rather than an effort to do something of lasting value for the world's oceans and marine ecosystems.

Bush's ironic "legacy" will be the world's largest marine reserve, a laboratory in which we (a few scientists, anyway; just plain folks won't get to go there) will get to watch as the effects of rising sea levels and ocean acidication unfold on heretofore pristine marine and island ecosystems.

Posted by: Ted on 10 Jul 06

emily-- thanks for focusing our attention on oceans, aquaculture and marine protected areas.

I'd like to add a few of my thoughts to the conversation, to supplement your post.

You wrote that the Northwest Hawaiian Islands "...join 14 other marine sanctuaries in the United States, officially protected from direct threats like fishing (especially if the current handful commercial fishing permits are bought out by conservationists) and poaching (presuming Congress eventually allocates the money to patrol against it)."

There are actually 13 other National Marine Sanctuaries (NWHI was in process to become the 14th, before the executive decision to designate it a National Monument). None of these "Sanctuaries" comprehensively protect their fisheries from fishing, in fact both commercial and recreational fishing are allowed under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (which directs NOAA to facilitate all public and private uses of resources in the Sanctuaries if compatible with the primary objective of "resource protection"). Convservationists working to establish actual "no-take" reserves within various National Marine Sanctuaries have fought and continue to fight long, uphill battles against powerful fisheries interests to do so, despite extensive data demonstrating the depleted status of myriad fish species and the value of reserves in fisheries restoration. Many conservationists feel that the "Sanctuary" designation is thus something of a euphemism. Accordingly, the Bush designation of NWHI, including a 5-year phase out of fishing, is truly worth toasting for that ecosystem. As a National Marine Sanctuary, it would've likely had much less protection. (in counterpoint, it's worth noting that national monuments can be undone by executive authority as easily as they are designated, unlike Sanctuaries and Parks which require Congressional action).

Additionally, like many other Federal programs, the National Marine Sanctuary budget has suffered significant cuts in recent years. At many sites, this has reduced already lean enforcement efforts.

In reference to aquaculture, I think it's noteworthy that the Bush administration recently introduced into Congress legislation to establish a permitting system for offshore aquaculture, or fish farms located in the Federal waters from 3-200nm from shore. If these farms are geared toward supplying the pescavores in the US who continue to demand predatory species like shrimp, salmon and tuna (which require between 2-10 lbs of fishmeal input for every pound of fish sold to feed humans), such offshore farms will likely cause much more harm to the ocean than they alleviate (as Roz Naylor has demonstrated). To be profitable, such farms must be run in about as compassionate, sustainable and worldchanging a manner as a modern factory feedlot, which is to say not at all.

As I've stated here before, true vegetarianism is truly worldchanging. In the meantime, the only fish farms that worldchangers should be promoting or supporting are those with similarities to the local sustainable terrestrial farms we know: organic, gmo-free, polycultural (integrated diversity and biomimicry, rather than industrial genetic uniformity). Additionally, IMHO the only farmed fish that even come close to be considerd as sustainable are the herbivorous species or filter feeders which don't require fishmeal inputs, like tilapia, catfish and mussels.

thanks again for the post.

Posted by: shiva polefka on 10 Jul 06

Thanks for the thoughtful and informed expansion on my post, Shiva. I knew that the NWHI was designated a National Monument under the Antiquities Act, but I can see where my writing elided the point. I've corrected the number of marine sanctuaries from 14 to 13.

I am cautiously optimistic about the blue revolution because it is happening in the context of incredible advances in our understanding of fish biology and genetics, and because we have the mistakes of the green revolution to learn from.

But it would be a lot better for the planet and its animals if we preserved our ability to enjoy seafood by preserving wild fish stocks and the healthy ecosystems they need to thrive.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 10 Jul 06

Indeed if I may comment on the below:

Critics like Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor contend that such intensive aquaculture creates a net food loss -- that it takes two pounds of wild prey fish to grow one pound of domesticated carnivore fish, leaving little for their wild bretheren.

Agreed that the use of such animal proteins as fish trash, squid and the like does in fact creat the net food loss as Rosamond Naylor suggests. At the rate that the intensive fish farms are going the available animal proteins will be depleted by 2012. This presents are rather fearfull picture for both the environmentalists and the intensive farmers.

Consider that in the western world, fish farming is really still in its infancy and therefore the "big investors" are still comming out of the woodwork to start the buying up for a future boom in inland aquaculture and sea cage culture (which we have limited understanding of the long term environmental effects). The tricky part here is that technology is not keeping up with both the production and as a result, the demand. In the eastern regions, fish farming has been applied for hundreds of years and they have very much mastered the finer aspects of polyculture and aquaponics that do not weigh so heavily on natural resources, though still have their own drawbacks.

Again, we come around to investment in the technology that drives the industry. Still we are working out the replacement of animal proteins with the likes of soybean meal to present a grain based feed, which will show its own issues down the road as broard acre farming land becomes less and less available and more expensive. However, this is a forked toung lashing out. The industry can not stand by while the natural resources are drying up as this will definately force the price of animal protein feed up. (70% cost of an aquaculture operation is feed) Yet on the other side is the cost of the grain based feeds. This alone presents some difficult tasks for aquaculture in the future. The first will the the cost of the feeds them selves, then will come the possible reduced production, and then hot on the heals will be shortage of supply and yet again more cost. Nasty circle of economy will always catch up. One can only assume this is what deters consciencious care and encourages intentional blindness.

The key is the same as it has always been and that is the fine balance or equalibrium if you like, where industry meets environment. As with any 'new' industry there is going to be a wave of "hysteria" and very poor planing that avoids the consideration of the environment, in the rush for the mighty dollar.

Enjoy your day
The Crayfish Team.

Posted by: Paul VanderWerf on 11 Jul 06

Paul, I am curious about how successful a program to turn a carnivore into a vegetarian can be?

It does seem to me that scale is a huge part of the downside in aquaculture. As with many sustainability issues, the "problems" with fish farming are actually symptoms of a much greater quandry: human population growth outpacing the Earth's capacity to support it.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 11 Jul 06

Wow, we really are running on empty.

Posted by: Internet Resources on 11 Jul 06

I'm very worried that aquaculture may give us the oceanic equivalent of factory farms, spewing out hugely concentrated fish waste products and overtaxing the surrounding wild sea.

Stuff like Emily's piece here makes me think we should work as hard as possible at moving to purely vat grown meat sources. If we can't convince everyone to be vegan, I don't think we have any choice.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Jul 06



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