A Multitude of Drops. Or, “Thoughts from a young fisheries scientist in a changing world”

6a00e554dae3f48833015433a93749970c-800wiTomorrow is World Oceans Day. Today I am eating apricots. These small, pastel orange fruits always remind me of warm evenings at the beach. And, I’m not quite sure why (although I assume some higher level organic chemistry is involved), but the delightful taste produced when the sweetness of their flesh mixes with the saltiness of the air seems to provide me with the best circumstances for contemplating life. But, while one would probably assume that my current thoughts are organizing themselves into an exciting post in honour of this special day, the truth is, they’re not. Because I don’t really know what to say. Of course this dilemma is not for lack of want, or knowledge of the subject matter; it is because—for the first time in my life—I am trying to decide how I feel about the ocean. Well, not the ocean itself. More specifically, the future of the ocean. And how young fisheries scientists, like myself, fit in.

I mentioned before that I study tuna. Well, as may be inferred from the methodology of my research, the tuna I deal with are numbers— statistics really— rather than actual fish. None of what I do requires any practical experience with fisheries operations or management, and I have never set foot on a tuna fishing boat or used any tuna fishing gear. I have never worked for a government, for ICCATCCSBT or any other RFMO, never talked to a high seas tuna fisherman, a tuna trader at Tsukiji or a sushi master in Kyoto. In fact, despite being in the second year of my Masters, I have seen a grand total of one live wild tuna. And it was only a brief glimpse, observed from the 12th floor of a cruise ship while on vacation. The distance between was us so great that this massive teleost appeared to be roughly the size of my thumbnail; it was so far away that I’m still not even sure what species it was.

~

Today, the Fisheries Centre is hosting an event to celebrate World Oceans Day. In addition to indulging in a sustainable spot prawn BBQ and a Jacques Cousteau film later, four guest speakers were invited to present their thoughts on the ocean during a little lunchtime seminar. Specifically, they were asked to answer:

  • What made you fall in love with the ocean?
  • Why do you have hope for its future?

I enjoyed their talks more than I was expecting, and am happy to say that I gained some new perspectives, especially with regard to aquaculture. However, while my own ideas regarding these questions are probably less interesting to my peers than those provided by the quartet of university professors, my current state of mind makes me think that a little self reflection might not be such a bad idea.

936627_10151426022310800_1408841837_n tumblr_luqjif436S1qeigaco1_1280 breathe

~

I mentioned the book Waiting for Columbus in a previous post, and I think the main reason I enjoyed it as much as I did stemmed largely from its opening pages:

Imagine a man standing on a rocky shoreline looking out to sea, pondering the question, the same question we whisper when we look up at night into a star-crazed sky – swirls of light millions of years old – everything moving away, or toward, or around: What’s out there? 

This man is an average guy except for this need he has when it comes to the ocean. He is a man who will go out of his way to stand on beaches and look out to sea. He will pull over to the side of a highway or a road, he will get off a train or disembark a bus and then stand at the edge of whatever ocean is there with awe and wonder vibrating. Often, depending on how he feels, he will hum Barber’s Adagio for Strings…It is the perfect music for the funeral procession of a president, and it is the ideal music for oceans. Oceans are big enough to handle the sorrow of Barber’s Adagio.”

I connected instantly with the feelings of this character. In the same way that people from the prairies seek open spaces and manual labour, many who grew up near the sea innately crave the rhythm of crashing waves and sticky salt air on their skin. I am one of those people. That said, I did not come from a family of fishermen, nor were my parents sailors or surfers. My love for the ocean began in a largely educational context, even before I could walk. Growing up, I spent much of my time with my grandparents. My Grampa got me fascinated in learning about and playing every sport imaginable, while my Nana encouraged my love of all things aquatic. We would spend hours combing through tidal pools at the beach and roaming the exhibits at the Vancouver Aquarium. When it came to the ocean, no expense was spared; if there was a book published on marine life in the 90s, I probably owned it. By age seven, my knowledge of BC cetaceans was extensive. This passion for sea creatures remained constant, although as time passed, my interests expanded and my love of terrestrial fauna increased.

During high school, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. That’s how I ended up at Guelph. But, I guess all that stuff about never forgetting your first love holds true sometimes, and despite my more general appreciation for the natural world, I ultimately realized that I would always care about marine animals the most. This revelation was subtle at first, but my first sincere recollection of this paradigm revert was when I found myself in McLaughlin Library, a mere three hours before my chemistry final. Instead of investing my time in some last minute (and much needed) studying, I was combing through the ‘QL 737…’ stack for books on marine life. I was there again the day of my physics final the following week. I came across Carl Safina’s book, Song for the Blue Ocean. Two pages—and one beautiful narrative of a leaping bluefin—in and I knew I would never be a veterinarian.

~

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So now, before getting into the ‘hope’ part of Question Two, what is the future of the ocean anyway? Because at the grandest scale possible, the future is a very, very long way away. Probably a few billion years. And I think it’s important to say that in the same way life began in the sea, there I believe it will end. In fact, I have complete faith that life in the ocean will ultimately outlast every terrestrial creature that will exist on this planet. (On difficult days, this is the longterm vision I think about.) However, this does not mean that this ‘life’ will be remotely similar to life in the ocean as it is structured right now. And since I’m alive today, since my friends and family are alive today, and since I am a citizen of the world today, I am worried about the life in today’s ocean. Because today’s ocean is not doing that well. Today’s ocean is taking a hell of a beating. Within the last hundred years, we have rapidly and holistically upset a biological balance that has existed for hundreds of millions of years. As a result, the present biochemical and ecological structure of this vast, dynamic ecosystem is being pushed to its limit; when you consider that this saline body of water occupies roughly 75% of our planet, that’s a pretty massive limit to be pushing.

And marine scientists already know all this. They have for a while. But unfortunately scientists aren’t going to save the world; they can’t. Because statistics and foresight are no match for bureaucracy and political game theory. Because it’s easier to keep up with old habits than form new ones. Because people innately reject change, and hate uncertainty. Even if it’s to their future detriment, people will procrastinate and avoid having to deal with change at all costs. In the same way that science is the knowledge behind technological developments, science is also the knowledge behind policy development. But if no government will take responsibility and make fundamental operational changes or (more importantly), enforce and adhere to developed policies, then there is almost no point in having them in the first place. It’s like knowing that driving drunk can kill you, but getting in the car anyway.

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It makes me sad and frustrated when CITES proposals are rejected, when governments vote not to protect highly biodiverse yet fragile regions like the Southern Ocean, when quota recommendations from scientists are ignored by RFMOs only to be further ignored by fishing fleets, and when I go out to dinner with my own friends but can’t convince them to avoid the shrimp cocktail because it’s “low cal”, “delicious”, and “the shrimp are dead already”. This last one hurts most of all. I feel like if I can’t even convince those I know to make simple sustainable seafood choices, then how can I even conceive of changing the mindset of the whole world?

~

Last week, my friend (and FC colleague), Lucas, and my supervisor, Daniel, gave presentations at the Vancouver Aquarium for its current Jelly Invasion exhibit. They had been asked to discuss the state of the ocean (with regard to both fisheries and climate change), with a specific emphasis on how this is affecting jellyfish populations. While both talks were interesting and very well done, it was Daniel’s response to a question at the end that has stayed with me. A girl in the audience asked what would be the best way to get involved and alleviate some of the problems affecting the ocean (and, more broadly, the world). Daniel said that these problems could not be solved by one person alone, and he explained using an analogy that he heard once before, in the context of the Soviet resistance to Nazi invasion. He likened the current functioning of society to a tank; a machine so massive that it would be impossible for it to be slowed down by something like a single grain of sand. And so, as the tank rolls, many pieces of sand would hit the outside and bounce right off without making a dent. But eventually, a piece might get stuck in the gears. And, over time, if enough sand got lodged in the gears, the tank would be forced to stop. He said that even if some individual efforts seem futile, the combined effort of small successes will eventually lead to a big change.

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I thought Daniel’s answer was beautiful and it reminded me of a quote from The Cloud Atlas. Although I was pleasantly confused for pretty much the entirety of the book, the last page made it worth while. As a result of an experience while seeing part of the world, one the the story’s main characters, Adam, decided to join the Abolitionist movement in America. This however goes against his father-in-law’s ideals, and the old man tells Adam that his efforts will be futile. At the end of an extended rant he finishes by saying,

only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” 

Luckily, this is no deterrent to Adam, who thinks to himself, but what is the ocean but a multitude of drops?

167840_776474248429_3403161_nAnd so, even with all that frustrates me and makes me feel like nothing is being accomplished sometimes, this is why I have hope. I really do. I have hope because the grains of sand are starting to pile up; because the drops are starting to make waves. It’s been a bit slow, but I think that the public is beginning to see that the ocean is in trouble. Although the methodology and results of their study have been discussed extensively, Worm et al.‘s  2006 paper on the collapse of global fisheries by 2048 got people’s attention. I think it’s probably fair to say that the date itself is likely a bit off. But that’s not the point. The point is that largely as a result of this eye-opening assessment of the health of the world’s fish stocks, global newspapers now have sections devoted to stories about fisheries and the ocean. Scientific research on marine ecosystems and biodiversity from countless authors over the last couple decades in particular has really contributed to where we are now. It is the backbone for why grocery stores have started carrying OceanWise seafood, why groups like Sharktruth and Hugh’s Fish Fight have raised public awareness and support over the important issues of shark finning and fisheries discards. Once picked up at the level of the general public, these issues can really gain awareness. Because, love it or hate it, the media (and social media in particular) gives centralized (and portable!) outlets for the instantaneous sharing of ocean research, news articles, videos, and thoughts between friends around the world. It also allows both global and local NGOs and campaigns (e.g., WWF, One World One Ocean, Blue Ventures, Marine Life Sanctuaries, and Mission Blue) to connect like-minded people focused on starting and joining conservation initiatives. Organizations like Jelly Watch and the Wild Whales encourage and use data provided by the general public to better understand the population structure and monitor the dynamics of various species. And, at an international level, even governments are finally starting to be pressured from within. The inspiring story of how the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, tried to encourage fellow political leaders to act on climate change is captured in the documentary The Island President.

~

When I saw that tuna leap into the air from twelve stories up, my excitement was no less than if I had been riding on its back. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of times in my life that I have been that happy. Which undoubtedly is an incomprehensible idea to some. Well, probably most. But ultimately I know that if the perfect thunniform shape of a little blue missile soaring above the waves can make me that happy, then this is the work I am meant to be doing. I do what I do because I love the ocean; the beautiful balance between physical power and biological fragility most of all. And even if I am only one small grain of sand, one tiny little drop of sea water, then at least I’m one more than would be there otherwise. Jacques Cousteau once wrote that “people protect what they love”. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. And that is the reason why I am willing to struggle with all the self-doubt, the bad news, and the frustration that comes along with my chosen field. Because, personally, I believe that the things you love most of all are worth nothing less than a lifetime of dedication and effort.

Happy World Oceans Day 2013!

~

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I know it isn’t much, but I would like to dedicate this post to Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26 year old sea turtle conservationist who was tragically murdered last week while trying to protect the animals he loved.

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