Realising you’re a drunk is only the first step

11 05 2009

© A. Savchenko

© A. Savchenko

I recently did an interview for the Reef Tank blog about my research, ConservationBytes.com and various opinions about marine conservation in general. I’ve been on about ‘awareness’ raising in biodiversity conservation over the last few weeks (e.g., see last post), saying that it’s really only the first step. To use an analogy, alcoholics must first recognise and accept that they are indeed drunks with a problem before than can take the (infamous AA) steps to resolve it. It’s not unlike biodiversity conservation – I think much of the world is aware that our forests are disappearing, species are going extinct, our oceans are becoming polluted and devoid of fish, our air and soils are degraded to the point where they threaten our very lives, and climate change has and will continue to exacerbate all of these problems for the next few centuries at least (and probably for much longer).

We’ve admitted we have a disease, now let’s do something about it.

Read the full interview here.

CJA Bradshaw

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More than just baby sharks

23 04 2009

Sharks worldwide are in trouble (well, so are many taxa, for that matter), with ignorance, fear, and direct and indirect exploitation (both legal and illegal) accounting for most of the observed population declines.

Despite this worrisome state (sharks have extremely important ‘regulatory’ roles in marine ecosystems), many people have been slowly taking notice of the problem, largely due to the efforts of shark biologists. An almost religious-like pillar of shark conservation that has emerged in the last decade or so is that if we save nursery habitats, all shark conservation concerns will be addressed.

Why? Many shark species appear to have fairly discrete coastal areas where they either give birth or lay eggs, and in which the young sharks develop presumably in relative safety from predators (including their parents). Meanwhile, breeding parents will often skip off as soon as possible and spend a good proportion of their non-breeding lives well away from coasts. Sexual segregation appears to be another common feature of many sharks species (the boys and girls don’t really play together that well).

The upshot is that if you conserve these more vulnerable ‘nursery’ areas in coastal regions, then you’ve protected the next generation of sharks and all will be fine. The underlying reason for this assumption is that it’s next-to-impossible to conserve entire ocean basins where the larger adults may be frolicking, but you can focus your efforts on restricted coastal zones that may be undergoing a lot of human-generated modification (e.g., pollutant run-off, development, etc.).

However, a new paper published recently in Conservation Letters entitled Reassessing the value of nursery areas to shark conservation and management disputes this assumption. Michael Kinney and Colin Simpfendorfer explain that even if coastal nurseries can be properly identified and adequately conserved, there is mounting evidence that failing to safeguard the adult stages could ultimately sustain declines or arrest recovery efforts. The authors support continuing efforts to identify and conserve nurseries, but they say this isn’t enough by itself to solve any real problems. If we want sharks around (and believe me, even though the odd swimmer may get a nip or two, it’s better than the alternative of no sharks), then we’re going to have to restrict fishing effort on the high seas as well.

I think this one qualifies for the ‘Potential‘ list.

CJA Bradshaw

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Protein mining the world’s oceans

31 03 2009

Last month David Agnew and colleagues published a paper in PLoS One examining the global extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing), estimating its value from US$10-23.5 billion and representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish annually. The value is roughly the same as that lost from illegal logging each year. Wow.

Of perhaps most interest is that Agnew and colleagues found evidence for a negative relationship between IUU fishing as a proportion of total catch and an international (World Bank) governance quality index. This suggests that improving governance and eradicating corruption may be the best way to curtail the extent of the illegal harvest.

We have just published a paper online in Fish and Fisheries about the extent and impact of IUU fishing in northern Australia. Entitled Protein mining the world’s oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing, the paper by Iain Field and colleagues advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades.

IUU fishing is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia’s north, and can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations. The problem now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia’s perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

We expect that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously. IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, is driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It is not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crosses national maritime zones, and it poses one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region. These IUU fishers are mining protein, and there is no suggestion of sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection into the equation. They just come into a fishing area and strip-mine it, leaving it bare.

Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters farther north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply. There are three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least AU$240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out and are now economically and ecologically extinct.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. These activities have been successful, but it is doubtful whether they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely – the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught.

With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase. Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security.

CJA Bradshaw (with IC Field, MG Meekan and RC Buckworth)

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