Looking for bigger fish to fry: An American foundation has granted UBC biologist Daniel Pauly $3 million to ascertain the effect of current fisheries practices on our oceans, and how to restore abundance
Vancouver Sun , 5 Nov 1999

Daniel Pauly wants to save the world -- or at least the oceans. Pauly, a scientist at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, has been granted $3 million by the Pew Charitable Trusts to reel in the facts on fishing's ecological impacts.

That Pew, a powerful U.S. foundation and a leader in marine conservation, has taken this gamble on a Canadian fisheries scientist is a big deal. The reason Pew is betting on Pauly is because he has a track record of taking on gargantuan tasks against enormous resistance. Besides, somebody's got to try to do something, because the oceans are in trouble.

``Lots of people will try to tell you that natural population fluctuations, pollution and a changing ocean environment are the problems,'' says Pauly. ``They are part of the problem, but the fisheries in terms of its impact on the oceans is far worse.''

In 1998 Pauly sent shock waves around the world when he published proof in the prestigious journal, Science, that we are ``fishing down the food web.'' Taking 45 years worth of the United Nations annual global catch statistics, he and his colleagues showed that commercial fisheries first wipe out big fish-eating fish, then move to smaller fish and invertebrates. This prevents the bigger fish from ever recovering because we begin competing with them for their food.

So having systematically wiped out the large fish at the top of the food web, ``we're now eating bait,'' says Pauly, ``and we're headed for jellyfish.''

Serial depletion of species is grinding marine ecosystems towards collapse, says Pauly, who is critical of the government's new and highly subsidized diversification programs, a euphemism for trying to find something else once you've exhausted the previous fishery.

The $3-million grant over two years is only the seed money for what -- if Pauly succeeds -- will be an ongoing initiative to provide the research needed to transform fisheries policies and management practices around the world.

The first step is to study the North Atlantic fishery (eastern Canada, the U.S. and Europe) which, explains Pauly, ``is the biggest challenge because that is where fisheries science emerged. Everything is more stuck there. If we can convince the North Atlantic world our vision is legitimate, then we will have taken a big step because in other parts of the world there will be less resistance.''

The team's analysis of all the biological, economic and social data related to fisheries over the past 50 years will show how much the oceans have deteriorated and provide an irrefutable case for the profound changes necessary to current fisheries polices and practices. According to Tony Pitcher, director of the UBC Fisheries Centre, ``When it comes to oceans, sustainability is the wrong goal because you are only sustaining the present misery.''

These scientists believe we must allow the oceans to rebuild to their historic levels of productivity. Pauly reckons only one-tenth or less of the fish in the oceans still survive, but the good news is, the abundant past could also be our future.

On land, once you take away the habitat and build on it, the wildlife are often gone forever. But in the oceans the habitat is still there, it's just that the fish aren't. Nature can and will replenish the wealth of the seas -- if we give her half a chance.

But as Pauly notes, ``Right now all we do is say, `save the sea.' Well big deal. How do you go about it? You need the specifics.''

He is famous for his ability to look at mountains of data and to see things that no one else has seen before. Pauly feeds at the very top of the food chain of scientists, devouring and synthesizing other people's research.

His own life has convinced him of the validity of fighting against the odds. A war baby, the son of a black man from Arkansas and a French mother, Pauly grew up poor. ``Statistically I was doomed,'' he grins.

He would have never made it to university but for a scholarship from a church in Germany where he had worked with the mentally handicapped. But once he started, he took off, surging through undergrad, masters and doctorate degrees in six years.

Concerned about issues of poverty and overfishing, he worked in tropical countries, inventing simple methods for stock assessments so communities could manage their own fisheries.

In an interview in his tiny office in the UBC Fisheries Centre, he whirls from desk to computer in a pair of fish slippers. Jumping up to illustrate his points on a white board by his desk, he answers the incessantly ringing phone, switching from French to German to Spanish as he talks to colleagues around the world.

Pauly seems not the least bit daunted by the enormity of the task he has taken on. Still he's the first to admit, ``My imagination has always been ahead of my ability to implement things rigorously. I'm not a number cruncher.''

His approach is to develop a team and to work with them to fit the pieces together. ``Yes, it's huge. But it's like the pyramids, one rock at time.''

Besides Pauly and Pitcher, the research team includes Villy Christensen and Carl Walters, who with Pauly have designed a computer program called Ecopath, which roughly simulates how marine ecosystems work.

Like an accounting system that uses energy as its currency, Ecopath tells you how much fish you can extract from an ecosystem based on its productivity while taking into account the interactions between various animals within the system. It can compare past and present ecosystems and test the implications of harvesting certain species on other parts of the system.

Reg Watson is the team's chief detective uncovering unaccounted fisheries catches such as bycatch and the subsistence fisheries. In many countries, the catch of boats below 10 metres is not registered. Nor are sports fisheries usually included.

``Now here I expect a stunning effect,'' says Pauly. ``We will surprise people with these numbers.''

Tony Pitcher and Dave Preikshot designed RAPFISH, a multi-disciplinary rapid evaluation method for the status of fisheries, and Rashid Sumaila, an economist, has designed a new economic methodology that will allow people to evaluate the ecological, economic, social and cultural benefits of rebuilding. Pauly's role is to put it all together and to bring forward the results and recommendations.

These multiple layers of data will be analyzed and cross-validated to show how overfishing can be controlled and the damage reversed. The team will post all their data and analyses on the Fisheries Centre website so that the path to their conclusions is clear.A major problem that this project aims to overcome is the rift between scientists. Fisheries scientists are aligned with government and industry. Conservation biologists tend to sit ``outside the tent'' with the environmental organizations. Pauly is trying to create a new system for data collection to encourage collaboration.

By the end of the first two years Pauly hopes to have succeeded in convincing colleagues, managers and policy makers that there is legitimacy in the approach of looking at the past to set fisheries goals for the future.

``Look at the cod. The small-scale fisheries were catching 200,000 tons a year, while for 10 years the industrial fisheries got up to 800,000. How many years do you need of total depletion to undo that so-called gain?'' Up to 1998 the Atlantic cod collapse has cost at least $4.5 billion.

``You could have continued with just the small-scale fisheries and over-all the gains would have been much bigger,'' says Pauly. ``Phasing out the heavily subsidized industrial fisheries will cost money, but it will ultimately provide more jobs and fish. So go do it.

``The fisheries world (which is tied to government) should be able to see for themselves that they are doing things that are absurd. And so holding up a mirror to this and showing how that can be perceived by looking at it from a different angle is going to be helpful, I hope.''

Pauly firmly believes their work will show how our self-made fisheries crisis can be solved. The much larger challenge will be dealing with the politics.