Fishing less to get more: Dr. Callum Roberts on The Ocean of Life

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (10/11/12)


Events like October's Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the northeast coast of the United States, remind us that the oceans are not tame. We can't resist the tremendous forces that nature can bring to bear on us. And yet, for the past couple of hundred years, we've been waging a kind of war on the oceans, or at least on the life within them. Through environmental exploitation and degradation we've literally transformed life in the seas. And the paradox of that war is that the harder we fight, the more we lose.

In his new book, The Ocean of Life, marine biologist Callum Roberts tells the story of our impact on the oceans and the damage we're doing. Dr. Roberts, a marine biologist at the University of York in England, spoke with Bob McDonald on Quirks & Quarks recently about why it's not completely hopeless...yet.

Roberts's book features a series of photos of trophy catches off the coast of Florida over the course of 50 years, which offers a stark visual example of the decline of the ocean's health. In the early photos, fisherman display groupers bigger than themselves...and the size of the fish gradually shrink over the years. "Fast forward to the first decade of this century, and you've got tiny little fishes," said Roberts. "The experience of fishing has been dramatically transformed."

The book also explains Roberts's theory of how we're degrading our ocean environment because of the way we fish. "A long time ago, we tended to catch fish using rather benign methods. If you put a hook over the side of a boat, you're catching fish individually, it's not impacting the sea bed," he said. "But over time we've intensified the way that we've been exploiting the sea." The introduction of trawler boats, which drag nets across the sea bed, was the beginning of a boon for the fishing industry — and the beginning of the decline of our oceans. Trawlers' nets not only catch fish, they also destroy fish habitats. "Over the course of the 20th century... the amount of sea bed that was being fished got bigger and bigger and we went deeper and deeper," said Roberts. "We have transformed the sea bed from one that was covered in rich communities of sponges and seafans and sea nettles and corals into a habitat that is dominated by shifting sands and muds and gravels, and that's transformed the kinds of animals that live there."

Fishing technology has only gotten more invasive and damaging. But we continue to eat fish, and it's difficult to tell the good from the bad. "I'd like to see supermarkets take more responsibility for editing the choices that consumers have," said Roberts. "You'd see the choices shrink a lot on the supermarket shelves, but that would help to force change in the fishing industry."

In the book, Roberts also outlines potential solutions for returning the oceans to a state of good health. Indeed, he thinks we can be "fishing less to catch more." But how can that be? He uses a financial analogy: think of the fish in the sea as savings, and the fish we catch as interest. The bigger the savings, the more interest it yields. "If you've got more fish in the sea, bigger stocks, you'll be able to take more of them," Robert said. "So if we grow the stocks back...then we will be much better off and have healthier, more intact ecosystems."

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