Thinking like an ocean

by Guest Blogger

July 18, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

Sitting fogged in at St. Matthew this morning gave me some time to reflect, for the first time in days, on what we’ve seen here so far and what it might mean. In a famous essay, the ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote of thinking like a mountain—understanding nature not in terms of any one species, but as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

I draw a similar lesson from our time in St. Matthew and the Pribilofs. The whales, the seals, the seabirds, the fish, the Unungan are all part of the larger story of the sea itself. To protect those parts, and to protect the Bering, we have to begin thinking like an ocean. We have to recognize that the species of this and other waters are interwoven in a web of relationships we are only beginning to understand. To focus our efforts on harvesting one or a few species, even “sustainably”, without considering the effects on other species, risks unraveling that web.

In science and policy-speak, this consideration of broader impacts is called ecosystem-based management, or EBM. EBM is about humility in the face uncertainty; about acting with caution when we’re unsure what the real-world consequences of our actions will be. The concept isn’t novel. Just underused. Particularly in the context of fisheries management, which is remarkable, because the law already calls for it.

The heart of the federal fisheries management system in the United States is a law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Magnuson-Stevens is also called the “Sustainable Fisheries Act” because, when it was adopted in its current form in 1996, Congress expected it to bring about a revolution in the sustainable management of U.S. fisheries. And it did help; though it was more evolutionary than revolutionary. One evolutionary step the law took was to require the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that governs our fisheries, to develop recommendations for expanding the use of ecosystem principles in fishery management. So, NMFS convened a panel, which developed recommendations, which have yet to be systematically applied anywhere.

As I write this, Congress is debating whether and how to improve the Magnuson-Stevens Act. One thing conspicuously absent from the proposed revisions to the Act is any solid requirement to adopt ecosystem-based management instead of the outdated and disproven single species approaches on which we currently rely. This is a serious oversight. It’s been three years since two major commissions concluded our oceans are in crisis driven chiefly by overfishing. Ten years since Congress recognized the need for an ecosystem-based approach to managing our seas. And more than half a century since Aldo Leopold first thought like a mountain.

It’s time, at last, to start thinking like an ocean.

– Carroll 

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