Sunday, November 04, 2007

Neptune's Navy

That's the title of an amazing article in the New Yorker about Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace and more recently, er, pirate. Or nautical vigilante, if you prefer.

On January 19th, the day he moored his ships together in the Ross Sea, he wore a black, military-style sweater adorned with Sea Shepherd patches, and a rainbow-colored belt that held a sheathed knife. Watson was captaining the Farley, a rusty North Sea trawler built in Norway in 1958. The ship, black with yellow trim, featured a skull and crossbones painted across its superstructure and, on the forward deck, a customized device called “the can opener”: a sharpened steel I-beam that is propelled outward from the ship’s starboard side and is used to scrape the hulls of adversaries. Watson’s plan was to transfer as much furniture, equipment, and crew as he could from the Farley to the Hunter, in part because the Farley was old and barely seaworthy, in part because it was operating illegally and could be confiscated upon entry into port, and in part to ready it for a procedure that he called Operation Asshole—so named because it involved ramming one vessel into another’s stern.

The damage that's been done to the oceans of the world is really astonishing, when you consider their size. It's a sign of how powerful humans are in the modern world that most large fish stocks are depleted by as much as 90%. The article goes in to how, exactly, this happened:

In 1995, the process of forgetting was given a name—“shifting baseline syndrome”—by Daniel Pauly, a scientist at the University of British Columbia. “Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes,” Pauly argued in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. He concluded, “The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species.” When Pauly and others took a longer view, they noticed another worrying trend. Humanity had been eating its way down the ocean’s food web; as large marine predators became scarce, people developed a taste for smaller and smaller fish. Animals that were once used for bait or that were considered worthless (hagfish, sea cucumber) were later taken in large quantities for human consumption. “Bait thirty years ago was calamari,” Pauly told me. “Now it is served in a restaurant. It is very nice. But it was bait before.” Future generations, Pauly predicts, only half in jest, will grow up on jellyfish sandwiches.

I'm generally opposed to food that glows in the dark. Call me picky. But I suppose I'll get used to it.

I don't know what the answer is to the whaling problem -- aside from "hey, let's stop killing them". The arguments made by whaling nations seem to be pretty lame where they aren't outright contradictory. (It's impossible to argue that whaling has a negligible effect on whale populations, but a substantial positive impact on fishing stocks.) But then, whaling is only one of the many problems where the simple answer -- stop doing that! -- is considered impossible, irresponsible, etc.

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