A Complex and Interrelated Web

27 Oct 2014

We are all familiar with the classic food web diagram: rabbits eat grass, foxes eat rabbits. The chain is fairly straightforward. But try to apply a similar mapping to the underwater world, and suddenly you have a mass of criss-crossing lines, a tangled web linking phytoplankton, zooplankton, many different fish, maybe even penguins, seals and whales.


These complex systems are not static, fish can change their diet or reproductive patterns from year to year, and the result is a highly unpredictable ecosystem that resists the application of the simple models, certification programs and management schemes that governments, fishery authorities and international organizations love to apply.


On Saturday, October 25, at the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre fishers, academics and activists spent the day discussing this complexity and the fallacy of trying to impose simple solutions on it, as well as better solutions to the pressing problem of marine resource management and governance around the world. The Slow Fish space heard voices from Africa, Europe and the Americas, testifying to the need for participation from all stakeholders and, in the words of political economist and scholar of the commons Elinor Ostrom, complex solutions for complex problems.


For example, one “simple” solution often used for fisheries management is the calculation of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), which Magnus Johnson, a marine biologist at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull, described as “the Goldilocks point,” the largest catch that can be taken of a species without the population declining. However, he said, the MSY is calculated based on a simple, single-species model that assumes populations are stable. This is a dangerous simplification and completely unsuited to the messy, volatile reality of life in the sea.


Governments, NGOs and fisheries authorities are enamored with the MSY principle, but, says Johnson, fishermen need to be more involved in managing fisheries. “They’re the ones who really understand their complexity” he said. “There is an intrinsic link between people and the sea. We talk about the conservation of the sea, but it’s not just polychaetes and turtles. We’re also talking about the conservation of people and their ingrained culture. They understand this world better than anyone else.”


The Mediterranean offers a perfect example of an immensely complex system. Patrice Francour, a researcher at Nice University, offered some statistics: “It represents only 0.8% of the world’s ocean, but contains over 20% of the world’s marine biodiversity, and 20 to 30% of the species are endemic.” But this biodiversity is under huge pressure from human activities: “Over 350 million people live along the coast, and the Mediterranean is home to a third of the world’s total merchant shipping. Targeted fishing, by-catch, pollution, habitat loss, human disturbance and invasive species mean that 50% of the sea’s species are under threat.” Like Johnson, he also decried the current fisheries management models based on looking at a single species in isolation. “They don’t take into account the diversity of habitats used by that species and its different relationships.” The top-down approach taken by the European Union does not work, he said, as it does not involve the actual users: “Fishermen must be directly involved in the management structure. Otherwise it’s impossible to have, for example, a marine protected area that functions properly.”


Mangroves are another complex (and highly productive) ecosystem, found in tropical and subtropical environments around the world. Once again, people represent both the threat and the salvation to these coastal forests. Mangrove ecosystems have survived for millennia in harmony with people, a fact underlined by Lucio Cacao, an Ecuadorian shellfish harvester, and Henry Demba, a fisherman from Senegal, who spoke about the culture, beliefs and religion linked to the trees. “For us, mangroves are motherhood,” he said. “In the last century, people would hide in the mangrove forests from the colonials who wanted to send them off to fight in the world wars in Europe.”


Lider Gongora, an environmental activist from Ecuador, said that mangroves allow coastal populations to live and eat well, providing a breeding ground for many marine species, a safety net against tsunamis, a source of oxygen, nurseries for fish species that populate even distant waters and many other benefits. But in Ecuador, and many other countries in South America and Asia, the mangroves are being chopped down to build huge farms producing shrimp for export. “Everything has been cut down, communities displaced, people murdered, ecosystems destroyed, for this criminal industry which the government said would be our salvation. One hectare of mangrove ecosystem allows 10 families to have a decent life. One or two hundred hectares of shrimp pools gives jobs to four people with a low wage.” Once again, a complex ecosystem is being replaced with a simple system, to the detriment of the environment, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of many local communities.


Three examples, from Brittany in France, the Pacific coast of North America and Galicia in Spain, showed how complex solutions to environmental problems must involve alliances and the participation of different stakeholders—fishermen, shellfish growers, farmers, winemakers, even golf course developers—emphasizing the importance of the human element.


Biologist and plankton expert Pierre Mollo described the biodiversity of plankton, the tiny organisms that generate 50% of the oxygen we breathe, and which form the base of the marine food pyramid. Remove the plankton biodiversity, and you have no fish. Oysters also feed on plankton, as Tifenn Chuiton, an oyster farmer in Brittany, explained. Unfortunately there has been a lot of conflict in her area between aquatic and land farmers, because toxic pesticides were running off into the sea and killing the phytoplankton. But she said that by initiating a dialog between the shellfish growers and land farmers, they were able come to an agreement, with a high level of participation, for farmers to adopt techniques that would improve water quality, like using grass to filter the run-off water.


Over in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and British Columbia, Canada, also known as “Salmon Nation,” a certification organization is working to transform land management practices so that Pacific salmon can thrive. “As a messenger of environmental health, salmon are incredible,” explained Kevin Scribner of Salmon-Safe. “They are born in fresh water, live most of their life in salt water, then come back to fresh water, to the streams they were born in to spawn.” Salmon-Safe is “a voluntary certification program with market incentives to encourage land owners to maintain ecological function on their property and make the world safe for salmon,” said Scribner. As in France, water quality is essential, and the program encourages farmers to eliminate or reduce run-off of chemicals hazardous to salmon. They work with wineries, golf courses, university campuses—any land through which salmon streams run. “Salmon require the entire watershed to participate,” he said.


As the conversation went from the cultural and spiritual value of salmon, of nature and of human life, Spanish researcher Antonio García Allut warned the public about the dangers of our economic model, oriented towards maximizing profit as quickly as possible: “Our model sets a price on nature, which is great for big industry because they can pay for what they destroy. But they are not integrating the value of human life into these assessment models. We have to make the economy human.”



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