A trophic cascade is an ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling. A recent article by Gwynn Guilford in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic points to fishing practices in China as examples of trophic cascade resulting from the extreme over-harvest of sharks for shark-fin soup, several other species with high value as components in various Chinese elixirs and remedies, and the manta ray, also known for its medicinal qualities.
Shark-finning is of course a well-known practice, the cutting of the fin and discarding of the rest, as the key ingredient in a recipe for soup that is especially prized by Chinese gourmets and those wishing to demonstrate their financial standing and success through the consumption of a very expensive (and not particularly tasty) status dish. There are have been several major public campaigns against shark-finning, promoted by active non-governmental organizations that have had some success in limiting the harvest, exposing the harvesters, and shaming the consumers. The Atlantic article points to two other examples, the bladders of totoaba fish found in California waters and a similar fish, the bahaba, native to Chinese waters, both believed to promote fertility. A bahaba is reported to have fetched almost $500,000 on the black market, this for a species listed by the Chinese government as “protected” and thought by others to be nearly extinct. “Like the totoaba bladder and shark fins, gill rakers of manta rays – cartilage that filters the ray’s food – are prized for their supposed medicinal properties,” writes The Atlantic, “so much so that they fetch about $251 per kilogram. The $5 million trade in manta ray gill rakers – almost all of which occurs in Guangzhou, in southern China – has depleted manta populations so severely that they were classified as endangered.”
So what about this trophic cascade? What is happening here is that the dramatic removal of large predators at the top of the ocean food chain will have additional impact on the species below. As sharks are killed, their predators flourish and increase, with consequences that change the interaction between lesser species, and that alters the predation pattern and thus the relative population numbers, food chain structure, and ecosystem balance. The change at the top, the sudden disappearance of a major determining force, then results in changes below that further disrupt the existing order of the marine system.
Let’s see if I have got this righ: it seems silly to say so, but is it not true that this entire process is justified to provide virility/fertility medicines or status symbols to consumers most probably ignorant of or indifferent to the consequences of their desires? Isn’t it ironic that we can harvest one species to extinction in order to foster procreation in another? The Chinese can kill fish, deplete their own waters, waste an astonishing volume of protein, intrude on other nations’ sovereignty, destroy coastal livelihoods on distant shores, deprive local tourism and economic development in struggling countries, lie, under-report, or otherwise game the system, ignore international quotas and agreements with impunity, and defy the concept of sustainability as a strategy for the future – all in the name of pleasure. Talk about your trophic cascade!
So who’s the top predator here? In this case, it’s the Chinese. But there are other examples, other responsible parties; it’s any of us who sit at the top of the food chain and are able--intellectually, financially or morally--to support a system as absurd as this one. Where is the meaningful social value in this situation? If fish bladders, fins, and gill cartilage really do contain a cure for cancer, are there not other ways to meet the demand without decimating the supply?
“World fish stocks are being rapidly depleted, and valuable species are nearing extinction. Because fish are a valuable commodity, the last decade has seen an escalation of transnational and organized criminal networks engaged in fisheries crime.” So declares the website of a new Environmental Crime Program launched by INTERPOL and funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and the Pew Charitable Trust Environment Group. Called “Project Scale,” the initiative is based on the premises that “fisheries crime undermines resource, conservation, threatens food security and livelihoods, destabilizes vulnerable coastal regions and is linked to other serious crimes including money laundering, fraud, human trafficking and drug trafficking.”
Specifically, objectives are intended to raise awareness of fisheries crime and its consequences, establish National Environmental Security Task Forces to ensure institutionalized cooperation between national agencies and international partners, assess the needs of vulnerable countries, and conduct operations to suppress criminal activity, disrupt trafficking routes and ensure the enforcement of national legislation. In addition to analyzing, planning, training, and generating policy and legal recommendations to address the problem, INTERPOL will actually coordinate and conduct regional or species targeted operations in the most vulnerable regions such as the West African coast. In almost every discussion of illegal, unregulated fishing, enforcement has always seemed the insurmountable issue – the lack of police personnel, customs inspection, forensic and financial expertise, cross-border sharing of information, prosecutorial commitment, and surveillance and arrest capacity on the open ocean and in the off-loading ports and harbors to manage and combat illegal activity that is demonstrably out of control.
The cost to the global economy of this unreported fishing loss has been estimated at $23 billion per year. So-called “pirate” fishermen, larger flag of convenience registered vessels, and multi-national corporate interests outside national jurisdictions are responsible for untold hidden profits, evaded taxes and uncollected duties, and other illegal activities as harvesting prohibited species, fishing out of season or without a license, fishing in conservation areas and protected national economic zones, and exceeding national and international quotas established by global management governance associations and bi- and multi-lateral treaties.
This is an effort long overdue. In conversations with fishermen, government officials, and policy-makers, amplified by news reports and UN distress at the level of unregulated fishing worldwide, I have become convinced that the problem, as evidenced by the circumstances described, has at its core a very small group of individuals who through ownership of fishing companies, vessels, inter-locking directorates, foreign flag registration, political influence, and assuredly bribes and pay-offs as a cost of doing business are responsible for the majority of this illegal activity. I make no specific allegation here, but even the simplest investigative effort on the internet begins to reveal contracts, relationships, corporate structures, and offshore registrations, frequent ownership/management changes, corporate hiring of former regulators, and other behaviors, surely all legal in the overt appearance of things, that suggest a level of manipulation and control that aggregates the power and return from international commercial fishing to an ever-decreasing circle of players. A forensic investigation of these arrangements, at the level of legal and accounting analysis available only to an international law enforcement agency such as INTERPOL, would be a tremendous step forward in understanding how the system works and thus suggesting specific targets for further discovery, surveillance, indictment, prosecution, and trial for those responsible.
What is additionally disturbing about this challenge is the inevitable integration of these profits into the flow of international financial crimes such as money laundering, drug and human trafficking, arms sales, and terrorism. It is not just about fish as food, or preservation of endangered species; it is about the larger morality play that exposes the continuing theft of natural resources in the form water, protein, mineral, and DNA, that continues as a dark and corrosive subversion of the ocean as provider, of marine species as food, of fishing as community subsistence, of national confidence and security, and of the sustainability of what we call civilization.
There are interesting signs that the public is awakening to the urgency of ocean and fresh water issues, to understanding the crisis of supply, degradation, and governance that has long been the purpose of the World Ocean Observatory and many other organizations concerned with these urgent challenges to our environment.
One such sign is the more and more frequent use of the word "security" in the context of water and ocean, a term that adds a peculiar emphasis that puts the issue to the front of the line, asserts a gravitas that must be addressed, and implies consequence more threatening and real than reports of climate change, glacier melt, sea level rise, acidification, depletion of fish stocks, indifference to extant policy, failed enforcement of legislated regulation, and confused or insufficient governance. While we have been talking about these conditions for years, it has been difficult to penetrate public awareness in any meaningful dimension, the message lost in the cacophony of contradiction, disaster, and diverting entertainment.
From the beginning, the World Ocean Observatory has declared its primary mission "to expand public awareness of the implication of the ocean for the future of human survival." Survival: a stark term, a precise term, an urgent word that states the truth as life or death. On many occasions, that mission statement has been challenged as too extreme, too dire, too alarmist. I have always rebutted those comments as purposeful denial of overwhelming incidence and evidence, naïve response to the depth of crises known, unrealistic understanding of the extent and consequence of our indifference, and fearful unwillingness to accept and implement the change required to sustain the earth and to survive.
A stunning example may be found in a recent short article generated by ClimateWire that points to the area around Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China, typically a heavy rainfall district, but where over the past four years precipitation has dropped by 70% to drought conditions that have already critically diminished agricultural and hydro-electric production, the productivity of local wells and aquifer, and, yes, the survivability of a provincial population of some 45 million that has grown 12% and quadrupled economic output per capita since 2000. In the face of that growth, according to the article, available water resources per capita have dropped by half.
"Yunnan is known as Asia's water tower because many important domestic and international rivers start from here," explains Duan Changqun, an ecologist at Yunnan University. "Drought means less water flows in the downstream, sending a blow to the ecosystem of other parts of China as well as South Asian countries."
It is a vicious cycle: atmospheric circulation change affects rainfall, creates drought, hydro-electrical distribution locally and regionally, collapses the freshwater fish stocks, negates the $1.8 billion tourist industry and limits household water supply in the capital, Kunming, to four hours a day. Local media has estimated the economic loss since the drought began in 2009 at $4.2 billon. Add to that the retreat of the local glaciers (70% of which are predicted to disappear by 2050 due to increased average temperature) and the extreme pollution of the remaining water by unregulated waste disposal, sewage, and fertilizer and manufacturing run-off, and you have a truly toxic recipe that does not bode well for security or survival.
To solve the problem, the article suggests the Yunnan government is introducing water-saving technologies and proposes to construct "new water reserves of 3 billion cubic meters, a 30% increase in capacity, at untold cost, but it does not indicate from where than water will come.
So, this is an example of the water cycle interrupted at every turn: reduced glacial supply, no re-generating rain, diminished aquifer, dry rivers, polluted reserves, collapsed economy, and catastrophic local and downstream consequences beyond provincial borders to other regions, other nations, to the coast and, finally, the ocean. It is a case of "hydraulic society" destroyed at every level by a conspiracy of human causes, all the essential value of water and its distributive, generative power dried up, poisoned, insufficient -- depriving individuals, businesses, communities, regions, nations, inter-nations of water, the most essential element of human life. And Lijiang is not the only example to hand. It is a matter of survival. And when you consider all this, add it all up and confront the integrated reality, IN-security is the word that comes to mind, and that does not bode well for anyone.
Knowledge is based on information, based on data, collected in never-ending amounts by scientists, research vessels, satellites, and more and more frequently in and under the water devices by devices, fixed and floating, that record and transmit “newbie-bytes” of observations to data banks everywhere. What do we do with it all?
This information sometimes becomes the basis for studies and reports, for insight into natural systems, networks, and connections that in turn inform our understanding and exploitation of ocean resources – physical data for circulation studies, weather, and military mapping, geological data for oil and gas exploration, chemical data for understanding the origins of life, biological data for DNA analysis, cloning, genetic modification, and invention of new microbes and pharmaceuticals with serious implications for curing disease and the future of human health. Data collection is not for naught.
There are also manned observatories, beyond the orbiting space station. There is Alvin, the long-lived deep-ocean vehicle operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the US. Research organizations, navies, and government agencies around the world also operate several other such submarine vehicles. There are even individual vehicles that can be privately owned, just in case you want to dive deep without SCUBA from the fantail of your yacht. Such things have been the subjects of our imaginations since Captain Nemo, and like many of our dreams, they sometimes come true.
Here are two examples. Florida International University, located in Miami, operates Aquarius, what it calls “the world’s only operational underwater research center,” an 81 ton, self-contained underwater laboratory that can house scientists for fourteen, possibly thirty day missions at a depth up to 120 feet where it is presently located adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Like the space station, Aquarius contains bunks, shower, toilet, hot water, microwave, trash compactor, refrigerator, and air conditioning – all the comforts of home connected to land-based labs, classrooms, and the Internet by wireless telemetry. Aquarius extends the concept of saturation diving, with the capacity to modify internal pressure so that the scientists can compress/decompress inside, exit, and swim safely to the surface, while the vehicle itself remains on station. Research conducted aboard has investigated reef organisms like sponges and corals for their pharmacological potential for treatment of cancer, arthritis, and heart disease; the light and color producing characteristics of fish and invertebrates to communicate aggression, warning, and attraction, chemistry that informs our understanding of color vision and polarized light; the effect of ultraviolet radiation on coral growth; and the impact of sewage, specific pollutants, changing pH, and other historical environmental conditions on water quality as determined by marine fossil record.
A second example is more visionary and surprising: Sea Orbiter is a concept originated by French architect, Jacques Rougerie, for the construction of a futuristic autonomous drifting semi-submersed vehicle of 2600 tons displacement, built of recycled aluminum, 58 meters high, with 27 meters above the waterline, 31 meters below, twelve deck levels accommodating a 22 member crew on prolonged scientific missions. Sea Orbiter resembles a kind of sea monster, its above water tower curved like an arching neck with a solar electric generating skin, wind turbine, communications antennae, bridge, cabins and labs, and its below water structure s a large circular disk containing pressurized facilities, additional accommodations, underwater access, launch facility for divers and smaller remotely operated vehicles, and propulsion pods and thrusters for course modification when required and close maneuver in harbor, the entire structure further stabilized by an adjustable 180 ton retractable keel. Sea Orbiter is projected to be a mobile ocean-based home, an underwater laboratory, a space simulator, a scientific platform, a multi-media communications center, and a symbol for the pursuit of ocean knowledge. Rougerie and his colleagues have been touting this idea for several years now; construction was rumored to have begun with launch in 2013, but the project website suggests only that a small operational model has been built to date, further details unknown, thus the proposed first year drifting circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea with multiple port calls is indefinitely postponed. The project cost is estimated to be more that US$50 million. At first glance, Sea Orbiter seems preposterous and unlikely, but not so fast, maybe not; everyone disbelieved the first air flight, the first submarine, and the first visit to the moon. The technology exists for this dream to come true and the ocean beckons as the last frontier.
This week's post is a continuation of last week's "Hard Edges." Here Peter Neill will argue that the hard edge has failed us, evidenced by storms that overwhelm barriers and destroy coastal structures. In this episode he will give examples of some of the slowly emerging examples of soft edge engineering and will ask, "How can we turn the new circumstances brought on by sea level rise to our advantage?"
Some years ago, a museum exhibit comparing American and Norwegian maritime culture provided an understanding of how one can respond successfully to the challenges of the ocean with two very different solutions. In this case, it was boat construction, the traditional Norwegian boats made with light ribs and planks that flexed and conformed visibly to the shifts in wave and water condition. By contrast, the American boats were built plank on rigid frames and, while these vessels were no less adaptive, or even beautiful, they confronted the ocean differently, road on the wave not in, to push over or through the water rather than adapt in or to the forces in play.
The contrast may be extended to ideas of how we protect ourselves and property from storm and sea level rise. Last week’s post addressed the concept of “hard edges,” the use of dikes and sea walls, dams and sea gates as barriers to the ocean, a fortress concept that engineers a didactic structural response to inundation using earthen bulwarks, cement walls, and giant doors that can be closed against the marauding sea. But what if there is another way?
The obvious alternative is “soft edges,” more amorphous and flexible ways to absorb rather than divert the ocean’s powerful incursions, indeed to let the water in. This of course has been the argument made often by environmentalists when opposing the filling in of wetlands, the destruction of marshes and coastal waterways, and the eradication of mangrove forests that for centuries provided natural protection by embracing the water and its destructive power and keeping it from the higher land beyond. We have seen the failure of the hard edge way, as storms overwhelm the barriers, destroy the resorts and beachfront homes, and otherwise demonstrate the hydraulic power of the ocean twice, once on the way inland, the other as the water withdraws, doubles down on the destruction, and draws the detritus in the sea. We had only to look at the devastation at Fukishima to witness this two-part threat.
There are slowly emerging examples of soft edge response, exacerbated now by the undeniable rise in sea level in many places, the consequent frequent flooding, and the unmitigated and very expensive consequence of ever-increasing incident of more powerful storms like Superstorm Sandy in the United States. How can we turn these new circumstances to advantage?
In the Netherlands, long the most highly successful practitioners of hard edge strategy, government is now evicting farmers from polders or marshes enclosed by dykes and converted to agriculture to restore those areas as control and containment areas when the other defenses are overwhelmed. According to a recent NY Times report, the Dutch have expanded this concept to a $3 billion integrated plan to construct and connect flood controls, spillways, polders, smaller dykes, and pumping stations into a kind of engineered capillary system that can accommodate vast increases in flooding volume as a serious alternative in public investment in additional and very expense hard edge security.
There are other examples of this evolving thinking. Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York State in the US, has proposed post-Sandy that coastal properties, susceptible to continuous flooding, be purchased by government, that the owners compensated and relocated, and that the land be designated for public recreation and as natural barriers to future storm events. The cost benefit analysis of the purchase and redefinition of the coastal lands compares advantageously with the financial requirements of just a single storm, not to mention the more to come, as a practical and economical allocation of taxpayer funding. It was ironic to note that recently while a United States Congressional debate was ongoing regarding public monies to reimburse Sandy-devastated coastal dwellers and businesses through reparation payments and a subsidized national insurance scheme that enables owners to rebuild where is, and sometimes as was, that very same federal program was advertising on television to recruit new clients for more coverage in those marginal areas. It made no sense. The cancellation of that ill-advised insurance program would no doubt begin to disable coastal development substantially in the United States, a radical, and necessary policy shift.
In other countries, private groups, supported by international NGO’s, are initiating the restoration and replanting of extensive mangrove forests in coastal areas, again for the same reason, to re-build a natural, relatively inexpensive system that has proven its effectiveness as both storm and habitat protection, a very different double down based on knowledge and experience of Nature. In Arcata, CA, the city managers have created a wastewater treatment plant that passes effluent through a primary clarifier that separates suspended solids (using a digester to transform into methane and compost for sale), passes the resultant fluids to oxidation ponds and treatment wetlands for additional settling, and then to enhancement and treatment marshes (which also serve as recreation areas), and, ultimately, as clean water into Humbolt Bay – a natural hydraulic progress that mimics the natural cycle with effective result. It is this wisdom that we must look to for instruction lest we drown in our conventional thinking. It is through this learning that we will find our way to new ideas for ocean solutions.
World Ocean Forum Blog Posts
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