The unintended consequences of simplifying the sea: making the case for complexity


  • Ghoti papers

    Ghoti aims to serve as a forum for stimulating and pertinent ideas. Ghoti publishes succinct commentary and opinion that addresses important areas in fish and fisheries science. Ghoti contributions will be innovative and have a perspective that may lead to fresh and productive insight of concepts, issues and research agendas. All Ghoti contributions will be selected by the editors and peer reviewed.

    Etymology of Ghoti

    George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), polymath, playwright, Nobel prize winner, and the most prolific letter writer in history, was an advocate of English spelling reform. He was reportedly fond of pointing out its absurdities by proving that ‘fish’ could be spelt ‘ghoti’. That is: ‘gh’ as in ‘rough’, ‘o’ as in ‘women’ and ‘ti’ as in palatial.


Many over-exploited marine ecosystems worldwide have lost their natural populations of large predatory finfish and have become dominated by crustaceans and other invertebrates. Controversially, some of these simplified ecosystems have gone on to support highly successful invertebrate fisheries capable of generating more economic value than the fisheries they replaced. Such systems have been compared with those created by modern agriculture on land, in that existing ecosystems have been converted into those that maximize the production of target species. Here, we draw on a number of concepts and case-studies to argue that this is highly risky. In many cases, the loss of large finfish has triggered dramatic ecosystem shifts to states that are both ecologically and economically undesirable, and difficult and expensive to reverse. In addition, we find that those stocks left remaining are unusually prone to collapse from disease, invasion, eutrophication and climate change. We therefore conclude that the transition from multispecies fisheries to simplified invertebrate fisheries is causing a global decline in biodiversity and is threatening global food security, rather than promoting it.