So, Do You Believe Me Now?


In a Perfect Ocean: the State of Fisheries and Ecosystems in the North Atlantic. Pauly, D., and J. MacLean. 2003. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 175 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 1–55963–324–7.

In its 175 pages, this book draws together evidence and analysis from studies on the overall ecology of the North Atlantic, the population biology of the fish stocks in this area, and the sociology, management, and governance of the fisheries harvesting these stocks. Daniel Pauly and Jay MacLean present this information en masse—sometimes with original new analyses—to make a case: current fishing practices will produce continued decline and the ultimate collapse of those North Atlantic fisheries that have not collapsed already, while degrading the ecosystems on which these fished species and other biotic resources depend. They go on to argue that even with our currently imperfect understanding of marine populations and ecosystems, the causes of these prevailing declines can be identified. Finally they present a set of recommendations for reversing the declines of fish populations and ecosystem health.

The concise presentation of complex analyses and multicolored graphics is admirably clear and irresistibly persuasive—at least for those of us who have already been persuaded. The argument begins in a stirring “Introduction” that presents a brief but vivid picture of the degradation of the once-productive North Atlantic: the tracks of bottom trawlers in a silty bottom replacing rocky reefs as the most prominent topographic features, long-lines and drift nets replacing shoals of small fishes and the mighty pelagic species as the striking features of the overlying waters. The first chapter, devoted to “History,” continues this presentation in greater detail and with some documentation. The picture of former plenty is sometimes buttressed with solid evidence, such as bones in pre-Columbian middens showing that six-foot cod were caught with regularity along the American coast, and archaeological evidence of larger sturgeon in the eastern Atlantic. In other cases the evidence comes from reports from the good old days (often intended to recruit colonists into the New World) so fabulous (“inestimable numbers” of turtles, sturgeon “so numerous that it is hazardous for Canoes”) that they must demonstrate terrific natural wealth “even allowing for some enthusiastic exaggeration.” And sometimes there is no documentation at all, as for foot-long oysters and dozens of oysters per square foot in the Chesapeake. The reader who might like to use this information to paint a picture based on hard evidence that would persuade naive students or unconvinced friends may find that their picture cannot be so vivid as that painted by Pauly and MacLean.

The book grows stronger in the second chapter as it discusses the decline of North Atlantic fisheries, especially when the amassed data of the past 50 years are presented. The sight of 35 thumbnail graphs of fisheries throughout the North Atlantic showing declining biomass, and a substantial fraction of these with a time-delayed crash of the fish harvest, is persuasive and sobering. Pooling of population or biomass data from many fisheries often seems less compelling, but it does reveal the phenomenon of an overall shift in the catch to lower trophic levels as the most desirable large predators are fished out. Skeptics could claim with some justification, however, that the evidence for fishing down the food web is confounded by a substantially increased demand for invertebrates as the traditional tastes of diverse cultures impinge more widely in a globalizing commercial fish market. Pooled information from many fish populations also is used to create striking sequences of carefully constructed maps showing how overall fishing intensity has increased substantially in the North Atlantic over the past 100 years, while the geographic distribution of fishing activity has shifted hardly at all. So heavy fishing continues today in areas like the North Sea and Irish Sea, where large predatory fishes have all but disappeared. Analyzing pooled fisheries information is a useful new approach developed by Pauly's group, and it is used to good effect in this book.

The last two chapters consider the questions of how we got to this place and what we can do about it. The analyses of pooled data dovetail conceptually with one of the principal conclusions that Pauly and MacLean have to offer: thinking (and acting) in terms of single species—or particular populations or stocks—has blinded us to the systemic damage to marine ecosystems inflicted by overfishing. Restoring ecosystem services will have to be the essential core of any program that could successfully resuscitate our unhealthy Northeast Atlantic fisheries. The other usual fixes are given their due. Subsidies that effectively increase the landed value of the catch by 10–16% in Europe, 25% in Canada, and 24% in the United States must stop if the pressure on fish stocks is ever to be reduced.

Policies that favor the consolidation of fishing into ever fewer and larger commercial hands and bring unsustainably effective high-tech fishing equipment to bear on already depleted stocks must end. Public awareness must be developed and public outrage must be directed so as to influence the marketplace, as with dolphin-safe tuna. Governance and regulation must be reformed to emphasize property rights and place-access rights wherever possible so that fishers become more like farmers in the stewardship of their resource base, and the abusers who fish illegally must be exposed and prevented from resuming operations under another flag. Admirably, Pauly and MacLean look well beyond these usual suspects. What I like best about this book is that—consistent with their recognition that ecosystems, not just fish populations, must be returned to health—the authors have placed the creation of substantial marine reserves at the center of their recommendations for recovery. The book stresses that only in well-designed permanent no-take zones, where habitat structures and prey populations are also protected from destructive fishing, can the long-lived fishes our ancestors enjoyed regain their diversified age structures and complete normal life cycles to replenish their populations.

In a Perfect Ocean presents much of the right data, and the remedies reached from consideration of that data are reasonable, well thought out, and right. Yet for all my desire to cheer, I feel that reading this book will not only leave the skeptics unconvinced but may fail to rouse the faithful. Sometimes the origins and reliability of the data presented are murky, sometimes the graphics are difficult, and I am left doubting whether “20/20!” (20% of the ocean in marine preserves by the year 2020) will ever be the rallying cry it ought to be or whether the fishers of the Andrea Gail will ever be popularly regarded as victims of overfishing.