Daniel Pauly: Fish Are Worth Fighting For

It’s a while ago now. But not that long back, not really — not in the full sweep of history. It’s the late summer, early fall of last year, and I’m sitting on a sun-bleached log at Jericho Beach with an internationally renowned fisheries academic. A paddleboarder strokes westward with a dog onboard, joggers and cyclists pass each other, and above the anchored freighters the windmill on Grouse Mountain spins slowly on the thermals of a placid Vancouver afternoon. It’s heaven on earth, that Super, Natural beauty we’ve all grown used to. But not Daniel Pauly.

“I see a cancer encroaching on the marine environment,” he says, his cheerful tone at odds with this terminal statement.

Pauly, a senior prof at UBC’s Fisheries Centre, has an academic career peppered with provocative papers — a prolific researcher, he’s arguably one of the most published and cited fisheries scientists in the world, with some 500 academic papers and several books, including Darwin’s Fishes and 5 Easy Pieces to his name. At 68, his curly black hair is tinted silver and his lanky frame — a basketball forward’s — has some trouble on the soft sand. Yet lively eyes peer from behind reading glasses, and his speech, revealing a pan-European accent that hints at his unlikely life story, is strong and sure if curt and not immune to self-praise. These traits could be deemed arrogant but are more likely those of a confident thinker whose body of work is unquestionably mountainous and often profound in implication.

As we walk the beach looking out at the English Bay idyll, Pauly’s concept of the shifting baseline seems particularly poignant. In 1995, he published a paper titled “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries.” In essence, he showed how fisheries scientists repeatedly use the beginning of their own careers as a reference when doing research; that relativist perspective impedes them in grasping former abundance, leading to a baseline — and sense of what is ecologically normal — that is constantly diminishing. It’s a simple concept, one many understand intuitively, but he gave it a catchy name backed with hard numbers. For instance, we get excited when a few killer whales occasionally poke into False Creek: we imagine — falsely — that what lies at the city’s doorstep is still a more or less pristine ocean. But Pauly would say it’s because our frame of reference is so shallow: 25, 30, 70 years tops. When George Vancouver anchored in Burrard Inlet, by contrast, you could have jigged for cod, salmon spawned in the dozens of streams now obliterated by urbanization, killer whales made regular forays into these sheltered waters, and the shoreline was bursting with intertidal life. “Today you’d be lucky to catch a few crabs or miserable little smelts,” he says.


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Pauly was born in Paris to a French mother and an African-American GI. It was a difficult start, to put it gently, a single mother with a sickly black baby struggling against the attendant racism and alienation that her situation garnered. By chance she met a Swiss couple in Paris who agreed to allow young Daniel to live with them, in hopes that the fresh air of Switzerland would benefit his health. What she didn’t know was that the couple had recently lost their own young son and instead of treating Pauly as a son, they regarded him more as a domestique, a servant. “I was essentially kidnapped,” he says, “and wasn’t reunited with my mother again until I was 18.”

If nothing else, his adolescence — a brown-skinned youth in a postwar Switzerland that still bristled with xenophobia — fortified him and laid the psychological foundation for the self-admittedly “brash” young scientist to emerge. When he finished school he left for Germany and the University of Kiel, intending to study an applied science. But the agrology department was “full of Nazis,” so he focused his scientific curiosity elsewhere. On a whim he signed up for an oceanography project, and became, he says, the pet student of a benevolent professor who, recognizing initiative and drive, advanced Pauly’s career at every opportunity. That’s how he fell into fish science, which to him was also a means to work in developing nations where skin colour would not be a liability. “I had no particular affinity for the ocean,” he says.

Pauly hit his provocative stride in the mid ’90s. In 1995, a year after joining UBC’s Fisheries Centre (he’d completed a doctorate in marine biology in Germany), he published a densely researched paper with colleague Villy Christensen in Nature, titled “Primary Production Required to Sustain Global Fisheries.” In it he accused fisheries managers around the world of greatly underestimating the amount of plankton required to sustain global catches. When Pauly and Christensen crunched the numbers, they pegged that minimum at eight percent, almost four times what was regularly referenced. The implication was that the oceans’ key building block — plankton — was being plundered at a far greater rate than common wisdom allowed, with possibly catastrophic effects for marine life abundance. Critics accused them of heresy, but Pauly and Christensen defended their analysis, raising serious questions about the assumptions around what is considered a sustainable commercial fishing yield.

“Fishing Down Marine Food Webs” — a co-authored report published in Science in 1998 — was so catchy and evocative that its title has slipped into common usage in ecology circles. In the paper he sifted through historical fishing data, looking at the trophic level of catches — the position the caught species occupied in the food chain. He demonstrated that for virtually all fisheries, the average trophic level of landed catches was falling. “Short-lived, low trophic level invertebrates and planktivores” were replacing high trophic-level species, causing him to predict a dire future for ocean biodiversity and an impoverished marine environment in which the lowly jellyfish would reign supreme.


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