This was by far the most important episode of the series. I am sure that many viewers were troubled by the scale of some of the issues touched upon in the programme; as biological scientists, we live in this state of concern perpetually, both professionally and personally. I tend to see a disconnect amongst the public, that the world we inhabit in our cities and towns are independent of ecological relationships that existed before humans, and now around humans, particularly when it comes to ocean life. In reality, this is not the case. Humans inhabit a unique ecological niche in the history of life on Earth, in that we are the only superpredators ever to regularly predate on the adult forms of other apex predators, in every environment on Earth. There has been talk of considering the era of humans a new geological epoch, defined by extinction, climate change and a stratigraphic layer of plastic for the geologists of the future. Accepting these problems are happening, let alone confronting them, can be depressing. I can’t speak for everyone, but taking a step back, as a scientist, and thinking of these as an interesting series of problems to be understood, is at least how I have decided apply myself to it. Entire books and feature length films have been made on each of the ecological issues in this final episode, so I will only focus on overfishing.
Unlike life on land, which has been drastically modified by humans for as long as we have existed, ocean life has only become heavily exploited more recently (although setting a baseline can be contentious). We have thought of life in the ocean as this resource which will never be exhausted. Marine biologists have learned in the last few decades that this is not the case. A high profile example is the cod fishery off of Newfoundland, Canada, which was a plentiful food source for 500 years, thought to be the most productive fishery in the world. As fishing technologies improved, more fish could be caught more efficiently and in less time. After regulation failed to curb declines, the cod population completely collapsed in the early 1990s, and has still not recovered. With such a large amount of large predatory cod absent from the ecosystem, a trophic cascade occurred, where smaller fish severely declined and zooplankton, seals and crabs exploded in population. Meanwhile, cod in this area rarely reach adulthood here anymore. Managing the fishery like a resource by considering only population size, and not complex life histories and other ecological relationships, lead to this economic and biological catastrophe.
Modern fisheries science that we learn about at Southampton tries to account for this by having a ‘minimum landing size’, the idea being that to bring a fish to shore it must be large enough to have reproduced a few times to ensure the longevity of the population. Many fish become more reproductively fertile, producing more babies, as they grow, a good evolutionary strategy, as in a humanless world you are less likely to be eaten if you are bigger. Like any kind of strong selection pressure, predation pressure from fishing drives evolution. An example of the undesired result of this form of management is that cod now reach sexual maturity at a smaller size and a younger age. It is now more of an advantage for them to reproduce smaller and younger than it is to get larger, because they are small enough to fit through the holes in the legal requirement for fishing nets. Millions of years of evolution have been drastically modified by fishing pressure in a matter of decades. As we saw in episode 1, some fish change sex as they grow, meaning that fishing can skew the sex ratios to the first sex, with further implications for reproduction. We learn in our course that studying these life cycles is the best way of informing fisheries management, but fisheries is big business (worth $246 billion worldwide) and recommendations from the scientific community are sometimes opposed or lobbied against, affecting its influence on legislation. This means as well as facing challenges with ensuring scientific methods are robust, replication is adequate and your baseline is informative, whether your recommendations are taken seriously can be dependent on outside factors. There are no easy answers to these problems, but having the backing of the public does put pressure on the powers that be.
The wild caught fish that we eat is wildlife, and they shouldn’t be glossed over with the same brush as I sometimes see. Different commercially available fish are as ecologically different to each other as songbirds are to tigers. Tunas for example are apex predators, and although eating tigers, sharks and lions is unusual in the Western world, tuna consumption is extremely widespread. Imagine feeding tiger meat to your cat. Some bluefin tuna can grow to the size of a small car and have endangered or critically endagnered IUCN conservation status (on the same level as the Bengal tiger and black rhinoceros) and yet are still available at most sushi restaurants. There is always talk of ‘dolphin friendly’ tuna, but tuna themselves require urgent conservation as well. Despite improved scientific method, commercial fish species continue to decline worldwide, and faster than estimated.
I am sometimes asked: as a concerned citizen, what can I do in the face of these problems? Honestly, there is no easy answer. Some of the things I would recommend have been suggested a thousand times before, but I will make a few suggestions anyway:
- Only buy what you need. One third of all food is thrown out without being consumed – enough to feed two billion people in a time when one billion are malnourished – a tremendous waste of resources, and your own money. The same applies for all products – for everything you can buy to be produced, finite resources have had to be mined, extensive packaging has been used and goods have been shipped around the world.
- Use less packaging and bottles. 3 billion one-use coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year, and less than 1% are recycled. This is one cup thrown away in the UK for every person in North and South America, Europe and Africa combined. Get a water bottle, reusable shopping bags and a refillable coffee cup. And is a straw really needed? This is one of the easiest changes to make.
- If you are going to eat seafood, be aware of where it comes from, and what kind of animal you are actually eating. As a general rule, it is better to eat lower down the food chain – sardines, jellyfish and shellfish for instance, and pole and line caught fish minimises bycatch associated with longlines and the habitat destruction associated with trawls. None of this is confidential information – a quick search and you can find plenty of information from the Marine Conservation Society (they even have iOS and Android apps) about where different species come from and how they are caught.
- Similarly, different foods require different resources. As a general rule, a diet with the least amount of environmental impact consists primarily of fruits, vegetables and grains and little or no meat. And if you can, buy produce that has not travelled a long way – less air miles, and less wastage from spoilage during long transits. See video below.
- Above all else, understand these issues – to me, this takes away their overwhelming amorphous terror. Start by learning about the human species in context. I cannnot recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s incredible Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction enough, as a highly readable introduction to the concept. She interviews scientists watching their life’s work go extinct, visits an island made of bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef and talks about how perceptions take a generation or so to change. Those more interested in marine life specifically should try Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of the Sea, who meticulously ploughs through archaic records from early fishermen, pirates and explorers to set a new baseline for human impacts on the ocean.
Despite grave threats facing the ocean, life is remarkably resilient, and where beneficial alternatives are provided, there are success stories. Despite resistance from the fishing industry, no-take zones like those in New Zealand have proved highly successful at restoring fully mature fish and species not seen in decades, protecting biodiversity and then being available for fishing as well. For us, the four-year Blue Belt plan aims to protect 4 million square kilometres of marine habitat, an area larger than India, across 7 UK Overseas Territories. Ultimately, getting business to prioritise conservation, and large scale international cooperation on legislation are ultimate goals, but these large scale changes always begin with small groups of scientist, campaigners and passionate citizens. Some of this has come from our university. If you can convince your place of work to waste less food or use less plastic, then why not do it? You can also go here to check if your local MP is on board with the Blue Belt plan, and contact them to tell them to vote in its favour. As a country with the fifth largest area of marine habitat in its jurisdiction, having this go through UK parliament would be globally significant.
The public engagement from this new Blue Planet series has been extremely heartening. It was so popular in China that it slowed down the internet there, and is the third most watched series of the last five years. I look forward to seeing what people inspired by the series will do in the future.
Feel free to ask me any further questions on Twitter @kieranyes.