UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar.
Scientist Predicts Ocean Fisheries Disaster
Daniel Pauly says we are destroying world fish stocks
By Hilary Thomson
He describes himself as a bridge builder.
And that bridge is built over troubled waters, says UBC Fisheries
Centre Prof. Daniel Pauly, a vocal and influential critic
of current fishing practices that are depleting the worlds
We are destroying these resources for no reason,
he says. This systematic overfishing will soon leave
nothing in the ocean but plankton.
The 56-year-old has been studying the declining bounty of
the seas for about 25 years, in a career that spans four continents.
French by birth, Pauly was raised in Switzerland but at 16
years old left an unhappy home life and set out for Germany.
There he worked at labouring jobs by day and by night attended
classes to hone his language skills and complete high school.
He particularly wanted an applied and transferable skill
that would allow him to work outside of Europe. As a person
of colour -- the son of a white mother and an Afro-American
father -- he had always felt like an outsider and was eager
to move on.
His first stop was Ghana, West Africa, followed by a two-year
stay in Indonesia where he helped develop new fisheries. His
experience there led to the creation of a simple if sometimes
disputed method of predicting the natural mortality of fish
-- a key factor in estimating sustainable catches.
The work was a complement to the theory of fish growth that
led to his doctorate from the University of Kiel, Germany
in 1979. His paper on the method -- called the Pauly equation
-- is the most cited of his more than 400 publications.
His next stop, at the International Center for Living Aquatic
Resources Management (ICLARM) in the Philippines, is where
he really made some waves.
A key accomplishment was the development of software system
methods that use simple measurements of length to estimate
age. The estimates help researchers study fish growth, which
is important to fisheries management.
He spent 15 years at the Manila research facility and his
achievements include launching FishBase, an online encyclopedia
now covering more than 27,000 species of fish. The Web site
gets up to five million hits a month. He also worked with
international colleagues to develop Ecopath, a tool for describing
ecosystems food webs.
When ICLARM management shifted in 1994, Pauly accepted a
position with UBCs Fisheries Centre.
His research here has included developing Ecopath to create
a system called Ecosim, which predicts the effects of fisheries
on ecosystems. He has also studied how fishers regularly overfish
large valuable stock like tuna and snapper and then work down
the food web to smaller species. Dubbing the practice fishing
down the food web, Pauly has shown how devastating the
practice is to the marine ecosystem.
In addition, his international perspective -- he speaks four
languages -- allows him to cater to a global base of scientists
and students. He is very clear on the role universities must
play in conserving fish stocks.
We must be the engineers of the vision -- not just
doing more of the same. If we cant do that, we shouldnt
be in business.
Such outspoken stances have brought Pauly both acclaim and
criticism. In 1995, he publicly aligned himself with marine
conservationists -- a trip to the dark side in the view of
most fisheries scientists. The move earned him the label of
Fisheries scientists help to build stocks so that the
fishing industry can exploit them, he says. We
cant continue to treat industry as an exclusive client
of our knowledge.
Since 1999, Pauly has headed a Fisheries Centre project that
looks at the impact of fisheries on the worlds marine
ecosystems. Called The Sea Around Us, it is funded by a $4-million
grant from Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pauly and others at the centre last year published a comprehensive
review of global fisheries in the prestigious journal, Nature.
One of the questions they tackled was whether aquaculture
could save the worlds fish stocks.
Typically, Paulys response is passionate and irreverent.
He calls aquaculture facilities, such as those raising salmon,
the equivalent of a floating pig farm. In his
mind, aquaculture is just another example of the proliferation
of unregulated fisheries-a machine that seems almost unstoppable.
Salmon and other raised fish that are fed ground sardines
and other smaller fishes cannot alleviate the fisheries problem,
he says. The demand for fishmeal actually increases the pressure
on wild stocks.
But even with this bleak outlook for the future of our fisheries,
Pauly is hopeful. Determined to bring together fisheries scientists
and conservationists, he has presented information from the
The Sea Around Us study to international audiences and recently
spoke to a U.S. House of Representatives Ocean Caucus. He
is often quoted in mainstream media and has been profiled
in Science and The New York Times.
After a quarter century, Daniel Pauly is far from exhausted
in his campaign to save the worlds fish.
I think were just at the cusp of getting the
message across. There is still time to restore marine ecosystems.
We can do this.