Tundi’s Take: We must consider not only what we take out of the sea, but also what we put into it

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor. tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

Honest dialogue about what are acceptable uses of the sea and coasts can only be good. It forces us to take stock of what we know, and likewise forces us - as users and as nations - to put our desires and needs on the table. While those desires and needs vary from sector to sector and from place to place, we all share a global ambition to use marine resources and space wisely so as not to risk ecological imbalance, economic and environmental vulnerability, and conflict.

But for far too long the focus has been on resource extraction - especially fisheries - while the myriad other ways we run those aforementioned risks are seemingly ignored.

Don't get me wrong. Excessive extraction of living and non-living resources from the sea has restructured marine ecosystems, caused declines in biodiversity and in much-valued productivity, and exacted costs borne not by the extractive industries doing the taking but rather by the coastal communities living nearby, and the rest of us, too. I get it, and fully endorse the notion that creating no-take areas is a necessity if we are to practice effective EBM. And I even understand why campaigners have had to reduce the highly complex challenges of marine conservation down to a few simple rules, creating a storyline for the public that casts conservation as a struggle between "good" (non-extractive uses) and "evil" (extractive uses). In some popular storylines, we even posit the "supreme": no use, or what my Italian colleagues used to call "no go" - marine wilderness made pure by the absence of humans.

It is okay to be nature-centric. But it is not okay to be delusional. Fact is, there are no pristine wilderness areas anymore. Marine debris, chemical pollutants, alien species, and noise find their way to every corner of the ocean realm. These stressors are not trivial, especially when occurring cumulatively over time. What we put into the sea, through direct dumping, indirect operational discharge, run-off, and atmospheric loading, may have more profound effects on ecosystem function than what we take out. And when we couple these other impacts with those caused by extractive industries - like physical destruction caused by large scale fisheries, oil and gas, or seabed mining - we push these systems perilously close to collapse. We must think holistically, and address all uses and impacts systematically, if we are to avoid that.

We have created a paradox. On the one hand, we demonize extractive industries because they take too much resource out. On the other, we often avoid the difficulties inherent in dealing with extractive industries when practicing MSP or undertaking EBM: we let them opt out of the process if they want, or we avoid engaging them all together. We need a more mature approach - one that accepts humans as a part of natural ecosystems, considers all of the ways we impact the seas, allows for sustainable use wherever that is truly achievable, and harnesses the best available tools to help us decide which of all uses, and what levels of use, are acceptable where.


As usual, reading Tundi´s reasoning is both an intellectual pleasure and a pragmatic awakening.

I´d just like to point out a couple of realities surrounding the issue of extractive vs. non-extractive uses and the opposition which is oftentimes necessary to draw between these two "categories" of use.

First and foremost, the "demonization" of extractive uses in many places is not linked to any philosophical view, but to the fact that these uses are definitely non-sustainable. Take commercial whaling or shark fisheries (for most species), or even tuna fisheries bycatch for instance. These are, from a biological standpoint, mining operations by definition. They are not at all sustainable from either biological or economic standpoints (try running a whaling operation without government subsidies for instance), and they cause long-term damage to marine ecosystems which impair human uses (be it consumptive/extractive or nonconsumptive).

Second, the opposition of both use "categories" is mostly a product of socioeconomic reality. Often studies prove that non-extractive uses can benefit most people for longer times and benefits reaped by local communities instead of going to large conglomerates or faraway fishing cliques in (mostly Asian) markets. Although traditional (?) fishing has been touted as sustainable and environment-friendly in the recent past, the rise in Chinese entrepreneurs roaming poor countries´ coastlines buying anything that´s hauled out in nets (yes, sharks mostly, I know), even these practices have become increasingly "in opposition" to non-extractive uses both for being unsustainable and economically less viable than, say, Ecotourism.

Featuring humans into the equation, therefore, requires that misconceptions and prejudgements on whether both "categories" should/must coexist everywhere (an irritating mantra of pseudo-socially-biased activitists demanding that fishing be allowed in all or most AMPs, for instance, as happens here in Brazil) be put aside in favor of more technical, pragmatic approaches, that take into account what´s in the best interest of everyone (humans I mean) involved. I suspect that more often than not we will find that being "nature-centric" in terms of favoring non-extractive uses in management will be in the best interest of most people both locally and around the world!


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