Book review – Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries

The phenomenon of “shifting baselines” is, to me, one of the most powerful concepts in ecology, explaining a lot of the damage humanity has wreaked on its environment. Vanishing Fish is a career-spanning collection of previously published essays, with some new material, from the pen of fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who coined this term in 1995. And when a man like him speaks, I listen. The book gives an eye-opening overview of the state of the world’s fisheries, and the research that revealed the institutional ignorance that partially obscures the gravity of the situation.

Vanishing Fish

Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries”, written by Daniel Pauly, published by Greystone Books in June 2019 (hardback, 304 pages)

Although steam-powered trawlers have been around since the Industrial Revolution and fish populations have been collapsing since the 1880s (see also my review of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization), it was post-World War II that the global industrial fisheries complex arose and fishing went into overdrive. As Carmen Finley documented so carefully in All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing, several nations in record-tempo build huge, heavily-subsidised fleets, with modern technologies giving fish no respite in what used to be refuge areas.

Now, “collapse” sounds ominous and, as Pauly points out, the popular press unfortunately often interprets it to mean extinction. Instead, fisheries biologists define it as the catch of a species dropping below 10% of its historical maximum. When easily accessible populations were no longer profitable, fishing companies have responded by fishing further out to sea, at greater depths, and marketing species they never used to, systematically fishing out species after species. In a clever marketing ploy, companies have slyly renamed fish to sound more appetising. Would you rather have the Patagonian toothfish or the Chilean sea bass? They are one and the same species. Many other species end up as anonymous fast food in fillets or fish sticks, with most consumers neither knowing nor caring what comes out of their deep fryer.

“In a clever marketing ploy, companies have slyly renamed fish to sound more appetising.”

Most fisheries biologists, Pauly included, were blindsided for several decades, unaware that population crashes were not isolated events. The explanation, he writes, is two-fold. First, a myopic focus of scientists on just the economically important species occurring in their waters. This changed from the 1990s onwards when Pauly and others published a series of high-profile papers showing crashes to be part of a global pattern (see also the collection 5 Easy Pieces: The Impact of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems). Second, the shifting baseline syndrome: scientists take population sizes and compositions at the start of their career as the baseline, and easily overlook, ignore, or disparage as mere anecdotes the knowledge of their predecessors – a creeping process that gets repeated with each new generation. The 1995 essay in which Pauly coined this term is included here and hit a nerve. It is easy to understand why: the idea of this kind of collective amnesia is powerful and impossible to unsee once seen. And it can be applied to ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss around the globe (see e.g. my review of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter). Pauly has been duly credited with seeding the new discipline of historical ecology (see also Shifting Baselines: The Past and Future of Ocean Fisheries and Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation: Applying the Past to Manage for the Future).

The other notable achievement of Pauly and others that is told here was to highlight the bias in the annual catch statistics of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Although widely quoted and used, they (unbelievably!) ignore small-scale fisheries, fish discarded as bycatch, and illegal and unreported catches (see also The Last Fish Swimming: The Global Crime of Illegal Fishing). To correct for this, Pauly spearheaded The Sea Around Us, an international project to create a database of total world catches. What began as an attempt to correct and complement official statistics expanded into the reconstruction of catch time series. A separate essay here provides more background information, but, principally, it consists of reconstructing past fish catches by taking into account historical information from a wide variety of sources that most scientists have been hesitant to acknowledge and quick to dismiss as anecdotal. Yes, writes Pauly, it is not perfect, but it is all we have to combat the shifting baseline syndrome and better than no information. This culminated in the 2016 publication of the groundbreaking Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries: A Critical Appraisal of Catches and Ecosystem Impacts, the data for which is being kept up-to-date via The Sea Around Us website.

“[…] the idea of [shifting baselines as a] kind of collective amnesia is powerful and impossible to unsee once seen”

Are there solutions? As also highlighted in Ocean Recovery: A Sustainable Future for Global Fisheries?, fish populations can recover if given a chance, and Pauly has his share of ideas how to achieve this, but it will take time, protected areas, and willpower, and we are further away from this than ever before. In the 1990s, Pauly worked together with the WWF to create the Marine Stewardship Council, whose ” MSC-certified” logo many will recognise from products on supermarket shelves. It has been a bitter pill, then, that lately their advice has become increasingly questionable, certifying as sustainable fisheries that are clearly not. This includes the euphemistically named “reduction industry” that literally grinds whole catches into fish oil (see my review of The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet) and fish meal, the latter ending up as food for fish and livestock farms (see also the forthcoming The Fishmeal Revolution: The Industrialization of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem).

Next to providing an insightful picture of the global nature of the problem, Pauly demystifies technical matters such as Maximum Sustainable Yield (see also All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management) and Individual Transferable Quotas. He is outspoken and sometimes scorching in his critique, referring to the global fishing industry as a vast Ponzi scheme, and calling the MSC seafood guides “magic wallet cards so that we can feel good about ourselves”. Harsh words, but they reflect a justified fury in the face of such wanton destruction.

“[Pauly is] scorching in his critique, referring to the global fishing industry as a vast Ponzi scheme […]”

I was initially mildly concerned when I noticed that Vanishing Fish is a collection of previously published material, but then I realised some people are just too damn busy saving the world to retreat on year-long sabbaticals to write a book. Although there is a slight repetition of certain important themes, this does not noticeably take away from the book. The preface claims that the original essays have not been updated except for the removal of certain outdated words and paragraphs, but references to “these essays” suggest that some effort has been made to streamline the whole, and some of the 700+ endnotes have been used to include current information and debates. Far from a slapdash affair, Vanishing Fish is an attention-grabbing book by one of the most important fisheries biologists of our time that provides an urgent overview of the problems with the global fishing industry.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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