Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is anything sustainable?

After two days of swimming with Rhincodon typus - Whale Sharks - I found myself seated at a dinner table full of great beings. Next to me sat Louis Psihoyos (The Cove) and Dr. Taro Smith (90 Monkeys). As Taro introduced me to Louis he pointed out that I am a sushi chef and try to only use sustainable ingredients. Taro then asked Louis if he thought this was possible. Our conversation which started off with various topics from art to diet, photography techniques to Manta Rays took a turn toward a more serious topic.

Sustainability - Wikipedia defines it simply as "the capacity to endure". Merriam-Websters goes a little further with, "of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged". 

These definitions together do an adequate job of defining what the word means. Digging a little deeper one might ask, "is anything sustainable?".  The absolute answer is "No".  In about one billion years the sun will grow in size and get so hot that it will boil all of the earths water away. The earth will not endure.

Looking a little less distant into the future some scientists estimate that by 2050 our fisheries will be gone.  Even with the best efforts of states like Alaska and Hawaii who, because of strict regulation and management practices consider their fisheries stable and sustainable, it is projected that our fisheries will not endure.

In the early 1990's some Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) stocks in the Pacific Northwest were classified as endangered.  I was working a night crew in a fish plant at the time and saw the direct effect this listing had on commercial Coho Salmon fisheries - reduced harvests and shortening or ending the season. 

Salmon are anadromous - spawning in fresh water (rivers) while living most of their lives in the ocean. Though reduction of harvest helped stabilize fish populations it required more of an effort - protection of spawning grounds.  Regulating the fisheries alone was not going to help the Coho populations. 

Through years of scientific studies on salmon spawning habitat it became painfully clear that sedimentation of the river beds salmon spawn in directly impacts reproductive viability. Hill slope instability due to clear cutting of trees (and other forestry practices) in watersheds directly contributes fine-grained sediments to rivers and creeks. This sediment chokes the spawning grounds for salmonids.  

As a consequence of the Coho being listed along with a growing environmentalist movement (supported by overwhelming scientific data) stricter regulations on clear cutting were put into effect. These regulations changed forest harvesting practices. There is now less clear cutting resulting in more stable hill slopes and thus less sediment making it to the rivers.

Coho have a 3-4 year life span and within just a few years the results from changing the logging practices was dramatic - more fish returning to their spawning grounds.

Back at the dinner table I pointed out that though Alaska, Hawaii and a host of other states and countries are working hard to maintain their fisheries none of their efforts I feel would matter if the documented trends in Global Climate Change (GCC) continue.  Louis was quick to get even more specific about the problem - the increase in CO2 (which is a major driving factor behind GCC) in the atmosphere is causing a decrease in the pH of the oceans - Ocean Acidification.

The chemistry is pretty simple. The oceans absorb CO2 which drives the carbonic acid cycle.  The more CO2 that is released into the atmosphere the more that is absorbed by the oceans.

Coral Reefs are extremely vulnerable to decreased pH (they are made up up mostly calcium carbonate which dissolves as pH decrease). Recent studies suggest that each year 1% of the marine phytoplankton population disappears. Phytoplankton is at the very base of the food chain.  If phytoplankton disappears then every species in the oceans that depend on it will also disappear. 

Sustainability of our fisheries depends on many factors. A simple definition allows us to begin the conversation.  To continue the conversation I simply want to ask - what does sustainability mean to you?

When the conversation goes on we have an opportunity to gain new knowledge. Earlier in the day when the Manta Rays and Whale Sharks swam by me with their mouths wide open gobbling down phytoplankton I wasn't aware of the 1% that wasn't there.