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.


  1. 1. 1 Seafood Watch Conservation Principles
    1.1.1 Our Definition of Sustainable Seafood
    Sustainability is a journey – the word ‘sustainability’ implies you’ve already reached your
    destination. Accordingly, we define sustainable seafood as seafood from sources, whether
    fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase p


  3. There are a lot of interesting ideas to get people to question just what sustainability means. This conversation is necessary as marketing "sustainable" products lets the consumer off the hook in a major way. When sustainable is reduced into its parts we can start to see what it is and if it is what we should be pursuing.

    In many ways the conversation should be more about the balance of ecosystems. These balances are dynamic and the changes that take place in the ecosystems continually move to adjust to the changes. These adjustments are short term, the occupation of niches by species that are exotic or had been peripheral, and lead to long term adjustments through evolution.

    When the changes to the ecosystem are abrupt the effects of this balancing take place over a long time and have major consequences to the distribution of life on the planet. This has happened in the past in response to various physical calamities, asteroid strikes, volcanism, ice ages; and perhaps now by a particular species: us humans.

    It is the nature of life to scrounge energy from what is available. The abiotic generation of energy takes place mostly by the photosynthesizers and to a lesser extent (though we probably don't know just how much) by the chemosynthesizers. All other life gets its energy needs from eating living things. It is amazing that the systems are just efficient enough to sustain this sort of system. Humans have found other ways of obtaining energy, and have benefited by essentially harvesting energy tied up in historic living stuff for use in producing more living stuff for its existence. This has been so successful that the human population has vastly expanded.

    It is natural to wonder how this expansion would be limited. Obviously, at some point, there are not the required resources available to sustain the increased population. The rate of food production required to do so will become prohibitive. This happens quickly, so it is not clear that evolution saves us from the malthusian consequences of exceeding the "carrying capacity" of our ecological niche. The ability to innovate technologies has limits too, and as we learn more about the biological systems involved in our environment we may find that innovation also has limits, or consequences which introduce limits.

    Sustainability of an exponentially increasing population, where the time constant of the increase is short compared to the evolutionary time period, is not possible.

    If we could increase the stocks of fishes in the sea at the rate of human consumption, then we could claim "sustainability," but we are learning the limits of our ability to manage the fisheries, the limits of ecosystems to respond to our huge demand on them. It's not just the fisheries, it's everything. Right now the majority of mammals that exist on the Earth are domesticated for our food production. The amount of arable land available for farming is something like 90% used for farming, and few wild places exist on the planet.

    So we can conclude that the human population is a really big problem, and that's a twofold problem. It is unlikely that human behavior would allow us to rationally forgo reproduction. On the other hand, without controlling the population rationally, it will be controlled by nature, as we exceed the ability to provide for the increased populations. It will happen whether or not we engage in the process.

    The fisheries are a stark signal to us of what is to come. Once the fossil fuels are gone, and the ancient aquifers pumped, and the surface temperatures increased, the ecosystem limits will be reached and humans will have to figure out how to deal with it; problem is that these changes will come quickly, and the response required could very well surpass our response.