To Hell In A Handbasket

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 3, 2009 9:41 am

When I checked email last night after returning from UVA, I was amused at how many folks sent over Andy’s post on sea cucumbers from the New York Times.  It’s nice to be recognized for one’s specialty, particularly when said specialty is the very charismatic cucumaria frondosa.  However, amusement quickly gave way to frustration and anger… You see, a report was just released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warning that sea cucumbers are in imminent danger of being over-harvested.

Uh, wait a sec… are you kidding me?!  We’ve known this for years

sea-cucumber.jpgThe very reason I worked on cukes in grad school was because they were an emerging fishery in the Gulf of Maine.  The traditionally harvested large species of fish like Cod had disappeared so they provided a new market. On top of that, the sea urchin fishery had recently experienced a classic boom and bust scenario.  That’s generally what happens when there’s little vested interest in maintaining populations beyond an initial gold mine bounty.  Turns out folks aren’t generally all that concerned about overexploitation. Go figure.

Unlucky for cucumbers, fishermen are able to collect them with the same gear they already had for urchins.  Thus, they have been dragged up en masse given they’re relatively sedentary and congregate in piles. In other words, the little guys don’t have a fighting chance. And the high discount rate associated with this scenario led to a situation of cukes collected at warp speed.  Tractor trailers packed with critters were leaving the dock bound for processing plants every day.

The Gulf of Maine fishery picked up in earnest in 1994 and now we’re reading reports 15 years later that state the obvious about a worldwide trend:  This kind of pressure on stocks is not sustainable. The thing is, you don’t need a degree in sea cucumber-ology or even economics to figure out there’s trouble with that kind of pillage and plunder model.  Furthermore, the species of cucumber in the Gulf of Maine is not even particularly good to eat.  (Sea cucumbers are a delicacy in the far east where they are shipped after being freeze dried.).  The only reason anyone had been relegated to collect them there was because all of the traditionally harvested regions were already being depleted. And since human tastes are malleable, people adapt to what industry supplies. (For example, lobster and skate – historically the ‘poor fisherman’s dinner’ – are now featured at NYC’s finest restaurants). When one species declines, there is tremendous opportunity to cash in by exploiting the next that becomes readily available at a lower trophic level.

Of course we’re losing sea cucumbers–but it’s not news. And with no history or family tradition in emerging industries, even the guys on boats harvesting them knew the fishery was bound to collapse quickly.  ‘We’ll just move on to whatever’s left,’ they would tell me.  On a related note, there’s growing interest in algae.

So in 2009, FAO comes out with a report stating the obvious… Bully for themNow what? The oceans are in dramatic decline and cucumbers (and other animals) can’t wait for the lag time associated with implementing new institutions.  This isn’t really about the loss of a single species because we’re all connected by way of trophic interactions.  In other words, humans are part of the whole system so when structure and composition of ‘parts‘ is altered, we’re all eventually affected in a myriad of ways. Shifting baselines have already resulted in relatively empty oceans–and sadly most of us accept the current status as pristine having no memory of what has been lost.

Furthermore, I’ve a vested interest in this particular story given I spent so many years with cukes.  As for these reports, it seems to me we’re essentially documenting the loss of biodiversity when we should be spending the time and effort to mitigate the impacts of a flawed system based on perverse incentives.  We can do better.  And we’ll have to.


Comments (15)

  1. Sciencefan

    Why can’t we just listen, learn, and act for the good of what’s before us.

  2. When it will hit it will hit. It seems more and more that we deserve that.

  3. Phaedrus

    Traditional “Tragedy of the commons”.

    I’m sure your answer goes beyond “we can do better”, but that doesn’t make it into the post.

    EO Wilson was doing some work creating metrics for keeping sustainable areas of biodiversity.

    It seems like we need to come up with a broad consensus of what we wish to save and what we’re willing to let go. From that, actions can be quantified (maybe in a “seven generations” model) and we can manage to the best of our ability.

    Biology and biologists have been studying and managing single species for a long time, they have to get landscape level or all their work will be for naught.

  4. Traditional “Tragedy of the commons”.


    I’m sure your answer goes beyond “we can do better”, but that doesn’t make it into the post.

    Yes, I write about marine conservation often and there is much to say… one post at a time.

    Biology and biologists have been studying and managing single species for a long time, they have to get landscape level or all their work will be for naught.

    Some fisheries economists still believe that single species is the way to proceed given we already pushed so hard in policy based on those models and suggest waiting to see if related rules yield results over time. I am more interested in complex adaptive systems theory and incorporating multiple variables, systems, species, and social factors into management practice.

  5. Phaedrus

    It’s my belief that there are only two ways to implement biological :
    1. top down by an enlightened, progressive government/dictator
    2. bottom up, by and educated, involved populace

    only # 2 is sustainable.

    The first step is public education. You mention a point that really rings true, people have no idea what has been lost. The other point you make is how interconnected the biosphere is. If people could really be taught to appreciate these two points – we’re all connected and we’ve already lost much of it – then realistic management practices might gain some traction.

    Alternatively, biologists need to understand economic and social impacts of management. There are some species that we are going to have to let go. We must come to an agreement that unique, geographically limited species may succomb to the the broader econimic interest – in the context of a broad, national plan of what we want our natural heritage goals are.

    Until this groundwork is laid biologists will continue to document general the decline of our planets’ health in number and diversity of species.

  6. Phaedrus

    (that should read “implement responsible biological management”)

  7. 1. top down by an enlightened, progressive government/dictator
    2. bottom up, by and educated, involved populace

    only # 2 is sustainable

    We need to achieve balance across levels of governance. It’s not either/or but both. Local level management is necessary, but gets increasingly more difficult by scaling out and adding heterogeneous actors.

  8. Phaedrus

    I agree, but it needs to be built broad, grass-roots consensus. There will always be right wing and left wing interests that refuse to compromise on their respective ideologies, but eventually we need to inculcate our culture with a “land ethic” (see Aldo Leopold). Take that and mate it to the idea that we should couch big decisions with a long term perspective and we can chart a positive path to the future.

    Any solution put in place that does not have these components is doomed to eventual failure. I understand the difficulties in getting people of disparate views to agree – and the real possibility that personal histories may make agreement for current actors impossible.

    So much of our science seems to follow the road map of the underpants gnomes :

    step 1 – do science
    step 2 – ?
    step 3 – sound management practices

    Science’s role in this process is to develop practical (economically, socially) metrics and solutions for saving our biodiversity (step 1). But this will be so much empty writing until our populace has a broad land use ethic (step 2 ?). From this we’ll create a pool of actors who are equipped and motivated to create and implement sound, long term resource management (step 3).

  9. Michael

    Humans are as selfish as any other species, and far more destructive than most. Environmentalists have to convince people with real world examples of how losing bio-diversity will adversely affect their lives and lower their standard of living, or nothing will get done publicly. We may not have any money to do anything anyway…

  10. MadScientist

    Not much changes unfortunately. I remember reading John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” – even in Steinbeck’s era the fish were already driven to extinction and things have not improved much in the past 80 years. People make a living out of cultivating some animals (for example trout and salmon), but those sustainable operations are simply dwarfed by the “grab whatever you can while it’s still there” operations. What happens when fish stocks dwindle due to overfishing? The sharks, dolphins, and seals get blamed and then you have morons going out and killing sharks dolphins and seals; somehow humans are never to blame for the disasters.

  11. Phaedrus

    An interesting article on human intervention in ecosystems :

    No scientist would ever recommend the actions taken, but scientists are rarely the ones making these decisions. A sound desire to maintain the integrity of our biosphere, and a healthy humility with regards to the scope or our knowledge are a prerequisite to responsible and positive actions


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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