The Forecasted Collapse of a Fishery

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 11, 2010 11:34 am

It could be the dams, fertilizers, pesticides, and related reduced food availability. It might have to do with the amount of water in the region, climate change, and poor regulation. Most likely, it’s some combination of these factors compounded by widespread apathy about a population of chinook salmon off the coasts of Northern California–until it was too late. The Press Democrat quoted fisherman Al Vail:

“I never caught a fish,” he said. “I’ve never seen a year like this, and I’ve been fishing for 45 years.”

Sad, but is anyone surprised? Those with an eye to the fishery knew this news would come. The farmers, the environmentalists, the scientists, the fishermen, and much of the public observed and waited. Tragedy of the commons? Perhaps. Tragedy for the fishery and those involved in industry? Obviously. Next up… Blue Fin Tuna?

I’m reminded of Kurt on the fate of the planet in Man Without A Country: “We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservation, Marine Science

Comments (9)

  1. This points to the one sensible argument that global warming may not cause the collapse of civilization. Fishmageddon is already in progress, and a lot of the world relies on fish for food. The economic upheaval that fishmageddon may cause could lead to unpleasantness (wars and things) across the world.

    The other competitor is the whole fresh water crisis, which may do likewise.

    If we manage not to wipe ourselves out because we’re dithering too much on global warming, it will not be because global warming isn’t real, it will be because we dithered too much on other environmental issues that got us first.

  2. Woody Tanaka

    To the fishermen: Too bad, so sad. Go find a real job. Maybe this time you’ll get one which doesn’t involve destroying the environment.

    As for this “tragedy of the commons” idea, that’s bunk. That’s just a phrase that the right-wing fools break out as an attempt to deflect blame from themselves when, after fighting mightily to be free of reasonable government restraint and regulation, the predictable result of their rapacious and greedy-assed behavior comes to fruition.

    The problem is that no one in the government has the guts to start telling these greedy bastards to shove it, and to enact the policies necessary to protect the environment, whether these “business” people like it or not.

    And Kurt was only partly right. We are too cheap and too lazy, but we are also too stupid and too cowardly to force the necessary changes into place while we can.

    We are in a car, driving toward a cliff but, for some reason, give a vote to the suicidal lunatic in the passenger seat when deciding whether or not to turn the wheel.

  3. Stefan Jones

    Yes, I’m sure all the industry shills, free market ideologues, and tro . . . sorry, unpaid citizen-lobbyistswho’ve been fighting action on global warming would be totally onboard for the measures required to prevent a real problem like fishery collapses.

    Such a stronger international fishing treaty with real teeth, farmers required to reduce fertilizer runoff, stricter protections of coastal wetlands and rivers . . . well, do I need to go on? It’s axiomatic that the sober cooler heads crowd will support all of the required measures, no matter what the cost, to protect fisheries.

    Well, unless someone comes up with a theory that fisheries collapse all on their own from time to time and that the economic cost to prevent eutrophic dead zones, overfishing, and destruction of spawning ground would just be punishing innocent businessmen. Then they’ll say the problem requires further study.

  4. Nullius in Verba

    A large proportion of the chinook salmon come from human-run hatcheries. The best guess appears to be a reduction in food availability in the oceans, due to light winds reducing nutrient upwelling. It also affected several species of birds with a similar diet to the salmon.

  5. Lettuce

    “I’m reminded of Kurt on the fate of the planet in Man Without A Country: “We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.””

    Yes. Too damned cheap and lazy.

    That keeps away from falling into either side.

  6. A lot of people doesn’t really care, they always think that this kind of thing won’ t happen in their generation

  7. Guy

    The low catch rate is definately indicative of a serious problem.

    In 2002, 800,000 natural and hatchery-raised chinook made their way back up the Sacramento River. Last year, about 40,000 returned, a third of the number state biologists predicted, Sydeman said.

    It doesn’t say what percentage are hatchery-raised. Maybe the hatchery-raise chinook don’t have as good of open-water survival skills as the wild spawned chinook.

    They should error on the safe side of conservation and not allow fishing of endangered species and do more habitat studies to find out exactly what’s happening.

  8. Gaythia

    The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, is the agency responsible for studying, regulating and recovery planning for west coast salmon runs under the endangered species act. The link to their website regarding Chinook Salmon is here:

  9. Offshore fishing is our best loved sports activity,perhaps there is a great deal of areas to be able to get a number of perch within the local area as well consider utilising this type of technique, the people I know in this community have not pointed out this thing therefore i’m looking for exactly how to capture alot more. The variety of fish in these rivers all around here appear to attack even a bare fishing hook occasionally however it is not the fish i am seeking to catch. Many thanks to receive the information and even will likely be awaiting the next blog post…


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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 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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