Shocking and unexpected news! Overfishing and climate change are bad for fish!

So, I actually think there’s a lot of value in doing research on subjects with “obvious” answers. We’ve done a lot of damage to this planet by assuming we already know what’s what, and I think that it would be reckless and short-sighted to assume that because we know more than we used to, we don’t need to examine what we think we know. That doesn’t mean wandering through life in a state of existential befuddlement, but it does mean scientists actually taking the time to check that we’re right.

This kind of research is also useful in a world full of highly-paid industry propagandists who spend all of their time finding ways to spread doubt about the harm done by various industries. In this case, the fishing industry, and the fossil fuel industry (because of course).

Researchers at UBC, the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and University of Bern projected the impact that different global temperature increases and ranges of fishing activity would have on biomass, or the amount of fish by weight in a given area, from 1950 to 2100. Their simulations suggest that climate change has reduced fish stocks in 103 of 226 marine regions studied, including Canada, from their historical levels. These stocks will struggle to rebuild their numbers under projected global warming levels in the 21st century.

“More conservation-oriented fisheries management is essential to rebuild over-exploited fish stocks under climate change. However, that alone is not enough,” says lead author Dr. William Cheung, professor in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (IOF). “Climate mitigation is important for our fish stock rebuilding plans to be effective”

The research team, including co- author Dr. Colette Wabnitz of Stanford Centre for Ocean Solutions, used computer models to find out the climate change levels at which over-exploited fish stocks cannot rebuild. Currently, the world is on track to exceed 1.5 degrees of warming relative to preindustrial levels and approach two degrees in the next few decades, says Dr. Cheung.

The study projected that, on average, when fisheries management focuses on the highest sustainable catch per year, the additional climate impacts on fish at 1.8 degrees Celsius warming would see fish stocks unable to rebuild themselves.

If people around the world fished only three quarters of the annual highest sustainable catch, fish stocks would be unable to rebuild at a higher degree of warming, 4.5 degrees.

That last bit strikes me either over-optimistic, or over-pessimistic. I do believe that if we were to dramatically decrease fishing, fish populations would recover, even with another degree of warming, but at 4 degrees? At that point it seems like mass extinction would be far more likely than not, even without overfishing. Still, if we get to that temperature and we haven’t made dramatic change to society, I doubt that we’ll have the capacity for over-fishing, even if we do somehow still exist, and still have most of our current technology.

On the one hand, I appreciate the rosy view of the future. I also would like to think that there would be a way for humanity to thrive even at those temperatures, but I think that in order to get there, we will have to have already solved problems like overfishing. This article feels a bit like the whole “end of history” thing, where it’s assumed that Liberal Democracy with minor adjustments is the “final form” of human politics, and the need for revolutionary change – despite all evidence to the contrary – is a thing of the past.

It is entirely possible that I’m reading far too much into this, but I feel like it’s an example of how the indoctrination of our society has placed boundaries on the kinds of society we’re capable of imagining. I don’t know whether those limitations also influence the design of models like this. I certainly hope they don’t, but when I see that kind of projection, I do have to wonder what’s being missed because nobody involved in the research would even think to check it. It’s not a new problem by any stretch, nor is it limited to our society. I think this is a concern in any society, which is part of why institutionalized hierarchies seem like a dangerous thing to have normalized. I mainly focus on the society in which I live, because I can clearly see the path that we’re on because of it, and it does not look good.

I suppose this is an odd conclusion for an article about fish populations, but I think there’s a degree to which we need to become more comfortable with political uncertainty. Not the “will the president try to become a dictator?” kind, but rather “our society is flexible enough that we might briefly form a formal institution in order to get something particular done, and then dissolve that institution”. Maybe a circumstance will arise in which we need a corporate structure with incentives to work particular jobs, but that doesn’t mean that that institution will need to exist in perpetuity. The same is true of governments, nations, and borders. There may be a case for setting certain geographical boundaries – bioregionalism is interesting, and when it comes to commons like the oceans, it’s clear that some coordination is required.

But I think we may need to let go of the notion of an ever-lasting government as a means of achieving security and stability. It doesn’t seem to be providing either very well, especially with a global perspective.

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