Loaves, Fishes, and the Human Side of Ecosystems

Professor Les Kaufman

Professor Les Kaufman

Slow news days send hungry journalists back to the old springheads of mystery and metamorphosis: dark matter, how the brain really works, human cyborgs, life on other worlds.  The nature of humanity’s relationship with Nature — the oldest campfire subject on the books, and kissing cousin to the meaning of life — doesn’t make the headlines much.  Instead it has become a topic of embarrassment.  There is a vast and growing literature on our collective disenfranchisement from nature, freckled with classics like Thoreau, Muir, Carson, Dubos, Eiseley, Leopold, Abbey, McKibben; yet we spend little effort actively acknowledging or improving our relationship with the natural world.  Few of us are even actively aware that our existence depends entirely upon the welfare of a self-sustaining ecosystem, a biosphere.  Those of us who do worry about such things loudly lament the “Last Child in the Woods”, gripe that our kids know their way around the Internet far better than the local wildlife sanctuary, mourn the vanishing of frogs and rhinos, rail at classical economists and their diminutive externalities.  We champion 350, vex at climate change deniers, chafe over limitless growth of economies and human population, vent steam over the studied ignorance of Tea Partiers.  We may as well howl at the moon.  People have more immediate things on their minds.

Here in Massachusetts, though, one of those very immediate things happens to be fish.  Fish bring us straight to the cold heart of the matter.  Gloucester, New Bedford, and the vanishing ranks of smaller fishing ports are still hunter-gatherer communities.  Man and Nature are what it’s all about.  For reasons not entirely transparent, fish and fishing are big deals around here, able to headline, sway elections, and land Hollywood in a manner totally out of proportion to dollars or sense.  This is down with me: I’m an ichthyologist.  That New Englanders are such a codly lot affords us an excellent case study in the science of human-natural system dynamics.

The study of humans in nature is a slowly emerging discipline.  In a more innocent world, this was quaintly referred to as “human ecology”.  It was a body of knowledge that could sit on a shelf right beside beaver ecology, or the ecology of fleas.  Today, the concept of humans as having an organic ecology seems quaint.  Most of us imagine ourselves as spirits of a parallel world, an anthroposphere, built out of culture and ideas, connectivities, epic physical constructions and heroic environmental transformations.  We dwell within our imagination of ourselves, in a built and conceptual bubble that is growing exponentially and pressing profoundly upon the biosphere within which it is yet contained.   Whether we imagine it a pregnancy or a cyst, the anthroposphere is there and growing malignantly, displacing internal organs that are essential to the survival of both human society and its maternal ecosystem alike.  Hence the successor to human ecology, a sort of obstetrical study of fetal intelligence, is the science of coupled human and natural systems, or CHANS.

Gloucester is an excellent place to set about the formal investigation of CHANS.  This is exactly what a group of us are doing right now.  We are scientists from Boston University, the New England Aquarium, the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, and an upstart start-up called “AFORDable Futures”.  We are creating a computational model for the beehive that is the Massachusetts coastal economy.  We have a sister team at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, that is looking in greater detail at problems associated specifically with offshore wind energy.   Our team’s model is built around an architecture called MIMES — Multiscale Integrated Model of Ecosystem Services — in a programming language called SIMILE.  This type of computational confection was first conceived by an oceanographer, Roel Boumans (our head programmer), and one of the early ecological economists, Robert Costanza.  An immediate need for our work was created by the passage in 2008 of America’s most progressive law concerning coastal development: the Massachusetts Oceans Act.   Technically, the coastal zone begins at the peaks of coastal watersheds, and extends outward into the ocean to the edge of the continental shelf — tens or hundreds of miles offshore.  More than half the world’s human population lies within the coastal zone.  For the Massachusetts Oceans Act, the area of interest begins 100 meters seaward of the beach, and extends precisely 3 miles offshore between the borders of New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  This is an area of feverish activity, both biological and economic, where everything is important to, and in the way of, everything else.  The purpose of the Massachusetts Oceans Act is to bring harmony to this cacophony, and to see that the music never stops: compatibility and sustainability for the most intensely inhabited human habitat on earth.

Many new things have come out of Massachusetts, and a surprising number of these first hatched and took root in Gloucester.  ObamaCare is based upon the Massachusetts health care system (Mitt can stop denying this).  And, President Obama’s National Ocean Policy of 2010 is a direct descendent of the Massachusetts Oceans Act, though something in Rhode Island called SAMPA and one California Ocean Trust were arguably the basis of a fecund threesome.  There is a close political tie between health care and fish (and many other things) in our salty Commonwealth, symbolized by the big Sacred Cod that hangs in our State House.  The Massachusetts health care system was itself fashioned largely after the first collective health insurance for Massachusetts fishermen, a creation of the Massachusetts Fishermens’ Partnership, this the brainchild of a Mr. David Bergeron.  David, with whom I have worked for many years in various collaborative research projects with fishermen, was first tapped to help New England fishermen by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.  Fishermen were growing angry with increasingly strict limits placed on fish catches by the National Marine Fishery Service.  Many of our fishermen are Catholic, and some felt that their lot might be bettered if the Archdiocese could persuade the Lord to intervene on their behalf.  It isn’t as strange a concept as it might seem at first.  After all, running human-natural relationships through one or more deities is the first and most venerable of all models for rationalizing CHANS dynamics.  This not being in the Cardinal’s job description, he eventually turned to David to help work things out.  David is a gifted organist and music director to the Mother Church of the Unitarian Universalists, located in downtown Gloucester; the Partnership was a labor of love for him.  The result of his efforts was a better shake for fishermen (whose jobs are among the most dangerous) and their families, and a search for other ways to build the community, the culture, and the welfare of a cultural and economic sector that perceived itself as even more endangered than its quarry.

To get at the real dynamics, the fishery must be appreciated from both sides: ape, and ecosystem.  Fishermen and fish alike continued to decline in Massachusetts… but only some fishermen; others were making out well.   Increasingly draconian catch limits — necessary to stave off the absolute destruction of the fishing industry — were causing a reduction and consolidation in the fleet, and a shift in dominance from small family-run day boats up to about 50 feet in length, to larger boats that could stay at sea for several days and cover greater distances.   Some reduction in fleet size was necessary to bring it in line with rebuilding plans for the diminished fish and shellfish populations. As small boats began to drop out, so did small ports, giving way to gentrified, high-rent waterfronts with little space for working vessels.  From the perspective of the fishing industry, this was an unmitigated disaster caused by heartless, overzealous regulators egged on by pinkie liberal conservationists.  But then the regulations bore their first fruit.  Haddock began to recover, and conservation measures put in place to protect cod habitat inadvertently helped stoke the highly valuable sea scallop fishery.  Obama was elected, and as part of his rationalist approach to government he appointed a noted marine biologist, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, to head NOAA, the agency that includes the National Marine Fishery Service.  Jane implemented a promising fishery management system called “catch shares” based on trade-able allocations.  This system reorganized the New England fishery into collective sectors, each with its own catch quota.  Meanwhile, the fleet consolidation already in full swing continued, and the industry blamed the slow-motion train wreck on the new system and on Lubchenco — even calling loudly for her dismissal.  Meanwhile those fishermen well-positioned to benefit from the new system quietly did so, and handsomely.

The fisheye view paints a broader and more interesting picture.  As part of something called the “shifting baseline”, people consistently overlook the full and awesome story of overexploitation that brought fish stocks to today’s astonishing nadir.  The best historical reconstructions (based on diverse information such as old captain’s log books, market reports, and shoreline weir and pound net catches) indicate that fishable biomass now is about one twentieth of what it was a couple of centuries ago. Remember that fish are not oil; they are expected to replenish themselves as quickly as they are removed.  Some of their obvious failure to do this might be attributable to changing conditions, but the main and enduring contributing condition is greed.   To really see what has happened, we need broaden our scope not only in time, but also in space, and in detail.  Events in New England merely mirror a global collapse in fishery potential due to the serial squandering of one place after another — ever more remote, and one species after another.

Most serious of all is the steadfast resistance by all involved to a systems view.  Extractive industries affect not only a target species, or “resource”, but also the entire system of which it is a part.  Furthermore, the ocean system produces not only (potentially renewable) tangible commodities that people extract and consume, such as seafood, but also a host of other ecological services that can crank the wheels of value production in the anthroposphere without themselves being diminished.  Wind and wave energy, commercial transport, access to whalewatching and boating, clean healthy beaches for swimming and other outdoor fun, vistas to contemplate, and from which to gain some measure of inner peace — these, too, are connecting points for people with the New England ocean ecosystem, and portals for the generation and flow of enormous wealth.  The key is that every time one person plugs into the system, it affects every other connection throughout it, including those of all the other people busily plugging in.

Every human intervention effects a change in the health and dynamics of the ocean system.  The dragging of nets across the seabottom — a common way of catching cod, haddock and flounder — destroys feeding and nursery habitats, a change that can take from five to fifty years or even more for full recovery.   Hook and line fishing, both commercial and recreational, can devastate marine communities if the largest, most fecund individuals are selectively removed.   Herring of several species (e.g. Atlantic herring, menhaden, alewife, blueback herring) support a large industry called a reduction fishery.  Instead of being eaten directly by people, these oily fishes are vacuumed from the ocean and rendered for animal feed (salmon farms are major customers), turned into human nutritional supplements (omega-3 fatty acids capsules for heart health and long life), or used to bait lobster traps.  Lobster bait is viewed by many as an essential subsidy to this regionally distinctive and valuable seafood sector.  The removal of herring leaves its own scars: slowing the growth of other fisheries, such as cod and bluefin tuna, that rely on herring for food; causing a redistribution of the beloved, aerobatic humpback whales and impacting the whalewatch industry; putting some endangered marine mammals and seabirds at risk (while possibly helping others — herring eat copepods, the obligate diet of the gravely endangered North Atlantic right whale).  Windfarms remove large areas of ocean from access by fishermen who drag nets on the seabottom, while quite possibly attracting fish that can be taken by other types of gear.  Every activity at sea that is fostered or filched, triggers magnified economic impacts ashore, through the whole chain of vendors who process and distribute marine products, or who provide supporting goods and services to that pie-slice of maritime concern.  The linkages and feedbacks are bewilderingly complicated… and most interestingly, complex.  Small perturbations can have totally unexpected and greatly magnified impacts depending upon where and when they are set in motion.  Stepping back from just Massachusetts Bay, we begin to see global climate change, and global market flux, together tugging and warping the Beanpot’s hairball of coastal dynamics.

Darwin was talking about evolution in natural ecosystems when he famously suggested that “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”  We are of the worms.  The anthroposphere is just an especially densely-knotted rootwork jutting out from Darwin’s bank, equally capable of helping to hold it together, or to provide that fatal purchase that will cause its destruction in the coming flood.  The crucial difference lies in just how humanity chooses to weave its own web in which to enmesh, and to engage, the machinery of nature.  It would definitely pay to better understand what we are doing.  This is the business of CHANS.

We cannot rely upon artfully crafted silicon to achieve omniscience.  Computers and computer models are flights of fancy on wax-bound wings.  They enable us to see the shifting auras of nature’s possibilities, but they do not necessarily make reality any more clear.  Yet, possibilities may be enough, for we can also use models to see what is not possible, or at least not likely.  Our MIMES model casts forbidden zones and times in the seas of coastal Massachusetts.  It highlights places it is better not to go, tempting policies that we might better shove beneath the rug.  It shows us the things that nature simply will not do.  Natural ecosystem dynamics is the easy part, however.  Can it be as revealing of human behavior?  This notion is a favored theme of science fiction, manifest in Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.  Both propose that mass human behavior and its emergent braidwork of potential futures could actually be lawful, and therefore, calculable, whether by means of drug-induced trance or mathematical prowess.

What we have learned so far: the common mental model of CHANS is forged on greed, and it is innocent of scale, timing, complexity, and surprise.  Real CHANS deeply embody all of these things and more, and despite their nonlinearities, are surprisingly vulnerable to reason.  Computers do help.  It really is possible to imagine the best and the worst that can result from the actions available to us.  We really can tread a more or less safe path through the uncertainties of our ecological and economic futures.  Instead of a cyst, we can nurture a mother and child reunion, a reattachment to Nature, a re-acquaintance with Eden, if indeed a much stranger Eden than any we might have imagined entirely on our own.

As yet, we do not know how many alternative CHANS configurations are stable, representing viable futures.  We do not know how the emergent dynamics of behavior at the individual, community, watershed, national, and global levels relate to these alternative ecological economic scenarios.  We do not know how the global CHANS works, any more than we know how the mind works that is trying to decipher it.  Here is a complexity born of millions of species and billions of minds, and we are still a ways from grasping the workings of even one of either.  Our future depends upon achieving this particular understanding. We need a science and a medicine for humanity in the ecosystem. Clinical ecology is an existential crusade.  Fishing is also an existential crusade.  It does the soul good to spend time as a hunter-gatherer.  Unlike those whose boats I hop aboard for a lark, I can go home to a day job safely ashore and feast on my catch instead of having to sell it off to pay a child’s dental bills.  I don’t know whose illusions are more naïve: the fisherman’s that the seas will continue to yield to our needs, or mine, that reason can win the day.  At least when I am with my fisherman friends, and however we may disagree, the importance of pondering Man and Nature requires no apology or defense.

9 comments to Loaves, Fishes, and the Human Side of Ecosystems

  • Peter Auster

    As usual, an eloquent and well articulated example of “big picture” thinking by Dr. Kaufman. And as usual when tackling these types of problems, the end yields no hard and fast prescriptive answers but a path forward that is littered with more questions and the critical realization that we are all in this together in some way, shape or form. Thanks Les for expanding on this issue that is critical to our local, national and global communities.

    Here I would like to comment on the central concept of your essay, and that is about Coupled Human and Natural Systems or CHANS. I think some significant degree of extant controversy about how best to exploit wild populations of fishes in a “sustainable” manner is nested within a poorly defined concept of the “H” in CHANS. That is, what is the universe of “humans” are we managing for? To some this might be irrelevant as many think there is a single answer to how many fish we can sustainably remove and keep all of the pieces moving in the right direction. Unfortunately the world is much more complex, as you point out, and much controversy exists about what we want from the public commons. Certainly the fishing industry has a seat at the table, as do fish-hugging conservationists, truckers, farmers, factory workers, wind-farm operators, computer programmers, hoteliers, philosophers, and little old blue-haired ladies … hence the commons. Perhaps I have gone a bit overboard providing examples of the universe of stakeholders but I do this to suggest that there will likely be a universe of different ideas for the goals of sustainability. Certainly our governance structures in both State and Federal waters provide goals but in general these do not often add a high degree of clarity and purposely leave wide flexibility for interpretation. For example, in the fisheries context the definition of optimum yield leaves much flexibility, such as choosing to leave more herring in the water to serve as prey for fish and whales than standard fisheries models would predict is necessary for sustainability. Life gets really complicated when we try to incorporate conservation of diversity writ large, of which fish are a part, into the equation. What are the actual targets? How precautionary should we be, given our imperfect knowledge of how all of the components of communities are connected and the scope of our impacts? Controversy and conflict emerge despite common goals of all stakeholder groups to conserve and sustainably use the ocean commons. Most acknowledge the need to reach a middle ground, but we continue to battle about the central gray zone that defines the middle. While models like MIMES will provide an outstanding foundation and common language for the intellectual sparring that is involved in environmental decision-making, do you see a path to find a nexus in our value systems that will bring us closer together to better focus on the hard choices we will need to make?

  • Les

    Thank you for your thoughtful and amusing comment, Peter. I think the major contribution of ecological economic models is to address the very issue that you raise- that the H in CHANS encompasses a multitude of ways to value nature. If you value fish to eat and proceed to do so in a big way, you will be messing with somebody else who values fish as whale food, and someone else again who thinks that fish are beautiful wildlife, or a vegan who practices the belief that all animals are endowed with an intrinsic right to exist. The goal is not to tell people how to balance these competing ways of engaging with nature, but rather, to stun them into the realization that they must, must make a decision about this balance or risk losing what matters to them.

    We actually have the sort of nexus you envision close at hand- each of us. It is our individual system of morals. Unfortunately, prevalent religious and philosophical creeds are a bit thin on the moral dimensions of humanity’s relationship with nature and other natural beings. By clarifying these tenets and espousing moral responsibility, the clergy can positively impact this relationship through the large percentage of people who are of one or another faith. As for the a-religious there is no convincing to do, for the acknowledgement of trade-offs and the taking of responsible action in making trade-off decisions is a fundamental aspect of a rational existence.


  • Beth Fulton

    This made for a nice sunny springtime Sunday afternoon read down here in Tasmania. While far away from Massachusetts we face many of the same issues (as do seaside communities the world over). Similarly you raise three points that I think are critical, but far from being solved. The first is that you neatly dodged discussing the scepticism that abounds in some quarters about our ability to model gross human behaviour. I certainly believe it can be done, at least to a point — but there are a lot of doubters who will need to be convinced along the way, I fear.

    The other two key points I think we need more discussion of in resource management are both related to long held concepts, at least in societies shaped by western thought. Sustainability is often spoken of as if it were some stationary target to aim at. This may not be what was meant in this piece, but it is still not widely appreciated what a moving feast a complex system is. There needs to be an increased public awareness that sustainable management isn’t easy. It is not a recipe book to roll out and tick off. There is also a desperate need for education around the fact that ecosystems have no stable states; that they are dynamic and ever changing and our responses will need to morph along with them. Lastly, the dualistic vision of “humanity” and “nature” has an immensely long history in the west, embedded at it is in religion and philosophy (and even science) back beyond Aristotle. An appreciation of the true integrated nature of what has been dubbed CHANS here is growing. To my mind CHANS doesn’t go far enough in appreciating that integration, but that may be semantics. Without appreciating that human behaviour, responses and decisions are as key to system dynamics as climate drivers, trophic interactions and habitat (etc.), advice given and management decisions still run a significant risk of unintended and counterintuitive outcomes. There is always a risk with complex systems, but if we ignore key feedbacks and drivers we make that risk much, much larger. Which brings us back around to whether people believe we can successfully model human behaviour or not….

    Before ending, one last point. I know I am supposed to be responding mainly to the main piece, but I can’t help saying I second Peter’s call for a wider discussion of what defines acceptable change and acceptable system states across a broad swathe of society. Without that we may not be wandering in the dark, but we are certainly stumbling around in a grey twilight. Without more clarity on what people want from systems, not just system function, we may still find ourselves faced with unintended consequences or undesired conflict.

  • A modeling effort that could conceivably provide helpful guidance to fishery policy is undermined by Les’ unscientific and unsupportable claim that the main and enduring contribution to overfishing is greed. Les goes further to say that we have learned that the common mental model of Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) is forged on greed. I can’t claim to know what he means by that statement, but I am quite certain that it does not make a contribution to our understanding of CHANS.

    Greed (a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed [Merriam-Webster]) does not explain the severe depletion of fishery resources within range of artisanal fishermen in open canoes. Artisanal fishermen deplete fish stocks because they are trying to survive, not because they are greedy.

    New England fishermen may not have faced the same survival imperative as their artisanal counterparts in other parts of the world, but it would be hard to make a case that their overfishing was driven by greed. Paying a child’s dental bills hardly seems to qualify as greed. Perhaps if Les had provided data showing that the average New England fisherman earns three times more than the average university professor, he could substantiate his claim that greed was the driving force in fishery depletion. Les offered no objective criteria to define greed and it is unlikely that New England fishermen would fit any imaginable definition that would not include 99% of the citizens of the Western World.

    Fishery scholars from diverse disciplines agree that open access to fisheries provided the main and enduring contribution to overfishing. Greed was not a necessary ingredient.

    Les also has his facts wrong when he describes the history of the New England fisheries. He seems to have bought into the claims made by some fishermen and fishery advocates that New England has a 300-year history of small-boat, owner-operated family fishing businesses that sailed forth from every small harbor along the coast. The historical facts provide quite a different picture.

    Prior to the late 1970s, and going back at least to the mid-1800s, most of the groundfish landed in New England was caught from large, offshore boats that made multi-day trips and were owned by large fishing corporations based in Boston, MA, Gloucester, MA, Rockland, ME, and Portland, Me. The 1970s saw a dramatic shift in fleet structure, stimulated by multiple changes in law and policy. Subsidized financing made it easier for individual fishermen to buy and build new vessels. Technological advances increased the productive capacity of new vessels compared to older vessels. And, perhaps most importantly, the universal adoption of 200-mile fishing limits pushed the NE groundfish fleet off traditional fishing grounds that fell under Canadian jurisdiction. Fish stocks depleted by foreign fishing boats undoubtedly hastened the demise of New England’s traditional big-boat fleet by the mid-1970s.

    From 1975 to 1980, the NE groundfish fleet doubled in size from approximately 600 vessels to 1200 vessels. With a rapidly expanding fleet of technologically advanced, if somewhat smaller, boats fishing on severely contracted fishing grounds, fish stocks that had begun to recover from heavy foreign fishing pressure reversed that progress and had declined to record low levels by the mid-1990s. When the New England Fishery Management Council attempted to control the size of the fleet, it made the mistake of giving every boat that could document the landings of one pound of groundfish a limited access permit for groundfishing. Far more boats qualified for a permit than had ever been dependent on the groundfish fishery. The reduction in the fleet and fishing ports that Les notes suffers from the “shifting baseline” phenomenon that colors much of our reasoning.

  • Les

    Finally some controversy — thanks Dick! Actually, though, the differences that you take with points in the essay have at least a bit to do with missing my point. What I meant was that the recent history (last few hundred years) of society and nature is characterized by overexploitation, a lot of which was driven by opportunities for sudden wealth- excessive wealth, and also consolidated power over populations of peoples, native and introduced alike. It is hard to read the history of South Florida, for example, without feeling awe at the sheer hubris of those who attempted to drain the Everglades — slightly — and then sell the waterlogged (and sometimes submarine) peat and marl to naive northerners. That was greed — a rather destructive form of it. I think the draining of New England’s fishery resources by foreign trawlers prior to institution of the 200-mile limit was also rather greedy. If anything, locals are unlikely to tolerate greed amongst their own because it is they who will suffer the consequences. There is an unfortunate, or inevitable, pattern of wealth and power becoming concentrated in the hands of a few individuals and companies, who then proceed to acquire as much more wealth and power as possible, as quickly as possible, before the opportunity passes. I did not mean to imply that this is the only attribute of human nature that gives rise to emergent patterns of societal behavior, but it is a dominant one. It is also one of the many regards in which fishermen are human — some fishermen can get greedy, but not all. Also, I do not think that people are inherently or invariably greedy — but rather that this is a dominant chord in society as a whole — not excluding fisheries. In CHANS we are searching for these chords. It is easy to find other such emergent behaviors — Elinor Ostrom and John Nash are examples of thinkers who got Nobel prizes for their (contrasting) contributions in this area. It is precisely the paucity of evidence, conceptual richness, and common language in this young science that contributes to such misunderstandings.

    Most fishermen do not display greed as their most salient attribute. A few do, though, and I think you know who in our neighborhood they are as well as I do. It is important to distinguish between greed and success that is achieved through other means. Also, that some people get greedy (most aren’t all the time) doesn’t have much to do with fleet structure (and a fleet of small boats can be just as effective in destroying a fishery as fewer large boats), though having more small boats might well increase the odds that somebody among the community of captains will be a greedy person by nature. The real issue is that the natural predilection that most fishermen show toward conservation is occasionally trumped by seductive opportunities for wealth, and even if these are rare events, they are highly influential and destructive. Much more often, fishermen are driven by dire need. The community of fishermen is as diverse in motivation and emotional tenor as any other group of enterprising souls. That does not change the empirical fact that fisheries are widely overexploited, or the legitimacy of the observation that greed played a large part in this, since there was plenty of evidence — has been for thousands of years — that if you take too much you will deny others what could be theirs. But we must recognize that human behavior scales look different at the individual, community, and national levels, and that instances where individual behavior has impact at the level of a whole society have the potential to have very good or very bad outcomes. As children we aspire to have an impact on society (hopefully a positive one, but sometimes not so), and this interesting possibility is at the root of our Western culture.

    I am of course aware of the history of New England fishing. The consolidation of the fleet is a natural consequence of technological advancement, rational economics, and selection for social efficiency. What I am suggesting is that a shift from small, family-owned vessels to large trip boats was not an entirely positive move. Both large and small boats can foster a conservation-minded relationship with nature, but I think the likelihood is higher in the small boat fleet. This is because small boats cannot go far, and must continually fish in the same areas, so they will feel the consequences of ill-advised behavior very quickly. My argument is that New England’s fisheries are more likely to recover, and persist in a sustainable state, if we take care to ensure the welfare of a near-shore fleet. The loss of dockage injects a ratchet into the system that makes it difficult to rebuild a small fleet once it is lost. Furthermore, area management is essential to fishery sustainability. Fishes (and lobsters, and scallops) can move great distances, but often, and many, do not.

    More, and on to Beth’s comments, later. I only regret that a finicky internet meant missing the opportunity to have carried out this discussion with you, Dick, last night over dinner down here on Key Largo, and also that Beth could not be there as well! Which speaks to another matter of some concern. Beth Fulton, Dick Allen, and I are all members of a global community of marine conservationists. It is distressing that there are so few of us entirely dedicated to the health of three quarters of the world’s surface that so many of us know each other personally, and quite a few may be found from time to time, in the same place.

  • Les

    So I finally got home, and sat down to respond to Beth’s provocative comments…but I find that I agree with them all. Regarding the skeptics on modeling human behavior, begin with my wife, Professor Jackie Liederman, who is in the Psychology Department at BU. When a research psychologist tells you that any attempt to model human behavior is liable to be BS, you’ve got to listen (all the more so if you are married to this person). On the other hand, this is precisely what all of economics attempts to do, and those guys get away with it, even when they are wrong. Perhaps as important as healthy skepticism about modeling behavior at multiple scales, is making sure that everybody agrees on why we are modeling at all. It’s great when a model actually can predict, and certainly that is our ultimate goal and demonstration that we may have come to understand something. Along the way, however, models are amazingly helpful in deducing the inner workings of a system, and laying out possibilities of system behavior rather than actually predicting which one of these possibilities will be manifested on Day X.

    Encouraging people to express their values about acceptable system state is crucial — it may not even occur to most folk that this is something they ought to be thinking about and have a responsible opinion regarding.

  • Systems, systems everywhere and not a drop to drink…

    Kaufman writes: “Every human intervention effects a change in the health and dynamics of the ocean system….” and “Most serious of all is the steadfast resistance by all involved to a systems view.”

    The ocean is a complex dynamical system. Humans are complex dynamical systems. And corporations are complex, dynamical systems also.

    But our economic “system” — capitalism — emphasizes one factor: profit. Corporations are required by law to elevate their own interests above those of others. While corporations are forbidden to break the law, competition from other businesses means that they can’t afford to ignore the chance to skirt close to the law or hire lobbyists to change the laws or decide to treat breaking the law as a business expense.

    Under our economic system, a corporation is innocent until proven guilty. And if you’re not actually breaking a law, you’re not guilty.

    Consumer Reports had a story a few years ago about a company that sells remarkable fast-growing trees, something attractive to home-owners. But these trees are so invasive that they kill other plants, and are even outlawed in some states in the U.S. But not outlawed in all states, and so the company merrily hawks these destructive plants wherever it is legal. Think about the effort that must be expended by each state to get rid of just this menace.

    What if corporations didn’t have a right to make a profit, but had to serve the public good?

    It’s been argued that only capitalism can deliver high productivity and innovation. Ahh… I have a dream. That all businesses could be run on the model of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health. Or any of the other nonprofits that daily serve up both innovation and sustenance; reasonable jobs and ethical workplaces. Submit your business proposal. Your expert peers review it. And if it isn’t going to make the world a better place, your plan is returned without a priority score.

    But could we have innovation and excellence without dangling before people the promise of wild Bill Gates-style personal fortunes? Let’s listen to the anthropologists. Humans are motivated by whatever the society has agreed is important. Humans want status and recognition within their social group, and “social security” for themselves and their family. If one gains status by providing lavish feasts for others, then lavish feasts are provided. The local minimum our culture finds itself in occurred because money and profit have emerged as the primary signifiers of human worth. But different societies have found ways to reduce greed and resource hoarding, including practices of socially shaming those who exploit and hoard. Data has existed for over a decade that living in an egalitarian society is better for your health, even for those at the income-top of their respective societies (see The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health).

    The anthroposphere is a complex dynamical system, growing exponentially and pressing profoundly upon the biosphere, which it is capable of destroying — or sustaining.

    Kaufman has convinced me more than ever: Let’s take the hard next step. It’s time to change the system.

  • Les

    Cathy, thanks for your comment. I agree, but I think it is human nature, not the system of governance, that fosters selfishness — which is to say, ultimately, natural selection. Selfishness is understandable; rabid greed is the perversion. We must develop an incentive structure that encourages a balance between selfish and cooperative behavior…and it begins on that territory where the two are the same. Altruism may never be necessary if the planning horizon of an individual or corporation extends far enough into the future. Your idea for a system to foster more egalitarian behavior — which in view of the benefits it brings to everyone is really only a form of delayed gratification, if sometimes very delayed — is intriguing. I suspect we could actually make it work in Massachusetts, northern California, Vermont, and a few other places. It’s certainly worth a try.

    And to all, thanks again for your thoughts.

    Looking forward to the next essay!

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