If you could restore a damaged ecosystem, what would it look like?
For a lot of us, we imagine restoring ecosystems to what they were like when we first became truly aware of them. We were probably about 20 years old at the time. The problem of course is that each generation accepts as ‘normal’ a state that has degraded considerably compared with what the previous generation accepted.
For me, that puts the total human population back at three billion – which seemed huge at the time, but now seems so benign. Marine ecosystems may have then been under stress, but we still considered most of them to be functioning well, and fisheries management was still a young science. How far away that now seems.
Daniel Pauly, a great fisheries scientist, called this change in perception from one generation to the next ‘The Shifting Baseline Syndrome’. It is hard to escape it. If we don’t recognize it, and find ways to deal with it, we will have little left at all in a few generations.
In marine terms, recovery involves trying to restore fisheries that have collapsed or have been fished down to dangerous levels. It involves trying to recover the wetlands and mangroves that we have lost around the world. It involves setting up Marine Protected Areas wherever remotely possible.
And in turn, this raises the same intriguing question. If you want to restore a lost or damaged habitat or fisheries or ecosystem, what do you actually imagine restoring it to? To how it was before the human explosion began several hundred years ago? Hardly possible. To how it was perhaps fifty to a hundred years ago, before the damage started to get out of control? To how it was when you first knew it? In the northern Gulf of Mexico, to how it was just six weeks ago, before the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe?
Such questions are endless. How many great whales or harp seals should there be? How large should cod stocks become before we start to harvest them again? There were once several hundred million sea turtles in the Caribbean, and now we struggle to protect the various species from extinction. How many of them should there be? How much coastline do we need to protect in order to protect these stocks and the biodiversity associated with them?
Obviously we are far beyond restoring a long-lost world, even if we can imagine what it might look like. The reality is that we now have more than 6 billion humans to feed, and will soon have 9 billion before the total population ceases to grow. Our goal has become to keep the oceans alive with fish that we can eat, and this may not allow much living space for other ocean predators besides ourselves. To do even that, we need healthy and protected coasts.
Despite overfished fish stocks, increasingly ‘developed’ coastal habitats, and corporations lobbying complicit governments to exploit offshore resources, this is not an impossible dream.