Archive for June, 2013

Cheaters

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

When commercial fishers fish illegally they can seriously reduce the fishing success of adjacent coastal communities, creating greater poverty in the process. When illegal fishing occurs at the level of national fleets, both national economies and global fish stocks suffer. Yet it persists.

The impact can be immense. The famous attacks on tankers and other passing craft off the Somalia coast over the past decade was at least in part a response to foreign fleets fishing illegally in Somalia waters, taking all the fish, and forcing retaliation. Criminal piracy as a response to fishing piracy, also criminal.

The West African coast is very productive but difficult to monitor, and is easy prey to fishing pirates (wikimedia.org)

The West African coast is very productive but difficult to monitor, and is easy prey to fishing pirates (wikimedia.org)

Now the productive West Coast of Africa – the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem – is the target of most current pirate fishing: almost 40% of its fish are caught illegally. It is a vulnerable region – lots of fish, weak governance and fragile post-war economies, susceptible to corruption and plagued by inadequate regulations and insufficient monitoring. Like Somalia.

Cheating by the illegal ships, mostly trawlers, comes in many forms. International firms use single licenses to cover multiple vessels, employ small mesh nets, launder the fish, and bribe local enforcement officials. Vessels cover their names and markings. Corporations register ships to flags of convenience, eg Panama and Korea, who get paid and don’t care. The fish from West Africa often turn up in European markets, and though the EU now has a blacklist of companies and countries, it has been largely ineffective.

Coastal, community-based artisanal fisheries cannot compete with illegal fishing from pirate trawlers (nature.com)

Coastal, community-based artisanal fisheries cannot compete with illegal fishing from pirate trawlers (nature.com)

China is a major player fishing the West African Guinea Current, and no doubt doesn’t want to be accused of piracy. But China has now been charged with under-reporting its global catch by an order of magnitude: instead of an average of of 368,000 tons/yr from 2000-2011, analysts estimate the reality to be 4.6 million tons/yr. Most of that, 2.9 million tons/yr, is from West Africa. This is cheating on a massive, global scale.

China has an ocean going fleet of 900, the world’s largest, operating in the EEZs of 93 coastal nations. Currently 345 ships fish in West Africa, and of these 256 are bottom trawlers. Fairly secret contracts exist between Chinese companies and African nations, and Chinese vessels also sometimes operate under local flags. The coastal fishermen report that the Chines trawlers violate near-shore no-fishing zones, crippling artisanal fisheries. They accuse them of looting their fish and acting like bullies.

China is now one of the more aggressive fishing nations, with a large fleet searching the world's oceans, and under-reporting their catch (asiancorrespondent.com)

China is now one of the more aggressive fishing nations, with a large fleet searching the world’s oceans, and under-reporting their catch (asiancorrespondent.com)

But isn’t this the age of ever greater surveillance? Though most of us may hate it, it may still has its uses. Supported by London’s Environmental Justice Foundation, 23 communities on the coast of Sierra Leone have cooperated to report the pirate trawlers, recording their GPS coordinates, filming them, identifying them, and sending the information to EU and African ports.

The pirate trawlers have mostly left Sierra Leone, but where have they gone? Maybe just along the coast. The problem of cheating is unresolved, but surveillance by communities is at least a start.

Illegal trawler is tracked, identified and reported by surveillance crew on coast of Sierra Leone (guardian.co.uk)

Illegal trawler is tracked, identified and reported by surveillance crew on coast of Sierra Leone (guardian.co.uk)

More initiatives like that on the Sierra Leone coast are essential, and possible. Continued pressure on Panama and Korea to cease renting out their flags will eventually work. Every ship registered in the EU is now tracked by the VMS Satellite Monitoring System, providing an hourly report of of location and speed. Though this may keep those ships honest, vessels exporting fish to EU under other flags can avoid the monitoring.

This too can be fixed. Global ports can agree to do business only with monitored ships, and to blacklist pirate vessels. Monitoring every move of every vessel should not be any more difficult than monitoring the individual surfing and purchasing habits of internet users or the movements of every smart phone user, or using existing meta-data mining techniques to analyse our telephone use.

Electronic surveillance by empowered coastal communities along with vessel tracking and enforced blacklisting of cheating vessels and countries is a powerful combination. Cheating may well be an essential feature of human culture, but given the fragility of global fish stocks and coastal fishing communities, eliminating cheating in fisheries seems like a pretty good use for the technologies now abusing us all in so many other ways.

Dan Brown’s Inferno

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno is now at the top of best seller lists wherever it has been published. A lot of people are going to read it.

Dan Brown's Inferno could influence millions (wikipedia.com0

Dan Brown’s Inferno could influence millions (wikipedia.com)

Apart from its loving detail of Dante, art, museums, Florence, Venice and Istanbul to support the chase and adventure, it has a very serious central theme: we are rushing toward a catastrophic end to human society as we know it. The amazingly intelligent characters in the book who are worrying most about all of this conclude that human over-population is the underlying cause.

A hard-to-read graph in the book condenses the evidence. It is a compilation of graphs of the acceleration of pretty well everything in the past 50 to 250 years, originally published in The New Scientist on Oct 12, 2008 as a Special Report, entitled How Our Economy is Killing the Earth. You may need library access or a subscription to read the whole report but the link lets you see some of the underlying data. It is certainly worth looking at, for it bears no good news:

Color version of the graph from Inferno (newscientist.com)

Color version of the graph from Inferno (newscientist.com)

To help you read it where the print is too small:
Time runs along along the bottom or x axis – 1750 on the left with 50 year increments to 2000 on the right. The scales on the vertical or y axis are all relative to a low starting point on the left, but of course vary immensely depending on what is being measured, so no numbers are included.

12 measures are graphed, 5 starting in 1750, 4 in 1900, and 3 in 1950. Some graph global data, some are restricted to the USA.

Starting in 1750, and working down, are Northern hemisphere surface temperature (orange), Global population size (red), CO2 level in atmosphere (blue), GDP (dark red), and Loss of tropical forests and woodland (green).

Starting in 1900, and again working down, are Water use (blue), Paper consumption (yellow), Species extinctions (green), and Number of motor vehicles (black).

And starting in 1950, Tons of fish caught (blue), Foreign investment (light grey), and Ozone depletion (dark grey).

Obviously this is an odd graph, for the scales on all of the measures have been adjusted to make the lines coincide as much as possible. But the essential point is still a valid one – all measures increase rapidly, on their own scales, at about the same rate, at about the same time, and none show signs of slowing down.

Although Brown’s characters are convinced that the causal, driving force is the growth of the global human population, the reality is of course a lot more complicated, for consumption and capitalism also do a lot of the driving.

A famous view of Earth, a reminder that population and consumption are only loosely correlated (earthlights.com)

A famous view of Earth, a reminder that population and consumption are only loosely correlated (earthlights.com)

While we wait for the human population to finally level off, we could do a lot to reduce the rate of growth of almost all of the other measures.

Meanwhile, the graph should worry us all. If it looks like we are generally out of control, we are. With luck, some of the people now in power will read Inferno and become infected by its sense of urgency.