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Editorial: Catch-22

Published on March 4, 2017

Codfish

©TC MEDIA/Depositphotos

Some problems aren’t meant to be solved — at least, not by us. Earlier this week, we ran an editorial (“Sea change,” March 1) about the declines in both the shrimp and crab biomass — and the inevitable problem that is going to create for both fish harvesters and for rural parts of this province that depend on fishing and processing either of those species.

Simply put, those communities and workers don’t have options.

Part of the editorial talked about the fact that cod are natural predators of shrimp and crab and recovering cod populations are, no pun intended, taking a bite out of those populations. (Warmer ocean temperatures, a product of increased global temperatures, also aren’t helping; higher temperatures are good for cod, but bad, for example, for shrimp.)

The editorial said this: “(As) tragic as it sounds, the long-hoped-for return of the cod might be a big part of the problem — because shrimp and crab are prey for codfish.”

In retrospect, “problem” might not have been the right word.

Why? First, because the return of the cod is, in its own way, nature’s solution to our last round of disastrous fisheries policy. It’s the ocean normalizing: shrimp and crab numbers increased in part because a piece of the ocean’s entwined biology and ecology, the cod, was missing. In scientific terms, it’s called trophic cascade: remove one piece of the long predator-prey chain, and the prey can grow pretty successfully. It doesn’t make for a healthy ocean, though.

The other issue with calling cod a problem?

Because when you call something a problem, it implies the need for taking action — for imposing a solution. Apparently, there are those who believe that what the ocean needs now is for us to increase cod catches to slow the decline of other species.

In other words, a strange form of ocean engineering designed to make species solely into commodities, treating the Atlantic like an aquaculture cage where only the most valuable species are grown.

It is akin to the old nursery rhyme and song, “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.” In an effort to solve one problem, the old lady creates another, by, in her case, swallowing ever-larger predators to deal with that original fly.

Trying to biologically engineer the ocean would be pretty much the same.

Every step of the way, the tools and their impacts would get bigger.

Until finally, “I know an old lady who swallowed a horse — she’s dead, of course.”

Collapsing shrimp and crab stocks will create a huge problem for fish harvesters, processors and rural communities in this province.

Trying to engineer the Atlantic by artificially manipulating cod stocks?

That’s like choking down a horse — and the risk, for the ocean and for us, is that the end result will be exactly the same.