Monday, November 5, 2007

A Changing Climate

I was a little surprised to discover a comment on my last post asking about the relationship between fossil fuel dependence and commercial fisheries - I was mostly surprised to discover that people other than my friends and family are reading this, but I was also surprised because it's something I've been thinking about as one of the long-term considerations for fisheries but is currently only a sideline discussion in most current fisheries management discourse. But that doesn't mean it's not being talked about - it just means it comes up in ways that, at least for me, have been rather unexpected. Energy use has become an increasingly common topic within the fishing industry as fuel prices have increased, but most of the time (though there are exceptions) this discussion is completely separate from any discussion of climate change. And awareness of global warming doesn't necessarily increase conservation tendencies - there haven't been any definitive studies on how changing climate will affect fish stocks, though it seems pretty much assured that the fish behavior and populations will be affected. This leads to a tendency (which may or may not be justified) to point to climate change rather than overfishing as an external environmental factor that is causing declining fish populations, and I also heard one criticism of the "precautionary approach" to fishing aimed towards rebuilding stocks saying that it would be a better idea to catch the fish while we can since there's always a chance they'll disappear anyway due to climate change.

The first major discussion I heard about commercial fishing's fossil fuel dependence was at the ICES science conference in Helsinki. One of the many "theme sessions" was entitled "Increasing energy costs and impact on fishers' activities and economics - another challenge for fishers and managers." This title is indicative of how most people within fisheries talk about fossil fuel dependence: it's all about costs. Just as Americans back home are slowly starting to take hybrid cars more seriously as the gas prices skyrocket, the fishing industry has started taking notice of their extensive energy use because paying for fuel is taking a large chunk out of already unpredictable profit margins. The research presented at ICES looked at a number of interesting possibilities to decrease fuel costs - running engines on bio-diesel (works in research setting, but largely impractical due to difficulties of attaining a regular fuel supply), changing fishing practices to reduce the amount of energy used steaming to fishing grounds (either by switching fishing grounds or going slower to use less fuel), or switching from energy-intensive active fishing gear like trawl nets (it takes a lot of engine power to drag a heavy net full of fish across the seafloor for an hour) to passive gear like hooks or gillnets.

What I found most surprising, though, was that I was in a room full of researchers at a science conference talking about reducing fossil fuel use and nobody was talking about climate change. Now maybe the world of professional science is so used to hearing about climate change that this was in the back of everyone's minds, or maybe I've spent too much time among environmental groups trying to convince Americans to do something about climate change that I always feel the need to connect energy efficiency and climate change, but I kept waiting for someone to mention how these changes would be the equivalent of taking so many cars off the road or at least save some Kyoto quota to use somewhere else. I suspect this is largely because it seemed unnecessary to mention and rather outside the purview of the fishing industry, the real target of this research.

I do agree that cost savings is indeed the easiest way to sell energy efficiency is cost savings to the fishing industry. Apparently 50% of the fishing quota value in Belgium goes to paying fuel costs for its beam trawlers (a very intensive fishing method requiring a lot of energy, also the dominant gear type in Belgium), which even if you don't care at all about climate seems like a pretty important issue. But I think it's also possible to use energy efficiency as a marketing strategy to help both increase the market prices of fish sold to the environmentally-conscious consumer, particularly since fishers and fish sellers have found it difficult to pass energy costs along to consumers - in supermarkets, fish pricing has to be competitive with pricing for chicken and other food alternatives (this is also another argument for looking at sustainable food supply as a whole). The commercial fishing industry has gotten a bad reputation as environmental villains which, despite legitimate problems with overfishing, is largely undeserved and the industry is working very hard to change. It might not work everywhere, but specially marketing fish as caught with a boat powered with bio-diesel or even just a boat that has altered its fishing practices to increase energy efficiency probably would sell more fish.

Marketing fish as "sustainable" has become increasingly important, particularly through independent certifications from the Marine Stewardship Council, and everyone seems to be trying to show that their fish is good for the environment as well as good for you. Even here in northern Jutland, supermarkets are advertising their fish with eco-friendly labels from WWF, which supports MSC labeling, despite the fact that the MSC has recommended against buying North Sea cod.
Apparently, environmentally-friendly sells - and as of yet, the market on fish that are green because they were caught using less fossil fuels appears to be open.

I had what I initially thought was a brilliant (and now think is probably just crazy, but still fun) idea during the ICES presentations that a really great way to market fish would be to develop a small-scale fishery using the most energy-efficient fuel out there: wind. The presenter I asked about this seemed a little taken aback at the suggestion - he mentioned that a German company has developed a sort of parachute sail that can be used to augment engine power in some situations, though he didn't seem very optimistic about its potential to be used on a large scale. But I wasn't thinking of parachutes...I was thinking of a good old-fashioned sailing schooner. Again, I don't know how effective this would be as a marketing strategy, but I thought it would be really cool to operate an historically-based fishery using sailing vessels and hook or longline passive gear - it preserves history and preserves the there must be someone out there who would pay extra for fish caught like this. You could also run the operation as a sort of museum, which could help support a small fishing town that has been forced to diversify away from fishing (I'm thinking of the role of the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður, Iceland). Obviously this is not something that could work on a large scale throughout an entire fishery, and I'm probably running away with myself because I have an overly-romantic attachment to old sailing boats, but it's still a fun idea.

But I digress.

There are some people here talking about climate change and fishing practices. At the North Sea Regional Advisory Council (NSRAC) meeting a few weeks ago, I met Knud Anderson, who represents the Danish Society for a Living Sea on the NSRAC's General Assembly (there was also a rather politically-charged debate on the technicalities of whether he could gain a seat on the more influential Executive Committee which ended with nobody, including Knud, being quite sure whether anything had been decided). Knud, a former fisherman, has turned his fishing boat into a traveling exhibition for a campaign to reduce energy use in the fishing industry.
The slogan on the banner means "Sea and climate - change the course." I'm not sure whether he has much chance of making headway among the fishing industry or affecting fishing policy - arguing for less energy use is largely a matter of arguing for smaller coastal fishing vessels rather than larger industrial-scale trawlers, which is not terribly popular among the large vessel operators who are becoming increasingly dominant in the industry (which, though he doesn't talk about this directly, makes this an issue that divides the business-driven model of fishing that seeks to make the industry profitable from the lifestyle-based model of fishing that dominates in floundering coastal communities).

I've been convinced for a while, though, that environmental issues (and often other issues too) should not be dealt with in isolation but rather should be considered as part of an interconnected whole (jury's still out on how to do this well, but ignoring relevant issues as "beyond our scope" seems like a bad idea). Knud has been arguing against following the MSC recommendation against North Sea cod, arguing that the labeling scheme doesn't take into account the low energy (and also lower environmental impact) fishing methods used by some of the local fishermen. In a speech in August, Knud said, "And when I...ask: 'Why is the fuel consumption in relation to the catch not taken in as a parameter in this Eco labeling, in a situation with the great threat from the climate changes?', then the answer is, that you should not mix the climate problems with the consumer’s choice of fish. The energy problem has to wait, the people from WWF believe. Our opinion in Living Sea is that such an approach is the same as giving up on environmental politics altogether!" I'm not sure whether I have much confidence he'll make headway, but I think he has a point. I haven't quite figured out my master plan for how to solve all the world's problems together, and it's probably not possible to implement one master plan all in one go, but it would definitely be a mistake not to consider fossil-fuel dependence and climate change in developing long term fisheries policy.


adele said...

A fishing boat that runs on biodiesel? That sounds like the beginning of a fantastic reciprocal relationship. Just imagine: fishermen in England delivering fish to fish-and-chip shops and picking up their used cooking oil to power their boats. I know it's not as simple as that, but I love the mental image.

Colin said...

What about ocean acidification from higher C02 concentrations? Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker about how it is affecting plankton with calcite or aragonite shells or skeletons, so it's not much of a stretch to imagine it affecting the fishing industry. A quote from the Wikipedia entry on ocean acidification: "Calcifiers span the food chain from autotrophs to heterotrophs and include organisms such as coccolithophores, corals, foraminifera, echinoderms, crustaceans and molluscs." The same article repeats an estimate that oceans will drop 0.3-0.5 units on the logarithmic pH scale by 2100.

Hilary said...

Colin, a belated response: one of the things I've noticed about fisheries science is that because it's largely about estimating fish stock size and giving advice for quotas, the farther research gets from being directly relevant to this job of counting fish the less it is considered.

I suspect that this is one of many climate change-related changes that will affect fisheries (I read a study recently that basically said that fisheries health most strongly dependent on primary production, which this would certainly affect), but at this point, there are still so many more immediate concerns that it's not really on the radar screen.