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Of urchins and roving bandits

17
Mar 2006

Scientists warn of ocean tragedy

 An international team of researchers has today warned of an emerging tragedy in the worlds’ marine ecosystems.

In an article in the leading journal Science, the researchers say that highly mobile fishing enterprises – which they describe as ‘roving bandits’ – are plundering marine resources at an unsustainable rate, threatening the collapse of ecosystems and eroding the ability to sea-life to withstand climate change.

Bags of shark fins

The raiders clean out entire fisheries and then move on to the next resource beyond the reach of local authorities, in a worldwide marine version of the “tragedy of the commons”, warn 15 leading Canadian, Australian, US, Swedish. and Dutch ecologists, social scientists and resource economists.

“What makes roving banditry different from most commons dilemmas is that a new dynamic has arisen in the globalized world: new markets can develop so rapidly that the speed of resource exploitation often overwhelms the ability of local institutions to respond,” says lead author Professor Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba, Canada.

“Today, the intense targeting of key species by these mobile roving bandits can seriously destabilize marine systems, causing unpredictable collapses,” warns Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

“Some fisheries have become hit-and-run industries, without controls or limits on what is taken. Global demands can shatter a resource without regard to the local people who depend on it for their livelihoods, or for the future of the marine environment.”

The study cites the case of a sea urchin fishery in Maine, USA.  “The urchins underwent a boom following the collapse of the cod fishery, then were targeted for the sushi market and collapsed in turn within six years”, comments Prof. Jim Wilson of the University of Maine.

“The sea urchin fishery in Maine resulted in one of the largest ecosystem-scale changes in a coastal zone attributable to a single fishery.  The ripple effects are seen throughout Maine’s 3000 mile coastline,” adds Prof. Bob Steneck of Maine University.

In another case, the removal of Aleutian sea-otters for the fur trade caused a boom in urchin numbers so great they destroyed the kelp beds on which other sea life depended.

“Ecologically, the consequences of roving banditry are clear: the simplification of food webs and loss of biodiversity are eroding the resilience of marine ecosystems and increasing their vulnerability to environmental change,” says Professor David Bellwood, a senior researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“Fishing pressure on many coral reefs has increased dramatically with the emergence of export markets for restaurant and aquarium trades, both highly mobile boom-and-bust fisheries based on rapid air transport to growing luxury markets.

“Depletion of herbivorous fishes has contributed to algal blooms on reefs because algae released from their consumers out-compete corals for space.  Consequently, overfished reefs are less resilient to recurrent disturbances such as hurricanes, and more vulnerable to coral bleaching and mortality caused by global warming,” says Prof. Steneck.

“Existing marine protected areas are too small, too few and too far apart to prevent the tragedy of the oceans which is arising due to the unbridled demand for seafood”, says Prof. Boris Worm, Dalhousie University, Canada.

“Even the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the largest in the world, is too small to fully maintain all the turtles, fish and sharks that swim in and out of its boundaries,” adds Australia’s Prof. Hughes.

Overfishing is now occurring at such a rate that some local fisheries are wiped out – simply mined out of existence – before governments are even aware it is happening.  Once a fishery collapses, the opportunity to gain income from it ceases and may never return.

The 15 researchers are calling for urgent action at global, regional, national and local scales to bring overfishing under control and prevent fresh disasters.  This includes enforcing local property rights and licensing, closing areas to fishing, reforming markets and using flexible management approaches that can adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

It will also require extensive education and behavioural change in the consumers whose demands drive the industry economically, Professor Bellwood adds.

Berkes, F, Hughes, TP, Steneck, RS, Wilson, JA, Bellwood, DR, Crona, B, Folke, C, Gunderson, LH, Leslie, HM, Norberg, J, Nystrom, M, Olsson, P, Osterblom, H, Scheffer, M and Worm, B (2006). “Globalization, Roving Bandits, and Marine Resources.” Science 311(5767): 1557-1558.
Link to Full Text or pdf

More information:

Fikret Berkes
Address: Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada.
Phone:  +12 4 474 6731
Email:   berkes@cc.umanitoba.ca

Terry Hughes
Address: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.
Phone: +61 7 4781 4000, +61 0429 439 782
Email:   terry.hughes@jcu.edu.au

Robert Steneck
Address: School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.
Phone:  +1 (207) 563 3146 ext: 233 (Voice)
Email:     steneck@maine.edu

Jim Wilson
Address: School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.
Phone: +1 (207) 581 4368
Email:  jwilson@maine.edu

David Bellwood
Address: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.
Phone:    +61 7 4781 4447
Email:   david.bellwood@jcu.edu.au

Beatrice Crona
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 161 748
Email: Beatrice@ecology.su.se

Carl Folke
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone:   +46 8 673 9533
Email: calle@ecology.su.se

Lance Gunderson
Address: Dept. of Environmental Studies, Emory University, Atlanta GA 30322, USA.
Phone:    +1 (404) 727 2429
Email:    lgunder@emory.edu

Heather Leslie
Address: Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology & The Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University, Princeton NJ 08544, USA.
Phone:    +1 (609) 258 7915
Email:   hleslie@princeton.edu
Heather is available to speak with the press on Thursday 16th and Friday 17th March.

Jon Norberg
Address: Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone:  +46 8 164 916
Emailjon.norberg@ecology.su.se

Magnus Nyström
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 (0)8 16 44 86
Email:  magnusn@ecology.su.se

Per Olsson
Address: Centre for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research and Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 162 518
Email: per@ctm.su.se

Henrik Österblom
Address: Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.
Phone: +46 8 405 1928
Email: henriko@ecology.su.se; henrik.osterblom@sustainable.ministry.se

Marten Scheffer
Address: Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, 6700 DD Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Phone: +31 317 484 039
Email: marten.scheffer@wur.nl

Boris Worm
Address: Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada.
Phone: +1 (902) 494 2478
Email: bworm@dal.ca

Jenny Lappin, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, +61 7 4781 4222

Katrina Kalleske, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4586

Green sea urchins eating seaweed
Green sea urchins eating seaweed

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ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au