Lomborg on fish

2006-06-29

in Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

I just re-read the short section on world fisheries in Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist, and noted that the level of analysis shown there is low enough to cast doubt on the rest of the book. He basically argues that:

  1. The global fish catch is increasing.
  2. We can always farm our way out of trouble.
  3. Fish aren’t that important anyhow (only 1% of human calories, 6% of protein).

He is seriously wrong on all three counts. On the matter of overall catch, that is a misleading figure, because it doesn’t take into account the effort involved in catching the fish. You could be catching more because you’re building more ships, using more fuel, etc. As long as subsidy structures like those in the EU and Japan remain, this is inevitable. While such technological advances can conceal the depletion of fish stocks, the reality remains. If we’re fishing above the rate at which a fishery can replenish itself, it doesn’t matter whether our catches are increasing or not. Or rather, it does insofar as it helps to determine how long it will be before the fishery collapses, like the cod fisheries of Newfoundland and the North Sea already have. Fisheries are also complex things. Catching X fish and waiting Y time doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have X fish to catch again. Much has to do with the structure of food webs, and thus energy flows within the ecosystem.

The idea that farming can be the answer is also seriously misleading. First and foremost, farmed fish are almost exclusively carnivorous. That means they need to be fed uglier, less tasty fish in order to grow. Since they aren’t 100% efficient at turning food into flesh, there is an automatic loss there. More importantly, if we begin fishing other stocks into decline in order to farm fish, we will just have spread the problem around, not created any kind of sustainable solution. As I have written about here before, serious pressure already exists on a number of species that are ground into meal for fish-farming. There are also the matters of how fish farms produce large amount of waste that then leaches out into the sea: biological wastes from the fish, leftover hormones and antibiotics from the flood of both used to make the fish grow faster and get sick less often in such tight proximity, and the occasional seriously diseased of genetically damaged fish escaping to join the gene pool.

I can only assume that Lomborg is right to say that “fish constitutes a vanishingly small part of our total calorie consumption – less than 1 percent – and only 6 percent of our protein intake.” Even so, that doesn’t mean that losing fisheries as a viable source of calories and protein would not be a terrible event. Humanity overall may not be terribly dependent, but certain groups of individuals are critically dependent. Moreover, the “it’s not all that important a resource anyway, so who cares if it goes?” attitude that is implied in Lomborg’s assessment fails to consider the ramifications that continuing to fish as we are could have for marine ecosystems in general and the future welfare of humanity.

One last item to identify is the fallacious nature of the 100 million tons a year of fish we can “harvest for free.” This is his estimate of the sustainable catch, and he then notes that we are only catching 90 million tons. He goes on to say that “we would love to get our hands on that extra 10 million tons.” First off, the distribution here matters. If the sustainable catch for salmon is five million tons and we are catching twenty, the overall figure doesn’t reflect the fact that salmon stocks will be rapidly destroyed. If we’re burning our way through, species by species (look at the wide variety of fish now served as ‘cod’ in the UK), then even a total catch below the aggregated potential sustainable yield could be doing irreparable harm. Secondly, we have shown no capacity for restraint as a species. Just looking at what Canada has done within its own territorial waters demonstrates that even rich governments with good scientists can make ruinous policy choices for political or other kinds of reasons.

All in all, Lomborg’s analysis is seriously misleading and lacks comprehension of the dynamics that underlie marine ecology and the human interaction with it that takes place. While my research project for the thesis partly involves examining the controversy surrounding Lomborg, I am not planning to critique his statements directly in the thesis. With passages like this included, I may be tempted.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy June 29, 2006 at 5:11 pm

It’s not about fish, but I am betting this will interest you:

“The US Supreme Court has ruled that the Bush administration does not have the authority to try terrorism suspects by military tribunal.

In a landmark decision, justices upheld the challenge by Osama Bin Laden’s ex-driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, against his trial at Guantanamo Bay.

The court’s ruling that the proceedings violated Geneva Conventions is seen as a major blow to the administration.

But the decision does not mean the closure of the Guantanamo Bay camp.”

(Source: The BBC)

Anonymous June 29, 2006 at 6:32 pm

Sorry about the ad, but this Daily Show clip is pretty funny.

Antonia June 30, 2006 at 5:03 pm

Do Lomborg’s catch figures take the landed fish that are thrown back into account? See (you’ve probably already seen this 2005 Earth Policy Instititute article

R.K. July 5, 2006 at 10:25 pm
. February 23, 2010 at 10:10 am

Debunking a Climate-Change Skeptic

“The Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg won fame and fans by arguing that many of the alarms sounded by environmental activists and scientists — that species are going extinct at a dangerous rate, that forests are disappearing, that climate change could be catastrophic — are bogus. A big reason Lomborg was taken seriously is that both of his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist (in 2001) and Cool It (in 2007), have extensive references, giving a seemingly authoritative source for every one of his controversial assertions. So in a display of altruistic masochism that we should all be grateful for (just as we’re grateful that some people are willing to be dairy farmers), author Howard Friel has checked every single citation in Cool It. The result is The Lomborg Deception, which is being published by Yale University Press next month. It reveals that Lomborg’s work is ‘a mirage,’ writes biologist Thomas Lovejoy in the foreword. ‘[I]t is a house of cards. Friel has used real scholarship to reveal the flimsy nature’ of Lomborg’s work.”

Byron Smith March 13, 2010 at 8:34 am

Sorry to keep putting comments on threads that are very old, but I’ve just found your blog and am enjoying it very much. I’m an Australian PhD student in Edinburgh studying Christian Ethics with particular focus on the effects of ecological fears on the discourse of ecological ethics.

Anyway, I’d be very interested to hear your conclusions about your study on the Lomborg controversy. Can you point me to a realiable overview of the controversy with the Danish authorities? I have a friend who keeps quoting Lomborg and I don’t currently have time to read his books and the critiques and his answers. Thanks!

Milan March 13, 2010 at 10:34 am
Byron Smith March 13, 2010 at 10:54 am

Thanks for the links and for responding so quickly.

When you said “my research project for the thesis partly involves examining the controversy surrounding Lomborg”, are you referring to the controversy involving the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty? If so, do you have any links to good summaries of that controversy? Do you agree with the Wikipedia summary? Don’t feel you need to do extra work for me, I just thought that perhaps you might already have some of this material at hand.

Milan March 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

My thesis didn’t end up involving much on Lomborg, so I don’t have any other sources immediately at hand to point out.

Byron Smith March 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

OK, no problem. Thanks.

Milan March 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm

If you find some good information on Lomborg, feel free to link it here or on my other Lomborg-related post.

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