How fashion can bring about ecosystem collapse

© Keith A. Ellenbogen

Editor’s note: A new scientific paper argues that drivers of social change like technology and fashion play a key role in bringing about environmental change — and it’s time the scientific community pays attention. The authors — including Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International (CI) Hawai‘i — contend that in order to protect ecosystems before it’s too late, we have to look beyond traditional data and clue into these social forces, which can forewarn scientists when an ecosystem is in decline.

In a recent conversation, Kittinger laid out the paper’s key findings.

Question: What’s an example of a social factor that can tell us about the health of an ecosystem?

Answer: It may be hard to believe, but to understand the decline of kelp forests, you have to understand how the demand for otter pelts was driven by a fashion craze in China. The demand for this species was so great that the price was astronomical, driving the intensity and geographic expansion of the harvest. This explains why some people were still financing expeditions long after the majority of otters were extirpated — the pelts were worth more than gold. We are doing the same thing now with bluefin [tuna], actually.

But markets are just one example: For cod off the coast of Newfoundland and the northeastern U.S., new technologies were the culprit. Suddenly people were able to use fish-finding technology, allowing them to increase or maintain their catch per unit effort, even while the stock was declining precipitously. If you’re just watching the catch, you’d miss the importance that technology played in crashing the fishery. It’s never recovered — clearly we need to be more vigilant in our monitoring of technology and its impact on species and on ecosystems.

Q: Your paper argues for a new way of monitoring our oceans. Can you explain what this entails?

A: We looked beyond the immediate causes of ocean ecosystem collapse and identified the root causes driving these changes. By looking backwards, we were able to reconstruct the anatomy of collapse. This tells us that we need to be looking beyond the symptoms of the decline and treating the root problems. Factors such as new markets for marine resources, rapid population growth and new technologies such as efficient fishing gears had a major role in driving ocean ecosystems past the tipping point. To avoid this in the future we need to get serious about understanding these root causes and be proactive in ameliorating the threats they present — this is key to preserving ocean resources and the communities that depend on them.

The well-known coral reef scientist Jeremy Jackson says that he is tired of re-writing the obituary of the sea. I couldn’t agree more. To prevent this, we need to understand what’s driving the declines. And we’ve been spending the majority of our time looking at the direct threats without dealing substantively with the underlying causes. As a conservation organization, this is where we need to be: working on the deep, causal mechanisms while also reducing threats in real time. This takes data — we need to understand the root causes, and we have to be methodical in evaluating whether our efforts are having a demonstrable impact on ecosystems and people. CI has incredible resources and experience in guiding decision-making in conservation.

Q: Are there any successes you can point to where this new monitoring approach was taken?

A: This paper was all about understanding the drivers causing the collapse of the ocean ecosystem, but clearly this approach needs to be taken to understand successes as well. I’d expect the same factors — technology, human population, markets and governance — to again be critical aspects of the success stories, as they have been with the epic collapses we researched. Ultimately it is about our relationship with the ocean: We have the choice to either manage these places well or drive them into the ground.

One example that is showing promise for positive change is the application of a rights-based approach to fisheries, which means working with communities to ensure that the rights of individuals and vulnerable groups are heard and protected, and traditional knowledge and customs are incorporated into all programs. This has been a major shift in the way we manage fisheries, and countries that have adopted this approach — from New Zealand to the United States — are seeing most of their fisheries stocks recover. But this approach is not without its own drawbacks: Often with these approaches the fishing fleet consolidates, which results in a loss of diversity in the overall fishing fleet. This usually has a bigger impact on small–scale fishers, so for this approach to be a successful solution, it needs to be tailored to the needs of the fishery. Not all fisheries are the right fit for this tool, as some of our ongoing research is showing.

Another example is technology. A wide range of emerging technologies are being applied to marine conservation challenges, from traceability systems for seafood to new enforcement models that make use of satellite technologies. This is opening up a significant space for progress.

Further reading

Q: If you could get people to take one simple step to help the ocean, what would it be?  

A: One of the main ways that people connect directly with their environment is through their food. But one of the hardest food commodities in the world to get reliable information on is seafood. If people start to demand more information about their seafood — where it was caught, by whom, and is it from a sustainable fishery or aquaculture operation — it will change humanity’s relationship with the sea. Eat sustainably sourced seafood!

Jack Kittinger is the senior director of Conservation International (CI) Hawai‘i.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: A fashion for otter fur is directly linked to the degradation of kelp forests, a new study shows. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)