Monday, January 21, 2013

The Technological Fix by Moderator Anders Halverson
Discussion topic:  An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World

George Perkins Marsh is primarily known today for his 1864 book, Man and Nature, which is widely credited with ushering the idea of conservation into the national discourse. Seven years earlier, though, Marsh wrote a state-commissioned report on the decline of Vermont’s fisheries that previewed many of the same themes.

In this fascinating document, Marsh drew a connection between the loss of fishing opportunities, “duller,” and “more effeminate,” American men, and a threat to “our rights and our liberties.”

Industrialization, logging, and overfishing had initiated the problem. However, “The unfavorable influences which have been alluded to are, for the most part, of a kind which cannot be removed or controlled,” he wrote. “We cannot destroy our dams, or provide artificial water-ways for the migration of fish, which shall fully supply the place of the natural channels; we cannot wholly prevent the discharge of deleterious substances from our industrial establishments into our running waters.”

What to do? Marsh advised artificially propagating and stocking fish into the public waterways. Boys would go fishing again. Democracy would be safe.

George Perkins Marsh
Flash forward to the present day. After hearing me talk about the ecological impacts of fish stocking, people often describe the joy they found as children fishing for what they now realize were probably hatchery rainbows. They connect these experiences to their present love of the out-of-doors and the natural world. And they propose that if stocking fish creates a constituency for such things, perhaps it’s worth any harm it may cause, especially in ecosystems that have already been so dramatically altered by humans.

Perhaps. But I think we should also consider what happens when we try to solve our problems with a technological fix rather than addressing the root of the problem.

On the one hand, history has shown the effectiveness of the technological approach over and over again. For just one example, take the famous 1980 bet between ecologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich believed that overpopulation and overconsumption would lead to a catastrophic depletion of resources unless we tackled both. Simon countered that human ingenuity would mitigate any scarcity issues. They agreed to use the price of certain commodities as an indicator, with Ehrlich betting prices on these items would rise over the next ten years, Simon that they would decline.

Simon won.

Colorado's Crystal River Hatchery
On the other hand, there may be some things that can’t be measured by such simple proxies. Fisheries biologist Ray Hilborn laments that the public in the Pacific Northwest seems to believe that the region’s salmon runs depend entirely on hatcheries. “This belief is particularly pernicious because it inexorably leads to the acceptance of hatcheries as a mitigative measure for further habitat loss and dam construction,” he concludes (full article here).

And when I was researching this book, I had the opportunity to talk to long-time Montana fisheries manager Dick Vincent. He believes that his state’s decision to eliminate most fish stocking has generated an unparalleled river conservation ethic. Because the technological fix is off the table, he maintains, Montanans fight like no others to conserve such things as clean water and spawning habitat.

I’m not a purist, and I don’t have the answers. But I do believe that relying on technological fixes for things like fisheries management can have widespread ripple effects. I wonder, for example, whether our unwillingness to address the root causes of climate change can in some small way be traced back to a hatchery rainbow stocked many years ago to mitigate the effects of a dam.


Anonymous said...

What a conundrum indeed. There is no doubt that fishing is a great way to reconnect people with nature (a reconnection I think most would agree is sorely needed in our modern society). But do those benefits outweigh the costs?

The technological fix you mention reminds me of another issue around connecting people with nature. Should we use smart phone apps to connect kids to nature? In many cases, it is the smart phones we are trying to get them to put down, but what if we can use that technology to lure them into the outdoors? I also don't have the answers, but the thought of a kid walking the trail, staring at his iPhone app, learning all about brook trout instead of observing the beauty and complexity of the animal in the wild doesn't feel right in my gut. Thanks for the discussion.

Mark LaRoux said...

Well, let's take this one step farther....assume the same Iphone kid likes elephants or kangaroos. If he's in the US, he's kind of out of luck unless he joins a circus or works at a zoo/sanctuary. But the Iphone can provide him with a wealth of information about the animal he's interested in long before he gets to experience that well-anticipated first visit with 'his' animal...his 'totem' if you will. Why he chose it doesn't really matter as much as 'reeling him in' to whatever begins to expand his new biophilial spark, no flame. Natural human curiosity takes over from there...and the endless questions that mom and dad can't answer ARE answered on the internet (hopefully accurately). The Iphone can make a kid in the tropics the local expert on polar bears, and the kid in Wyoming a future whale expert when he later discovers fossils (these things happened without an Iphone, BTW). That's power....that's knowledge. That's technology finally fulfilling a decent purpose (in between the inevitable Iphone games). Most of us that now fish got 'hands on' training first, and later learned the biology, ecology, and chemistry issues that go with the fish. Maybe kids today need to learn the 'geek' part first, and then expand to the hands on part later. So be it. Take a science geek fishing, with or without the Iphone.

Julie Dunlap said...

Thank you for your insights. I've had some similar concerns about Trout in the Classroom, an increasingly popular school program that raises and releases trout and claims to teach ecology and conservation ethics. What do you think of that program from the perspective of stream ecology and long-term environmental education?

Anders said...

Hi Julie,
Thanks for bringing that up.
I have some of the same concerns about that program. I see two potential problems: 1) the message that is being sent about technological fixes for environmental problems; 2) the fact that at least in some cases they seem to be raising and stocking nonnative species.
Since I don't know as much about the program as I would like, I visited the website, informed them that we were having this discussion, and asked them to comment.

Anders said...

As for the use of smartphones, I admit I'm ambivalent myself.
First, full disclosure: I worked for and still have some stake in the company that publishes the Audubon Field Guide apps.
On the one hand, I agree: pulling out your smartphone in the middle of a hike or fishing expedition seems incongruous at best.
But on the other hand, it can be pretty great when you hear a bird calling in the thicket nearby and can then listen to the song on your smartphone to ID it. Or get an alert while you are walking down the street if a rare bird has been spotted nearby. Having that kind of information available in your pocket at all times is pretty amazing.
Ultimately I guess I've concluded that smartphones are here. We can fight a rearguard action, or try to get out in front and put them to use.