Should we fertilize the oceans for fishing?

April 04, 1997|By Dennis T. Avery

CHURCHVILLE, VA — CHURCHVILLE, Va. -- No farmer would look at a pasture full of starving cows and refuse to fertilize his grass, especially if he could afford the fertilizer. Does the same ethic apply to fish in the ocean?

California's Moss Landing Marine Laboratory recently dumped half a ton of iron filings into the Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos Islands.

This ''fertilizer'' produced a fortyfold increase in phytoplankton over a 200-square-mile area of the ocean!

Phytoplankton are the ocean's primary food source. Billions of these tiny plantlike organisms busily convert sunlight into nutrients to feed everything from zooplankton (tiny animal-like creatures) to huge whales.

The late John Martin, one of Moss Landing's oceanographers, theorized that phytoplankton need iron in order to take nitrogen and phosphate from the water, just as crop plants need trace minerals like zinc and manganese.

The recent experiment seems to prove that Martin was right. It spotlights a bottleneck in the open ocean's food chain.

So, do we go ahead and fertilize?

The international fish research center in the Philippines recently ran computer simulations based on historical accounts -- and concluded that the oceans of a century ago had 10 to 20 times their current marine life and vastly more catchable fish.

We've lost not only the catchable fish stocks but also huge numbers of waste-eating organisms and their predators. These are used to create feedback loops to support the larger fish populations.

The key problem has been overfishing.

Consumers have been bidding for more fish at the same time as refrigeration and flash freezing make high-quality fish available to more people than ever before.

Modern diesel-powered fishing boats, huge nylon nets and electronic fish finders have allowed fishermen to catch more and more of the available fish, often including so much of the breeding-age stock that the fishery can't sustain itself.

Meanwhile, there are $50 billion in annual subsidies for an industry that catches only $70 billion worth of fish. It's like trying to save the deer and elk by giving automatic rifles to the hunters.

Politically, it would be far easier to double the fish population (back to its previous norm) with a few thousand tons of iron filings than to sink the fishing boats and put the fishermen on the beach.

Moreover, if the fish population rebounded, we would want those boats and fishermen.

The March-April issue of E, The Environmental Magazine, reports on the success with iron filings.

Then it quotes oceanographer Sallie Chisholm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as saying that such experiments would ''cause ecosystem calamities and give big industry a license to pollute.''

A farmer would understand that an ecosystem calamity -- overfishing -- has already occurred. The objective now should be resource recovery.

A farmer would understand that the iron filings wouldn't cost much and would apparently pay for themselves many times over in additional fish caught.

In addition, the ''fertilizer'' might restore a thriving marine ecology that we can now readabout only in history books.

Farmers would jump at a chance to increase their output at low cost.

But fisheries people aren't used to enhancing and managing resources -- they're used to catching. Oceanographers are used to watching and counting.

''Despite the preliminary results,'' E magazine says, ''many environmentalists remain deeply skeptical about the plan.''

The Moss Landing Marine Lab researchers, the magazine points out, ''concede that plant growth returned to normal levels once the iron was used up.''

Farmers have managed their land for centuries knowing that if they want to harvest the crop or the cattle, they must replace the nutrients used up every year. Otherwise, there's no harvest.

Farmers also know that it's hard to manage resources owned by everyone, like the ''commons'' of a village -- or the waters of today's oceans.

But the iron-filings experiment has demonstrated such vast potential, for both fishermen and environmentalists, that more extensive studies should be on the way.

Renewing oceans

If the bigger studies indicate success, it might be possible to create an international consortium to use iron filings to renew the oceans' abundance. (That might require fishing moratoriums to let the key species rebuild their populations.)

If environmental activists reflexively oppose such an effort, it will be a clear sign that their vision of ''sustainable development'' is a sham.

It would mean they are less concerned with natural resources than with driving down people's standards of living.

But people in the 21st century will probably not be content to live in illiterate squalor. Environmental management must deal with the coexistence of wildlife and 9 billion affluent people.

''Small is beautiful'' should not include the world's marine populations.

Dennis T. Avery is editor of the Global Food Quarterly and author of ''Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic.''

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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