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Monday, March 20, 2023

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Accounting for 71 percent of the earth’s surface, oceans are the cradle of life, providing food, work, and play for billions of people around the globe. Accounting for 71 percent of the earth’s surface, oceans are the cradle of life, providing food, work, and play for billions of people around the globe.

Keeping Our Oceans Sustainable is Critical

Two anthropology professors stress the importance of ocean conservation.
By Todd J. Braje and Matthew Lauer

This op-ed was written by Todd J. Braje and Matthew Lauer of San Diego State University. It originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.

For many San Diegans, our geography, history, economy, and identity tie us to a precious resource. From Imperial Beach to Oceanside we cherish our coastline and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Accounting for 71 percent of the earth’s surface, oceans are the cradle of life, providing food, work, and play for billions of people around the globe.

Yet, burgeoning population growth, coupled with increased consumer demand for ocean resources have pushed marine ecosystems to their limits. We are living through a modern crisis of the seas — one that is nearly invisible when enjoying our beautiful beaches. Overfishing, coastal development, pollution and acidification have severely degraded our oceans.

Native San Diegans have undoubtedly heard stories about the previous abundance of fish, lobsters, clams, abalone, and other marine life in our local waters. Our region has experienced the serial collapse of one fishery after another, resulting in economic upheaval and lost dreams for sport and commercial anglers alike. Take the San Diego tuna industry. By the 1930s the year-round availability of skipjack and yellowfin allowed massive fishing fleets to harvest 100 million pounds of tuna annually. San Diego became known as the “tuna capital of the world” and tens of thousands of Southern Californians were linked in some way to the tuna industry, as fishers, factory workers, distributors, sport anglers, and consumers. By the 1960s, global catches were plummeting — the result of widespread overfishing — and, by the early 1980s, all of San Diego’s tuna canneries had closed.

Fortunately there are a variety of dedicated managers, scientists, fishermen, and concerned citizens who work exceptionally hard to combat the crisis of the oceans, clean up our beaches and coastal waters, and responsibly manage precious marine resources. Some of the answers to the current crisis may be revealed in unusual ways.

For example, archaeologists analyze shell middens (ancient coastal trash heaps) to better understand the sizes, abundances, and distributions of marine life and the health of coastal ecosystems dating back thousands of years. Shell middens tell the story of how ancient Native Americans managed and exploited San Diego’s coastal resources. These stories are critical for effective fisheries management based on data sets predating commercial overexploitation.

Typically, modern fisheries management policies relied on historic records rarely extending back more than 50 years. Managers assumed that the abundance of fish in the 1950s was the natural baseline, but by 1950 California’s fisheries had already undergone intense commercial exploitation and the number and sizes of fish were significantly lower than in preindustrial times. This problem, known as “shifting baselines syndrome,” is one reason many fisheries management policies have failed. Archaeological research can help avoid shifting baselines syndrome by providing data that extends into the ancient past when Native American hunters and fishers exploited coastal marine resources. These long-term data sets, generated by archaeologists, have enabled modern fisheries management to be more effective.

Marine-focused social scientists also play a vital role by documenting indigenous knowledge and marine management strategies of traditional peoples living in coastal areas around the world. In a few remote parts of the Pacific, certain island societies have a vast, sophisticated knowledge of marine resources. Solomon Islanders, for example, can identify hundreds of different fish and invertebrate species and have a complex understanding of ocean currents, fish spawning behavior, and other ecological processes. This intimate knowledge of the marine environment underpins centuries-old resource management practices where local communities regulate access to fish and other marine resources. Where they are still practiced, traditional management systems have proved to be sustainable over the long-term. Communities harvest fish and other resources, but do so without exceeding the regenerative capacity of the local marine environment. When anthropologists and other social scientists brought back detailed descriptions of these successful, traditional management strategies it helped inspire marine protected areas (MPAs) in the western world. The United States has now established more than 1,600 MPAs, 11 of them off the coast of San Diego.

Resolving the shifting baseline syndrome and documenting traditional management strategies are two examples of how we, as citizens and scientists in San Diego, have begun to identify pathways to long-term coastal sustainability. To gain a better understanding of what the future might hold and develop more effective protocols for management of the oceans and our marine fisheries, we must draw from and expand upon the expertise and experience of all advocates of sustainable oceans: scientists, commercial and sport fishermen and women, local citizens, environmentalists, and policy makers. With persistence and dedication we can, and must, solve this crisis.

Braje and Lauer teach at San Diego State University’s Department of Anthropology.