Almost Nothing is Infinite

In 1866, in southern Ontario, a flock of birds is reported to have flown overhead. What was unusual was that it took some fourteen hours for the flock to pass overhead: it was estimated to contain 3.5 billion birds and if so, those birds would have been among the most populous bird species on Earth.

Just half a century later, there were none at all.

It’s a hundred years since the very last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. From being so numerous as to inspire awe in the middle of the 19th century, to being extinct in the early 20th: in the space of a human lifetime, a seemingly endless resource was used up, and would never be seen again.

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Martha

Pigeon meat wasn’t a great delicacy, but it was plentiful and cheap: it had become a staple food for the poor, and in some places for slaves. One might draw parallels with salmon, which was once a poor man’s fish: in the Colonial period, servants had clauses in their contracts to limit the frequency with which they could be fed salmon. Only a decline in fish stocks made it into a luxury.

Passenger pigeons were ludicrously easy to kill. They roosted together in large groups, and could be collected by lighting a sulphurous fire beneath them. When on the wing, a shot from a blunderbuss would bring down a score of them or more; even a thrown stick could bring them down. They were netted, lured with alcohol-soaked grain, and killed in half a dozen other ways. They were smoked, salted, pickled and hauled off into the cities by the new railways. Other passenger pigeons were simply used for fattening hogs, where they fell.

Hunting the Passenger Pigeon, 1875

Hunting the passenger pigeon, 1875

Legislative efforts to protect dwindling flocks had begun as early as 1857, but laws were only spottily enforced, and generally came too late to make a difference. Passenger pigeons appear to have been highly social, needing to roost together in large groups for successful breeding to take place. Thus, while hunters didn’t kill the very last of the birds, they had set them irrevocably on the path to extinction.

This is what we do; we consume resources, and we aren’t necessarily logical about it. Like a spendthrift who eats into their bank deposit, rather than living off the interest it generates, for a time one can live well… and then you break the system, and it doesn’t give you anything anymore.

This behaviour isn’t unique to North America; closer to home we might examine the decline in the North Sea fishing industry where herring, “the silver darlings” used to provide work for tens of thousands – and nutrition for millions.

There was a time when there were 30,000 vessels engaged in fishing for herring on the east coast of the UK alone. The sea provided an apparently endless bounty, and people made the most of it. As technology improved, however, an imbalance arose: the 20th century would see the widespread adoption of engines, radio, sonar, nylon nets… all of which made going after the fish a simpler, safer and more productive business. None of this is to be despised, but in an increasingly one-sided contest, the herring all but disappeared – with consequences for the people whose income depended upon them.

With the exception of a few diseases, humanity doesn’t actively seek to bring about extinction. Quite the opposite; few people want a profitable industry to disappear, nor to have to live without the things that industry used to provide… yet species can be taken to the brink – and beyond.

The role of government in all this is interesting, from the weak, non-interventionist stance seen in the case of the passenger pigeon, to the much more hands-on involvement in the North Sea. There, the government had to execute a complete U-turn. Once, good governance involved providing assistance to ensure a healthy domestic fishing industry. This would involve subsidy, infrastructure development, and marine research geared towards understanding migration patterns and reporting these to fishermen, in order to improve the catch. Only later, with fish stocks in crisis, would good governance mean placing restrictions on the size of the fishing fleet and the equipment that could be used, the establishment of quotas, and reductions in the number of days when the fishing fleet could put to sea. In this context, marine research finally came to recognise the finite nature of fish stocks, and the fragile nature of the ecosystem – and it was very nearly too late.

Eventually, fishing activity had to be suspended, for years, as the graph below shows. Only a complete moratorium on fishing for North Sea herring saved them.

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

As a great example of the government’s former role in promoting fishing, Caller Herrin’ was a 1947 information film from the Scottish Home Department, named after the traditional cry to advertise fresh herring. It provides a fascinating window on the past, allowing us to learn a new unit of measure: the cran (enough fish to fill a box of about 170 litres capacity), and enjoy the moment towards the end of part 1 where, it seems, four crew are required to land a single basket of herring… despite the obvious time-pressure with no refrigeration in sight.


The people shown in the film, and their jobs, seem strange and alien. We might as well be watching a documentary about the people of Papua New Guinea for all that we have in common with these ancestors. I’ve never eaten a kipper. How does an industry change so much, within living memory?

While it’s true that the Scottish fishing fleet was renewed with government assistance in the aftermath of the Second World War, things had already changed a great deal. The traditional export markets in Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe were largely depressed, or newly inaccessible. The Scottish fishing fleet would soon be transformed again, to go after whitefish, often farther afield and in colder waters. Difficult times (and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War) were ahead, but that isn’t a direct consequence of the decline of the herring: in fact, British exports of herring had peaked in 1907, long before the inept “management” of fish stocks under the Common Fisheries Policy, which only began in 1970.

Meanwhile, although no commercially exploited fish species has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, Thurstan et al (2010) reported that British fish catches had declined by 94% in a little over a century.

Now, politicians are responsible for the fate of the remaining stocks, to a degree unimaginable not long ago, when species such as herring were still thought of as simply existing in the wild – and being so numerous as to be effectively infinite and in no need of stewardship.

Perhaps we might have said:

“No ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

…except that particular quote comes from a century earlier, and the report of a select committee of the Senate of Ohio, in 1857… in response to the first bill that was proposed in order to protect the passenger pigeon.

 

References

Thurstan, R.H. Brockington, S., Roberts, C.M. (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on British bottom trawl fisheries, Nature Communications 1 (15): 1

Toresen, R. & Østvedt, O.J. (2000) Variation in Abundance of Norwegian Spring-Spawning Herring (Clupea harengus, Clupeidae) throughout the 20th Century and the Influence of Climactic Fluctuations, Fish and Fisheries 1, 231-256

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