Cod and Caribou – good management, natural resiliency or media headlines

Posted: August 22, 2011 - 15:24 , by royal
Natural History, What's New, Biodiversity, Canada | Comments () | Comment

A fish swimming in blue water.

Cod. Photo by *Saipal. Flickr Creative Commons.

By Dave Ireland, Managing Director, Biodiversity Programs for the Life in Crisis: Schad Gallery of Biodiversity.

The collapse of the cod industry in the western Atlantic in the 1980’s, and in particular Newfoundland, is well known. So much so that the story is found in university textbooks across disciplines: from ecology to conservation biology and from economics to political science. As the story goes, commercial fishing of the cod was not managed properly and as the industry matured to include more and more technological advances to harvest more and more fish, the natural cycle of the fish stocks eventually couldn’t keep pace and declined to near extinction. Thousands of jobs were lost, an entire provincial community had to re-set its economy, and the food-web of the western Atlantic was dramatically changed. Moratoriums were put in place, fisheries were closed and science textbooks told the story, and thirty years later the cod seem to be re-bounding.

A caribou standing in a grassy field.

Photo Courtesy of Judith Eger, Senior Curator of Mammalogy, Department of Natural History.

In 2009, scientists and biologists across the circumpolar regions of the world warned that caribou populations were in steep decline, and that another species so important to local and regional economies was in deep trouble. Greenpeace campaigned hard: posters showing a fading picture of a caribou with the words “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone” were placed on thousands of telephone polls across Ontario, and in many Toronto subway station walls and all over the internet. Indeed, in 2009 many caribou populations did experience steep declines: 29 of the 57 recognized herds, and 9 of the 11 in Canada, were deemed “not self-sustaining” by a panel of scientific experts, lead by a team from University of Alberta. The “Bathurst” population of the Canadian north lost >90,000 animals, down 75% from the last survey some 8 years earlier. However, at a meeting this week 230 of the worlds’ leading ungulate (deer) experts have released statements that suggest the caribou is on the comeback, with said Bathurst population stabilizing.

What does this all mean? Do biologists know what they’re doing? Do the media and hard-line advocacy groups play on our fear of environmental collapse?

I think it suggests that nature is resilient. I think it suggest that management of commercial resources is important. I think it suggests that without biologists in the field, we’d have no idea what abundance nature can provide. I think it suggests that hard-line advocacy has a place. Combined, these forces, I think, made possible the return of the cod, and the stabilizing population status of the caribou.