Diving in the Vinkeveense Plassen

The majority of students in our MSc program on marine resource management is a diving fanatic. One of them, for instance, did an internship in Madagascar at Blue Ventures, an NGO that does research on the status and value of marine ecosystems in Madagascar and Belize and that offers volunteer work (i.e. to pay them to do work for them) to do dive surveys. Another student conducted a survey among divers in the Dutch Caribbean to estimate their willingness to pay for diving there. Diving is a major source of income of many marine conservation areas, especially coral reefs. So I figured I should at least know what it’s like underwater. Last weekend I did a discovery dive with Jacobs Diving in the Vinkeveense Plassen to experience just that. (OK, to be really honest, I figured it would make a nice birthday present for Monique, who told me before she would like to try diving.)

Photo taken by Jacob Van Velsen

The place we went to turned out to be a very popular place among Dutch divers, and it is not difficult to understand why: the water is exceptionally clear for Dutch standards and the presence of fish is so predictable that guide books show them on the map. (Seriously, it said: big fish here, and yes, they were real.) Jacob gave us short instructions of what we were going to do and then we went in. The first you notice is the heaviness of your own breathing: you suddenly feel like Darth Vader with bubbles. Everything else (the tinkling of the chains of a buoy, the breathing of other divers) is only slightly noticeable. As you hover through the sparse vegetation at about 2 meters deep you slowly see the rim approaching of a deeper area. Beyond that there is only dark, but as you go further you start making out shapes: a sunken boat, other divers. These diving places are full of objects to dive to, including a bus, a laundry carousel (complete with clothes), and one of those typical ANWB emergency telephones. The place wasn’t like a playground: it was a playground. There are even a couple of spring riders.

I can now understand what attracts my students in diving: in fact, I’m considering taking a PADI course myself. It’s a cliche, but there is a whole world down there and the experience is almost extraterrestrial. And this was just the Vinkeveense Plassen!

North Sea Foundation vs Climategate: my 2 cents

Last Monday was World Biodiversity Day, and the focus was this time on marine biodiversity. This means a lot of press releases and other broohaha (and boohoo) about declining marine biodiversity. I can point to plenty of problems with marine biodiversity (for instance, that delicious fish species like eel and southern bluefin tuna are at the brink of extinction), but you can read all about that here. For now, I want to look at the following statement by the Dutch North Sea Foundation (my translation; links added by me):

The North Sea, The Netherlands’ largest nature area, is under pressure. In 2010 the Nature Balance announced that only 40% is left of the North Sea’s biodiversity. “So it is necessary that important areas and animal species are well-protected, so that the sea’s biodiversity can recover”, says Monique van de Water of the North Sea Foundation.

Rypke Zeilmaker of Climategate disagrees because, among others, the Nature Balance figures are based on reference levels for which no scientific foundation exists (translated rather liberally):

As reference level for porpoises the Nature Balance uses an unfounded historical figure of 50,000 porpoises along the Dutch North Sea Coast and 1000 in the Wadden Sea. They don’t say why.

As I said before, I follow the Climategate blog not because I’m a climate sceptic (I’m not), but between all the accusations and rhetoric you occasionally find interesting viewpoints. So I looked up the documents on which all this is based. Here are a few quotes.

Osinga et al, 2007; cited in Wortelboer 2010, which is cited by the Nature Balance:
With a density of 0.390 porpoises per square km and a Dutch North Sea with a surface area of 57,000 square km the total number of porpoises in the Dutch North Sea is estimated at about 22,230 individuals.

Wortelboer 2010:
Based on the data of later analyses by SCANS II we estimated the number of porpoises at 11,000. (…) The Dutch Mammal Society (2007) estimates the current number of porpoises in the Dutch North Sea at roughly 17,000 (15,000 – 19,000) based on airplane surveys and SCANS II. (…) The Dutch Mammal Society estimates the porpoise population in the Dutch North Sea in 1950 at 32,500 (25,000 – 40,000) individuals. This is lower than the reference level according to Baptist and Jagtman (1997).

I don’t have the Dutch Mammal Society report but here is what Baptist and Jagtman (1997) say:

There are no measurements of porpoise populations before 1960. From the number of stranded animals we can say that the species was very common. (…) From biological monitoring studies we can deduce that there is a population of at least 30,000 individuals in the southern North Sea. This population was until recently present in the British part of the North Sea, but not in the Dutch part. Based on current knowledge the reference population can be estimated at more than 100,000 porpoises in the southern North Sea, of which 50,000 in the Dutch part of the North Sea.

Overestimated? Possibly. Shaky? Undoubtedly, but unavoidably in this kind of studies. Poorly referenced? I believe so: I would have liked to know what is meant by “current knowledge”. Unfounded? That’s too harsh. Scientific fraud, as Zeilmaker claims? Certainly not. There are simply no data, but the policy makers want figures to work with. And the affair after which the Climategate blog is named shows that if you don’t like the North Sea Foundation, PBL, or any organisation involved in environmental policy or research, it is always possible to find some mistake, misquote, omitted reference or whatever, and to blow that out of proportion.

But there is still something that bothers me about the 40% figure used by the North Sea Foundation. The indicator they use is a sort of average of a lot of other indicators, all of which express how well the environment is doing with respect to some reference level that is supposed to represent a pristine, untouched environment. So if the porpoise population would have been 50,000 in the absence of man, and it is now, say, 25,000, then the indicator for porpoises is 50%. There are loads of such indicators, and the method of aggregating them to a single figure can be debated at length also, of course. But that holds for any indicator that aims to express a multidimensional issue in a single figure (more on ecological footprinting in a later post).

No, what bothers me is that they also do this for commercial fish species like herring, plaice, and cod. Didn’t we agree under the Convention for Biodiversity that fish stocks should be maintained at Maximum Sustainable Yield? As a rule of thumb, a species’ MSY stock size is mostly about half what it would be in the absence of fishing, although for some species it can be as low as 25%. So if we meet our CBD targets and maximize the harvests we can maintain sustainably, environmentalists still have plenty to complain as these stocks have a “nature quality index” of 50% or less. So yes, please do take the 40% with a grain of salt.

A day on Urk

Fishing is not a big part of the Dutch economy: its gross added value is less than a percent of Dutch GDP. But it appeals to the Dutch psyche. One of the most iconic species in this respect is herring: the Dutch have a strange pride in eating it raw, holding it by its tail. One of the most important traded goods in the days of the Hanseatic League, it made some traders in towns like Deventer filthy rich. Alas, nowadays the herring fishery is dominated by the Norwegians.

But go to any market in a Dutch town and you will find a stall with the essential raw herring, kibbelingen (originally fried cod cheeks, but it can be any fish species nowadays – a lot of Dutch people think it’s a species of its own) or other seafood. And where better to eat your fish than at the Visserijdagen on Urk?

That’s right: on Urk – it’s a former island that is now a town in the Flevopolder. It’s a fascinating place. When the Dutch built the Afsluitdijk and the Zuiderzee became the IJssel Lake, the Urkers simply refused to go the same way as towns like Elburg and Spakenburg, where the old Zuiderzee fishery is no more than folklore. Instead, they moved their efforts to the North Sea and continue to have a thriving fishing community to this day. It’s by far the Netherlands’ biggest fishing community and auction, but most of the Urk fishing fleet lies more than an hour’s drive away in the Frisian town of Harlingen.

Like most of the Dutch fishing fleet, the Urk fishery is mostly focused on flatfish like plaice and sole, which they catch by bottom trawlers. As far as I can judge these species are fairly well-managed, although the sector has its share of problems including high fuel prices and growing criticism from environmental organisations at the impact of fishing on the benthic ecosystem. The fuel use and benthic impact go hand in hand: so far the most widely used fishing gear is the beam trawl, which is a fairly heavy piece of equipment that includes so-called tickler chains to stir up the flatfish. It takes a lot of energy to drive the beam trawl over the sea bottom, and biologists argue that it also affects many other species. Therefore, fishers and researchers are currently doing a lot of technical research on alternative gear with lower fuel use and benthic impact. One of these is the pulse trawl, which sends light electrical pulses that have the same effect as the tickler chains on flatfish, but have a much smaller impact on the sea bottom. They had one of those displayed in the harbour.

A day like this attracts a lot of people, and I’m sure the weather helped. Or maybe it was the free bag of fish: this is The Netherlands, after all.

WWF’s Living Planet Report

WWF has a new edition of its Living Planet Report out. I promise to read it more carefully in the near future, but what bothers me about it already is their use of the ecological footprint to make their case. Economists have long criticized the use of the EF as a measure of sustainability. I’ll get deeper into the reasons for that in future posts, but the bottom line for me is that it is often interpreted in a normative sense, even though it cannot be used for that purpose. In other words: it only tells you, in a simplified way, whether we can keep up our current way of life, but it says nothing about the consequences of living unsustainable. Therefore, you risk sounding the wrong alarm bells. By the same token, the way it is designed it is strongly biased against cities and trade: two things economists like and ecologists dislike. This goes some way in explaining its popularity but that does not mean it is an accurate indicator.

Anyway, I’ll go deeper into this later.

Edited 13 June 2012: Changed the title. I should have known about the kind of connotations animal limbs can have (pandas, camels). That’s what you get when you’re not a native speaker.

Religion, academics, and fisheries policy

I once explained to a non-Dutch economist how religion affects Dutch fisheries policy and she could hardly believe me. Here is a post from a fisherman from Urk, The Netherlands’ biggest fishing community, that perfectly illustrates how deep this impact goes, and how it complicates fisheries policy.

If you can’t read Dutch, let me translate the gist of the piece (hyperlinks added for clarification):

Last Monday we were fishing on the East side of the Cleaver Bank. This is one of the areas our green friends of Greenpeace claim is an important nature reserve, making their point by dumping a bunch of stones. Catches were great until the wind turned and our catch suddenly reduced to about half of what we were catching. I’ve seen this happening before, and I used to ask older fishers: “The fish has to be somewhere, right? It can’t just disappear, can it?” And all they could answer was that they just did not know. It makes you wonder who we think we are to think we can exert any influence on the fish. You won’t convince me that we, with our small boats, are capable of destroying the entire sea bottom as so many folks say we do.

Nature is so great, it does not care about what we do, it goes its own way and the way planned by its Creator. Man’s activities could change that a bit on the short term but it will not establish real change. There is fish, or there is no fish, but where it comes from or where it goes nobody knows. There have been bad times and there have been good times. You can’t express it in some graph that needs to be interpreted so that some policy can be implemented. You can’t confine Nature in little boxes such as the Plaice Box. It is impossible to understand Nature, and more difficult to predict than the weather.

We can do our job every week in that Creation, to enjoy its diversity, to which we sometimes pay too little attention. Our sights are obscured by our everyday financial troubles but all the while we can enjoy the greatest masterpiece of all times, God’s Nature.

We can run all the models we like, do all the estimations we like, but any attempt to limit catch or fishing effort will at best be grudgingly accepted by somebody with this world view.

So who’s right? I’m tempted to side with the biologists and to say they should try better at convincing the fishers, but I won’t, for two reasons. First, I find that a paternalist approach that can only antagonize people, and one of things most lacking in fisheries policy is mutual trust. Second, even the biologists themselves admit they don’t know everything so I think a two-way communication would be much more helpful. Yes, we might learn a thing or two from the fishers.

Fisheries policy has all the ingredients of a policy maker’s nightmare. Like climate policy, fisheries management is dazzlingly complex, with a lot of unknowns. The Plaice Box was established to protect juvenile plaice, thereby improving the entire flatfish fisheries. The fishers hated it and did not expect any good from it. Ever since its establishment, its stocks of juvenile plaice have declined! The biologists are still in the dark why, but the fishers feel vindicated.

Moreover, there is a huge gap in world view and education between the sector (religious, vocational training) and the researchers (secular, PhD). I know of nobody who ever crossed that rift. In Wageningen you meet many academics who come from a non-academic background: many of my colleagues and students were born and raised on a farm, and I myself was born right above my father’s butchery. I think a lot of agricultural policy would not have been possible without people who knew both worlds. But I have never met any student in, say, animal husbandry, biology, or marine resource management whose father went out on a fishing vessel every week.

Lastly, there are institutional problems, and history has not been helpful here. Fish stocks have been a free-for-all for centuries, with all the known commons problems, but also establishing a sense of entitlement among fishers. It is their fish, it is their fishing area. Sadly, the moral entitlement has not been joined by a legal one: a farmer may own land, but a fisher has no legal tenure over any area in the North Sea. So legally the government can designate huge no-take zones without having to compensate anybody, but doing that on land involves huge costs in buying land or compensating people.

Man, I love my job (had a nice raw herring with onions yesterday).

Why economists argue with ecologists (3): consequences versus deontology

A fundamental difference between economists and ecologists is that economists tend to approach environmental pollution as an allocative issue, whereas ecologists tend to approach it as a moral issue. Or, more accurately, economists take a consequentialist approach whereas ecologists tend to be more deontologist.

There are many examples to illustrate this, but none is as sharp as the debate on emissions trading. It used to be no more than a smart idea to limit pollution in an efficient manner, but it has evolved into a political minefield where the Left sees it as a sell-out to Wall Street, whereas the Right sees it as a communist takeover of the economy. The idea is simple: we limit emissions to, say, 100 units, and so we distribute 100 units of emission rights among polluters. Want to pollute more? Then buy rights from another polluter, who will then have to take additional emission reduction measures. You bet he will only agree to that transaction if you pay him more for his right to pollute than it costs him to reduce his pollution by one additional unit. Moreover, you will only agree if the price you pay for the right is lower than it benefits you to increase your pollution. In other words, you can have a voluntary transaction that makes both parties better off without further damaging the environment. This is a way of achieving what economists call allocative efficiency: we shuffle around resources and other inputs to achieve the maximum output at minimum costs, where costs include environmental damage as well as wages and all. An economist would say: we have the same environmental quality, but we increase welfare – what’s not to like?

A lot, an ecologist would say. Besides issues with regard to enforcement, windfall profits, etc., an ecologist would also have objections of a moral nature. Here are a few of the objections I’ve heard from students and researchers:

  • How can you give somebody a right to pollute? Nobody should have any right to pollute the environment.
  • Under such schemes companies can just pay some money and go about their dirty business. They should give a good example to others.
  • It’s immoral to commodify the environment.
  • Tradable emission permits are a modern version of medieval indulgences.

I can think of a lot of misguided objections to emissions trading, but these objections are not among them. They are moral objections that are valid within a given moral framework, which may not be my moral framework, but a valid one nonetheless. You hear similar arguments in the debate on economic valuation of the environment, biotechnology, and to some extent Payments for Ecosystem Services (wait until you propose hunting as a source of conservation funding). In all of these examples economists stress the allocative issue: “look, we clean up the environment right? That’s what you want, right? So why not make sure that we do this efficiently through emissions trading / cost-benefit analysis / GMOs / hunting concessions?” On the other hand, ecologists tend to stress the moral side of the issue: “rights to pollute / pricing nature / genetic modification / hunting is plain wrong and we shouldn’t do it.”

Beneath the economist’s allocative approach lies the philosophy of utilitarianism. In a nutshell, utilitarians argue that an action is morally right whenever it maximizes the sum of all happiness. This also means that utilitarians judge an action purely by its consequences, whereas other moral philosophies (also called deontological ethics) judge the action itself.

In other words, economists take a consequentialist approach to environmental problems, whereas ecologists tend to be more on the deontological side. Note that the moral objections to emissions trading listed above focus on the trading itself rather than its consequences. The economist’s reply will always point to the consequences.

Maybe it is due to my economics training, but I’m more on the consequentialist/utilitarian side. The deontological argument can become self-defeating, for instance when opposition to hunting leads to habitat degradation. If we have to choose between an ailing population of an endangered species without hunting and a thriving population that pays for its own conservation through hunting, I’d choose hunting anytime.

A temptation if there ever was one

Just got this in my inbox:

This is to inform you that Techno-Press, a global publishers of Engineering Journals, has started a new journal with a title;

“Advances in Environmental Research (AER)”,
An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research in Environmental Science, Technology and Management.

Naah, too easy.