Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Harmful Effects of Overfishing

Alexis Stupich

In M. Jegathesan’s newspaper article titled “Fish stocks dwindle as trawlers empty Asia’s seas”, (November 9, 2010), Jegathesan attacks the fish industries for overfishing and using unsustainable methods in Southeast Asian Seas. He blames bottom trawling as well as the use of dynamite and cyanide for destroying ecosystems. Furthermore, Jegathesan argues that governments should enforce laws to protect these precious ecosystems, and whatever fish populations we have remaining before it is too late.

Although at first glance, Jegathesan’s arguments appear to be sound, he uses few sources to reinforce his arguments. Instead he uses indirect sources such as; “Marine scientists and fishermen say that popular fish species -- especially the large and valuable ones -- have been caught indiscriminately, causing numbers to plunge dramatically.”(M.Jegathesan). Although he states that these facts have been proven by “marine scientists and fishermen” he doesn’t use any direct quotes or mention which scientist or fishermen have said this. For all we know, he could have made up these so-called “facts”. Jegathesan also uses quotes from fishermen instead of proven facts to support his arguments. An example of this is when he quotes a Malaysian fish salesman saying; “Such a big stingray is rare. Even the 12 kilo garoupa is considered small. Twenty years ago you could catch much bigger fishes. Now you only get small ones," he said as he pointed to a few palm-sized stingrays lying in an icebox.” (M.Jegathesan). Although the use of this citation leads the reader to believe that said statement must be true, it offers no scientifically sound proof nor is it backed up by any proven evidence. Were Jegathesan to quote an actual study that had been done his argument would prove much more believable.

Even though many of Jegathesan’s points are not backed up by solid scientific facts or studies, he does support several other of his points with evidence provided by the World Fish Center, as well as several local fishermen who have been in the business for many years and who have witnessed firsthand the changes in the level of fish. Although their opinions can be validated due to the fact that they have been working in the fishing business for many years, and most of the fishermen and wholesalers interviewed have even been working in the business for decades, their perspectives may have been warped due to time, and personal biases. Had scientific studies been used in lieu of, or in addition to the interviews performed, the potential exaggeration or falsity of the statements used could have been greatly reduced.

Jegathesan’s only scientific source, World Fish Center, is an organization dedicated to small-scale fish farmers across Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. He quotes member Edward Allison in the statement; “Allison said the habitat for young fish, or fry, is also shrinking because the mangrove swamps which provide food and protection are being obliterated by coastal development including tourist resorts.” (M.Jegathesan). However, the author mentions none of Allison’s background, except for that he is a member of World Fish Center. Were Edward Allison to be a scientist, or other type of fish expert he would have been accredited with more credibility. The World Fish Center employs a wide range of people, and not all positions require any knowledge of fish populations; in fact, there are several positions which require no expertise in the fishing field at all. Edward Allison could very well be one of these employees with little knowledge of the situation in Asia; however, since his name is associated with the World Fish Center most readers would assume he is to be a trusted source even though his background is never revealed.

The author’s use of statements taken from local small-scale fishing farmers leads the reader to believe that these fishermen are agreeing with Jegathesan’s point of view regarding the need for stricter policies to be made and reinforced by governments in Asia. However, someone opposing Jegathesans’s point of view would argue that it is likely that many of these fishermen are strongly opposed to laws being created that would prevent or diminish the amount of fishing that is allowed to be done. Many fishermen would be put out of jobs and a high level of unemployment would ensue. The majority of small-scale fishermen in small communities have no other method of supporting themselves; many were raised as fishermen and received little education that could provide them with the necessary tools to find employment in a different sector.

This photograph is used in the article with the caption “Tourist resort developments are having a devastating impact on mangrove swamps” (M.Jegathesan). The picture is used to create sympathy from the reader to side with the author’s perspective. However, nowhere in the article is there any proof supporting the statement, nor are there any references made to show where the information was pulled from. Also, there is no mention of where or when this photograph was taken.

Overall, M.Jegatehsan’s article makes several well-articulated points. However, his inability to prove or back up his statements greatly weakens his arguments. Were his article to provide more scientific studies or experiments that had been performed his arguments could have been much more persuasive; as it is, the reader is left wondering what was made up or exaggerated and what is fact. Even the use of references to show from where Jegathesan pulled his information could have greatly increased the credibility of his article.

Fish stocks dwindle as trawlers empty Asia’s seas, M.Jegathesan (November 9, 2010)
The Worldfish Centre,

1 comment:

  1. Good deconstruction, Alexis, and I'm pleased to see that people are prepared to question 'crisis' narratives.

    If this was a piece of science journalism, rather than populist/sunday supplement journalism, then the lack of reference to scientific reports etc would indeed be grounds for criticism, but I thnk Jegathesan's intent was more modest - simply to inform readers enjoying a seafood buffet on a Sunday that the availability of the delicious things they were eating couldn't be taken for granted and are available at an environmental and social cost.

    Despite the lack of references to scientific studies (something the article has in common with your blog, it must be said), I can assure you personally that the data quoted in the report come from studies that analysed 'trawlbase' an extensive record of trawl fisheries around the world.

    The reference to the study used by Jegathesan is:

    Decline of demersal coastal fisheries resources in three developing Asian countries by
    I.C. Stobutzki, G.T. Silvestre, A. Abu Talib, A. Krongprom, M. Supongpan, P. Khemakorn, N. Armada and L.R. Garces
    Fisheries Research
    Volume 78, Issues 2-3, May 2006, Pages 130-142

    It's not exactly hot off the press but still the most recent study of its type for this area. The authors come from both the WorldFish center and the national fisheries research organizations of Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. In the abstract (which is available to all online), you will find the figures quoted in the article and essentially a similar argument to that put in the article, but couched in more formal scientific language, for a different audience.

    Similarly, Jegathesan's comment on mangroves is backed up by plenty of more 'scientific' research. For the latest figures, may I recommend the excellent:

    World Atlas of Mangroves By Mark Spalding, Mami Kainuma, Lorna Collins, Earthscan, 2010.

    On page 36 of that book, you will find a table quoting the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, indicating that SE Asia has lost 25% of its mangrove area between 1980 and 2005 - but still has 33% of the world's remaining mangroves - the largest of which are in Indonesia and Malaysia. Among the leading causes of loss are aquaculture and coastal development.

    Furthermore, the use of individual testimonies to support an argument or thesis, or to present evidence, is legitimate in journalism, law and anthropology, to give just a few examples, so the criticism of the individual testimony of some fishermen is only valid if it, alone, were used to draw more generalized conclusions, rather than to be illustrative of a more general argument. Looking at the article, it seems to me it was there to give a human scale to the numbers given earlier - another common journalistic technique.

    I can also reassure you, Alexis, that I am one of the people at the WorldFish Center who does know a little about fish, fisheries and fishing people. A quick 'google scholar' search of my name ('Edward Allison or EH Allison) in connection to the word 'fisheries' may have saved you a paragraph of speculation on that little point!

    best wishes,

    Edward Allison
    Principal Scientist
    Policy, Economics and Social Science
    The WorldFish Center