Saturday, May 8, 2010


This is part five of a five part series on HIPPO, the major ecological impacts on species. Habitat Destruction, Invasive Species, Pollution, (Over)population, and this article: Overharvesting.

We are an industrious primate and we can catch them all if we want to. Too bad this isn't Pokémon. A quick look at the consequences should bring us back to reality.

Overharvesting, impacts many species across the face of the world today. The plants and animals cannot handle the pressure of a singleminded human harvest.

We're not just talking about Elephant and Rhinoceros poaching either. The rapid decline of the Atlantic Cod and Pacific Salmon fisheries are prime examples of overharvesting. We took too many fish, now we have to leave them alone for a while or those fish will never recover.

When settlers arrived in North America, the Cod and Salmon were so plentiful that it was impossible to imagine life without them.

Commercial fishing took advantage of this concentrated resource, and now extreme restraint is necessary in order to allow the fish stocks to rebuild. Fishermen, of course, are upset that their industry is being regulated. Without the regulations somebody would go catch what's left of the fish and destroy the industry permanently. That's not good for business. This way it has a chance to recover.

Overharvesting is a tragedy of the commons situation, where everybody does better the more they take, but if too much gets taken, everyone loses out. Decimating the fish or the trees may be lucrative in the short run but in the long run everyone loses.

The bison was an icon of the great plains. Natives lived in harmony with the bison, using every bit of the animals they harvested, but never diminishing their numbers to the point where they were threatened.

Along came Europeans with firearms, and the bison were destroyed and wasted. It took lots of self restraint to keep the bison from extinction. We can still raise them like cattle, but they no longer roam the plains and balance the ecosystem like they used to.

Overharvesting can damage the entire ecosystem, all the way back up to the people. Cutting down the giant palm trees led to the collapse of the Rapanui people on Easter Island and serves as a cautionary tale in Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Invasive species, in this case rats and sheep, may also have played a role.

Don't catch them all. They're worth more where they are. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo on any fish you buy, and look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo on your wood and paper products. Don't be fooled by copycat logos either. Vote with your dollars to maintain the resources we all want.

You may also like:

Ecosystem Services

Avatar and our relationship with nature

A future with a future