Week 1 – Planting the seed

I have always found fish to be intriguing creatures, and as far back as I can remember, I have been enamored with fishing…Each species has its own life history that dictates its diet, location, and behavioral characteristics, and so I studied up on a plethora of them, eager to know more about what makes each one unique as well as how to pursue them…connecting my interest with academics was intuitive – as a biology major specializing in ecology, I was very much interested in fish as a particular subject, and as a recreational angler, I felt as though I had a personal stake in helping to manage our resources. It has become increasingly apparent to me, whether it be through learning about historical stock collapses through my lecture on the tragedy of the commons or hearing the debates regarding recreational regulations each year, the importance of stewardship side by side with research…

I included the above excerpt from my personal essay as a bit of insight into what drove me to apply to the Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholars Program. The focus of my essay was on the tragedy of the commons, a phenomenon that I first came across several years ago when I was still an undergraduate. Now, I’ve found that throughout college there are the courses you enjoy, the courses you tolerate, and the courses that leave you profoundly contemplative of what just transpired in the sixty minutes prior. I can’t say that I was raptly attentive throughout the entirety of my marine biology lectures (I’m looking at you, macroalgae), but our class on the tragedy of the commons was one in which I was not only intrigued by the content matter itself, but also surprised by the fact that I could be so interested in a topic.

Originally conceptualized by William Forster Lloyd in 1883, the tragedy of the commons was popularized by Garrett Hardin in 1968 as an explanation of the consequences of the rapidly expanding human population on resources. In his paper, Hardin summarizes it best in the following thought experiment:

“Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Since its inception, the tragedy of the commons has been applied to a variety of situations – in the case of my marine biology class, on overfishing. This isn’t even necessarily about blatantly illegal fishing; responsible operations that abide by the law are also part of the problem as we attempt to divide increasingly scarce fisheries among increasingly larger markets. Certainly fishermen have a right to a livelihood, but where do we draw the line between sustainability and human demand? As one can imagine, it’s a complex path studded with bias and contention, one that must be navigated shrewdly if we are to adequately meet the needs of both nature and man. (I recommend reading Hardin’s paper in its entirety to get a stronger understanding on the tragedy of the commons, but be forewarned that the latter parts of the paper adopt a decidedly controversial attitude on human overpopulation).

Which brings us to why I’m here with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). My area of research this summer is centered on the state’s five marine reserves scattered up and down the coast. Officially enacted in 2012, these reserves are closed to fishing and ocean development, but they are more than simply ecological sanctuaries. The ODFW Marine Reserves Program is closely monitoring their long-term effects with respect to comparison areas, which are open to fishing but still closed to development. In addition to studying the impacts of fishing, the Marine Reserves Program also assesses other abiotic and biotic measures related to the health of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems.

As a research project, these marine reserves were built specifically to be scientific in nature. But they are also simultaneously meant to conserve biodiversity and inform future management of our marine resources. Having already shared my above motivations for pursuing this specific field, I can’t help but feel that that this is the path that much of future ecology work must take, if it hasn’t already started trending in that direction. This is exactly what I meant when I wrote “stewardship side by side with research” in my essay. The effects of what has already occurred under scenarios dictated by the tragedy of the commons are glaring. Overfishing. Water shortages. Fossil fuel usage and the advent of climate change. And so on and so forth; the list will undeniably get longer with time. We’ve already taken so much out of our natural resources, some of it irrevocably. It’s going to take a lot more to restore it back to the way it was.

But enough big picture talk for the time being. My personal role in this endeavor is multifaceted – I’ll be working on anything ranging from SMURF (Standard Monitoring Units for the Recruitment of Fishes) data collection to intertidal sea star surveys to underwater video analysis. I’ll also be spending part of my time on the communications aspect of the project, namely video editing and social media outreach. So far, I’ve been dutifully busy reading material, visiting the aquarium to solidify my fish identification skills, and conducting SMURF fieldwork.

We’ll see what the next week brings.

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3 thoughts on “Week 1 – Planting the seed

  1. Let me just start by saying you are a fantastic writer! This entire blog post was extremely well written and flowed through your ideas smoothly. It was also extremely entertaining, interesting and enlightening to read. I love how you wove the tragedy of the commons as the underlying theme throughout your paper. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. I like how you wove scientific literature into your blog post, Edward. Sounds like there’s enough to keep you busy. I wonder which tasks will prove to be the macroalgae of the summer??

  3. Hi Ed!

    I have read quite a few authors on environmental ethics and to be honest, I had not heard of the tragedy of the commons. At least not directly. It is clear this idea exists in a lot of literature! John Muir and Aldo Leopold come to mind when I think about the concept. If you haven’t read anything by them, I’d highly recommend it!

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