A Conversation With Dr. Judith McDowell on the Challenges Facing Our Oceans.

In this compelling Q&A with esteemed marine biologist and Tyler Prize Advisory Council member Dr. Judith McDowell, we discussed the impact our 2023 Laureates – Daniel Pauly and Rashid Sumaila – have had in shaping fisheries conservation policies. We also dug into the challenges facing our oceans; particularly the historical shift from small-scale to industrial fishing.

Biologist Dr. Judith McDowell is a Scientist Emerita of Biology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where her research programs have contributed to a better understanding of the adaptations of marine animals to naturally fluctuating conditions and environmental disturbances.

Can you describe the state of our oceans before industrial fishing? 

In the past, fish and resources were abundant. Fishing was primarily done locally, with people harvesting fish from their villages and local shorelines. It was sustainable, and fish were processed and distributed within the immediate communities. There were thriving ecosystems and resources that were sustainable if the coastal waters were taken care of. 

The ocean covers 75% of the planet and has vast, unexplored areas. The oceans were vast and teeming with life, and people relied on these local resources like a farmer distributing produce to the community.

How did fishing change with the introduction of industrial practices? 

As ships became larger and fishing technologies more efficient, vessels were able to travel further and further from the shore. They became capable of traveling into international waters, and often they would do so without proper jurisdiction. 

This massive growth in the number and size of fishing vessels and their capacity for yields led to extensive exploitation of fishery resources, causing depletion of stocks and significant problems for marine life. 

When did scientists start raising concerns about the depletion of fish stocks? 

After World War II, there was a massive expansion of commercial fishing operations worldwide. But by the 1990s, people became increasingly concerned about the impact of overexploitation on fish stocks, even in regions like New England, where we traditionally relied on abundant stocks like cod and haddock.

What was the problem with the FAO’s reporting on fishing levels? 

The FAO relied on national reporting data – but this information omitted data on over-quota harvesting, subsistence fishing, and ghost fishing. These shortcomings led to global underreporting of catch yields and inaccurate assessments of fish stocks. 

How did Daniel Pauly address this issue with the Sea Around Us research project? 

Daniel Pauly developed techniques to improve the calculation and observation of current fish stocks and future predictions. He was able to update catch information to include catches previously not included in the FAO data. He quantified total abundance and growth of fish stocks, influencing fishery scientists worldwide to adopt better methods for sustainability.

What was Rashid Sumaila’s contribution to fisheries economics? 

Rashid Sumaila used game theory to develop optimal harvesting quotas and sustainability for fisheries resources. His work went beyond just considering current harvests to account for future abundance and sustainability.

Rashid Sumaila is widely regarded as one of the most influential economists in marine conservation and environmental economics. He has really shaped how we calculate the value of the oceans, and of course the costs associated with overfishing.

What are the current challenges in sustainable fishing and marine conservation?

Some of the main challenges include addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, implementing effective management strategies, and balancing the need for food security with preserving marine biodiversity.

How can individuals contribute to marine conservation efforts?

Individuals can play a huge role! They contribute by making sustainable seafood choices, supporting responsible fishing practices, and choosing to avoid plastic waste, which can be difficult! 

What role does scientific research play in shaping marine conservation policies?

Scientific research helps inform policymakers about the current state of the oceans and the impact of conservation measures, good or bad. It really guides sustainable fisheries management and conservation policies.

What are your hopes for the future of our oceans?

I hope that through increased awareness, responsible fishing practices, and collaborative global efforts, we can restore and protect our oceans. My dream is a sustainable future for both marine life, and humanity.


More from Dr. Judith McDowell

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