Well, traditional conservation, anyway. The kind where you presume to “manage” a wildlife population by ensuring, year after year, that its population remains stable.
The problem is that as any population varies, so too does its behavior. Mortality curves, reproductive rates, vulnerability to pathogens and predators — a hundred other variables — all change with population density. It’s a complex system, full of cliffs and folds and intertwined curves unwinding across a range of conditions; and when you keep your population from varying, you only acquire data from a very narrow band of that tapestry. But Nature’s a fickle bitch, and sooner or later she’ll kick your population out of that comfort zone despite your best efforts. When that happens you’ll be adrift in a dark, data-free wilderness where anything can happen.
Unless you kick it out there yourself beforehand, to get some idea of what’s waiting for you.
The term is Adaptive Management and back in grad school days my supervisor was one of its early champions. The idea was that you combine “management” with research, that you don’t strive to keep your system stationary year after year. Every now and then you cut your salmon quotas to zero, leave the scaly little buggers completely alone. Other years you hammer the shit out of them. In all cases you take notes— and gradually, over time, you beat back those dark zones, scratch out here there be dragons and scribble Ricker curves and Lotka-Volterra parameter values in their place. You do what Nature would do eventually anyway, only you do it on your own timetable, to a degree of your own choosing.
That’s the trick, of course: because sometimes there are dragons out there, and what if one of them swallows your salmon stock to extinction because you hammered them too hard? It’s a balancing act. You have to tread carefully, weigh risk against opportunity; the techniques used to find that sweet spot are what distinguishes Adaptive Management from just rolling the dice and unleashing a series of shotgun blasts.
A bit of Adaptive Management has just broken out off the west coast — admittedly a poor example thereof — and boy oh boy has it got people pissed.
An executive summary for those who’ve been too transfixed to look away from the ongoing train wreck of US electoral politics: back in July the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, in collaboration with a US business called Planktos, seeded a hundred tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean off the islands of Haida Gwaii. The goal was purely economic: to provoke a massive phytoplankton bloom and consequent increased salmon stocks, not to mention sucking carbon into primary production and locking it away on the seabed (which would allow the HRSC to claim carbon credits for their role in off-setting global warming).
Proximately, the gambit seems to have paid off: the resulting bloom covered ten thousand square kilometers and greatly exceeds the penny-ante impact of more “legitimate” experiments. Whether it will actually increase salmon yield remains an open question, but it seems a reasonable expectation; the project was inspired by a paper in Fisheries Oceanography which connected the dots between volcanic ash-fall, diatom blooms, and record salmon catches. As to the potential long-term carbon-sequestration impact, nobody knows.
In fact, not only does nobody know, nobody even seems to give a shit. They’re too busy pointing fingers. Discovery News regards Russ George, the entrepreneur behind the project, as a “Geoengineering nut“. David Suzuki decries the effort as “stupid”. Scientists and lawyers fill endless column inches with quotes about bad experimental design and the breaking of international treaties. The UN is gravely concerned, and has granted the Harper government an actual award (“The Dodo”) for its role in this fiasco; the Harper government, those champions of the environment, has in turn condemned the entire affair and is “investigating” (although their misgivings have been a bit muted by credible reports that they knew about the project in advance and did nothing to stop it, which makes them complicit).
For my part, I’m not going to argue with those who point out that the project was poorly planned, that phytoplankton blooms are often toxic, and that even when they aren’t local eutrophication often leads to anoxic “dead zones”. (I will observe that some of these charges tend to cancel each other out: you can’t both buy into Jay Cullen’s complaint that strong eddy circulation compromises experimental design while at the same time worrying about Alyssa Danigelis‘s specter of neurotoxic dead zones.) I have no trouble believing that Russ George isn’t interested in anything other than turning a fast buck (although if there are laws on the book that make it illegal to profit from climate-mitigation research, you have to wonder if its author had ever spent more than two minutes observing human behavior).
In terms of environmental damage, however, I can’t help noticing that right around the corner from Haida Gwaii, the city of Victoria BC flushes the raw sewage of eighty thousand people directly into the ocean. I can’t help noticing a thousand-square kilometer dead zone off the Oregon coast, or the seventeen-thousand-square-kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the continent-long daisy-chain of dead zones skipping merrily up the eastern seaboard. If I squint hard enough I can just barely keep myself from noticing the salmon farms along our coasts that not only generate their own local anoxic zones but which also spread disease, parasites, and bad genes to wild populations. (I trust I don’t have to remind you all of past and ongoing oil spills.) All of these impacts arise directly from human activity — and while few would claim to like any of these things, I find it curious that the one-time dumping of a load of nutrients into the open ocean would provoke such outrage while all these other, vastly more severe impacts get off with a shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do?
The fact is, the Haida-Gwaii patch is vastly bigger than any similar project heretofore attempted. It’s way out into Here There Be Dragons territory, and you know what? It’s a fucking data point.
Bad experimental design? Let me remind you of another badly-designed experiment: that time about a decade back when a bunch of religious fanatics ploughed into the World Trade Center to prove that their invisible sky fairy was tougher than ours. Those guys didn’t check their flight plans with the research community at all, but that didn’t stop the scientists from making some serious inroads into the impact of jet contrails on climate change. (Granted, that particular inroad turned out to be a dead end. That’s science for you.)
This is nature, damn it. It’s a complex metasystem, if you think it’s ever going to let you run a “controlled experiment” in the laboratory sense then I’ve got some voting machines in Ohio to sell you. If you make the perfect into the enemy of the potentially-adequate you’ll never stop running simulations, because there is no perfect. Meanwhile, outside the window, Nature’s rolling her own D20. One day she’s going to kick over that anthill you’ve been too chickenshit to poke at all this time, and then where you gonna be?
This plankton stuff is small potatoes anyway; you want something to get scared about, stop looking out to sea and look up instead. Climate change is hitting the poles and the tropics especially hard — and the tropics are just chock full of small poor countries already sinking, increasingly impatient as the so-called developed world sits on its ass and mumbles oxymoronically about clean coal. I wouldn’t blame them in the least if they got tired of waiting and started their own stratospheric geoengineering program out of self-defense — and it would be kind of nice if we had a bit of real-world data on that front, too, before it happened.
Make as many caveats as you like. Be cautious in your extrapolations, by all means. Remember that correlation is not causation, keep alternative hypotheses firmly in mind, scrawl Nature Is Not A Petri Dish onto a piece of duct tape and stick it over the Far Side cartoons yellowing on the wall. Be Adaptive in your “Management”. But use the goddamned data you’ve got. Don’t piss and moan because someone without all your degrees, someone more interested in bucks than biology, went out and took the first step when you were too fucking timid. Do it better.
Forget the world at large; Russ George’s sins pale into insignificance even set next the city of Victoria. The difference is, we can learn from his.
We’ve already kicked the whole world off-balance. We’re running out of time to figure out which way it’s falling.