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HARVESTING NATURE - Are we are taking too much from nature and putting nothing back?

The Conch used to be a staple part of the diet of many in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. However they have been over-fished and now smaller immature Conch are being taken before they can breed. 

Seven shells lay abandoned on a white sand beach in the Bahamas. Each had a hole near the apex where the fisherman had opened the shell to cut the muscle and remove the animal. Each was no more than four inches long. None had a lip and all were one or two years away from maturity. These Conchs would never breed!

Meanwhile old Jacques sat on the dock at Cannes, the bait on the end of his fishing line untouched by anything except crabs, and dreamed of the days when shoals of silvery blue fish were there for the taking in those Mediterranean waters, now murky and glazed with oil.

Half a world away on a desolate beach along Siberia's Kamchatka peninsula, a few bleached bones are all that remain of the last Steller's Sea Cow, once a thirty foot marine mammal grazing peacefully on seaweed in the shallows of the Bering Sea. The species is now extinct.

Dusty specimens in museums, and a few stuffed skins in antique shops and the homes of collectors are all that remain of the Great Auk, a penguin like seabird that once inhabited the coasts of the North Atlantic in their millions. These are all examples of over-exploitation of natural resources.

Nature has provided man with bountiful produce from both the land and the sea. But man has not always utilised this bounty wisely. He has seldom, until recently, given much thought to the consequences of his actions and even today many of those who harvest from nature are more concerned with instant profit, than with continuing profit in years to come.

Fishermen around the British coasts and in the North Sea are becoming increasingly frustrated by the smaller and smaller limits being placed upon their catches. For some, the business is no longer economical and they must leave fishing for other jobs. Too many fish have been taken and the stocks have been severely depleted. An Admiralty survey undertaken in Cardigan Bay off the West coast of Wales in 1748 notes that the herring industry employed 97 small sloops, 38 of which were employed between Aberaeron and New Quay alone. The record catch of herring was made on the night of October 5th 1745 when 47 boats of about 12 tons netted just under one and a half million fish, a total of 1,100 barrels! Such a catch would be unheard of today, indeed Herring are no longer caught in the area!

The Crawfish or Spiny Lobster has been taken from the reefs by squirting bleach into the holes where they live. Although it drives them out on to the sand where they can easily be caught, this method kills several generations of young crawfish that are unable to escape. It also kills countless other reef dwelling organisms including the coral. 

It has always been difficult for the layman, be he a hunter, fisherman, politician to have an entirely objective view of the harvesting of wildlife resources. He sees only one aspect of the problem and that is money. He often has no background in biological science, resource management, or conservation. As a result, such a one- sided view is perfectly understandable.

Who then, is qualified to say how much we take, how we take it, or when we take it from nature? It is the scientist's job to determine the facts: when does the animal breed? How many are there? How fast can the population replace itself? How long before the animal becomes mature? Where does it live? Where does it go?

Resource managers can then evaluate the findings of the scientists. These are conservationists, fisheries officers, developmental planners, and other professionals, all of whom are charged with the responsibility of integrating the human environmental and ecological factors. Resource managers then make appropriate recommendations to legislators, who create laws best designed to ensure the utilization and perpetuation of natural resources.

Such laws alone of course are insufficient to ensure wise resource use. The process is now only just beginning. Programs of public education must be carried out to ensure that everybody knows not only the word of the law, but also the reason for the law.

The final step in the process is the enforcement of the law. This should be carried out diligently and uniformly, for before the law, all persons are equal.

In theory at least!

In reality, Mankind has harvested nature to the point where many species are unable to reproduce as fast as they are taken. Our greed has destroyed far too many natural resources. Today, there are too many people and not enough nature.

We have upset the balance required to sustain natural resources and we may well be well down the road to destroying our very own future!

Rod Attrill