Stanford University

News Service


NEWS RELEASE

8/6/03

Mark Shwartz, News Service: (650) 723-9296, mshwartz@stanford.edu

EDITORS: Stephen R. Palumbi is a professor of biological sciences and Pew Fellow of Marine Conservation at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif. His research focuses on the genetics, evolution and conservation of a diverse array of marine organisms from snails to whales. A frequent lecturer on ocean conservation, Palumbi is author of the 2003 Pew Oceans Commissions report, Marine Reserves: An Ecosystem Tool for Marine Management and Conservation.

Relevant Web URLs:
http://www.stanford.edu/group/Palumbi/
http://pewoceans.org/

Kona turtles and judges of the reef

Judges do not fidget much, I concluded as I sat in a large meeting room where our genetics training workshop unfolded. The 20 scientists there were a symphony of body language, listening and wiggling as each successive speaker burned 30 minutes in the spotlight. But the 50 justices from around the world sat in polite silence, absorbing it all through attentive eyes. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell.

The conference was about genetics and the law, and especially advances in genetic technology. It was about the ability to read the genetic bar code of nearly every individual person, and what to do with this unprecedented database. It was also about the opportunity to use such DNA bar codes to track individuals of other species -- such as endangered species of whales that still seem to wind up dead in commercial marketplaces. Scientists like me were there to help teach. And judges from supreme courts and appeals courts around the world were there to learn and to explain patiently to puzzled academics how the real world of litigation works.

I'd missed breakfast again, lured to the jewel-like Hawaiian bay next to the hotel, smitten by the tiny reef there and the ecological drama playing out on its surface. But I'd still gotten to the morning session on time for a talk on the power of DNA evidence in court. Genetics has burrowed into most aspects of modern life, from prenatal testing to disease diagnostics to criminal investigations and biodiversity bookkeeping. Even when you are a scientist working at the vortex of a field, it's impossible to absorb everything new. And judges have to evaluate this hurricane of data without the time to learn molecular biology. My role was to show the power of DNA technology in forensics. But as the only marine biologist at the meeting, my real expertise is in an area that no judge has much authority over yet the vast but dwindling richness of the world's oceans.

 

Smoking gun

I have worked for a decade on whale genetics, tracing whale populations by reading the signatures of their DNA. And together with clever colleagues around the world, we've discovered the undeniable DNA signal of protected whales in retail markets -- slabs of meat with endangered whale written all over their genes. These DNA traces constitute the smoking gun of illegal whaling, a hunt not sanctioned by the international treaties protecting all the great whales. I was there in Kona to talk about the power of these data to force greater international efforts in conservation. My short talk -- judges motionless, other scientists fidgeting perhaps less than usual -- was a call to arms about the need to protect the world heritage of food, recreation and beauty that the global ocean represents.

No one really controls the harvest of the oceans. The huge factory ships that crush the waves with their voracious appetites have few regulations to stem their hunt. And a great many people rely on the ocean, either pulling out a glistening bounty of seafood -- 100 million metric tons a year; sapping its vitality by poisoning it with sewage, harsh fertilizers or toxins; or stripping away its protective armor of wetlands, mangroves and reefs. Small advantage can wreak enormous havoc. To catch a Napoleon wrasse for the live fish trade for restaurants in Hong Kong, bandit divers chase a fish into a coral cave, stun it with a vicious cloud of cyanide that kills everything nearby and hammer the coral flat to extract the quivering fish. One hunt pays the divers handsomely but destroys a whole grotto of coral and kills hundreds of other invertebrates and fish. What makes economic sense about this strategy? The answer is that the long-term health of the reef is not as important to the divers as their payout today.

Whenever there is a common resource accessible to many people, conflict arises between short- and long-term gain. Even prudent fishers who use resources wisely find themselves in competition with those who have no thought of the future, unleashing a scramble for the last fish left. Scientist and philosopher Garrett Hardin codified this as the "Tragedy of the Commons" and immortalized it as a basic principle underlying use of many global, national and regional resources such as fresh water, timber or fisheries. My goal at the Kona conference was not to advise judges about conflicts between short- and long-term gains -- they preside over many such balancing acts -- but to help show how this conflict was ruining the sea.

 

Inspiration

I spent every morning scouting out the local reefs to give judges and landlocked scientists some clues to the marvels there, some reason to love the ocean like I do. And the reefs were still beautiful -- colorful patchworks of living coral, like vibrant jewelry of living stone. The coral gardens were cracked with underwater gorges that erupted with the last of the fish flocks. I could find and name scores of fish species, such as the elusively aggressive moray eels; find dozens of crabs and sea urchins; and carefully confront the deep edge of the reef, where coral growth loses the battle with relentless Pacific swells.

But it turned out that our busy meeting schedule prevented firsthand reef experiences from popping up very often. The interest among the judges was there. I just couldn't find a way to connect the judges with the sea.

Then the turtles saved me.

Graceful and unhurried, like a queen going to a luncheon, a green turtle rocked in the nearshore waves just beyond the beach near our hotel. Even one would have been delightful -- but here there were dozens. Surprisingly accustomed to an audience, these 600-pound herbivores suffered the appreciation of hotel guests and local fishers. They drew the line at being touched, moving away with a flick of flipper and a scandalized glance. But anyone -- surfers or judges or marine biologists -- could swim with them and follow their grazing of the rocky reef buffet. Having such a tour guide is a galvanizing experience, connecting people to the sea in a tangible way. Virtually everyone who looked under water encountered the turtles and found inspiration within their shells.

 

Turtle tragedy

Turtles carry with them the harsh lesson of the tragedy of the commons. Once so abundant that mariners could steer for shore by the sounds of their flippers on the surface, they were brutally overexploited for food and fertilizer. Protection of sandy beaches for turtle nests, outlawing open-ocean drift nets that snare feeding adults, and a ban on international trade in turtle products all have helped increase turtle populations. Genetics has added its punch by mapping the nesting beaches that have genetically distinct populations and pinpointing where juveniles grow to turtle adolescence on the high seas. Genes allowed University of Hawaii biologist Brian Bowen to trace the adults killed in Mediterranean drift nets back to their origins on beaches in the Southeast United States. Others have shown which outlawed turtle meat is derived from the deepest reefs of Indonesia.

But there has been a short-term economic cost that advocates of protection have had to counter. Successful recovery of some turtle populations has meant economic loss for indigenous makers of turtle shell jewelry and loss of food supplies for coastal fishers. Even turtle ranches can no longer produce meat for market because it opens the door to illegal hunting.

So a turtle encounter, just like the chance meeting of Microsoft and Netscape executives, carries the whiff of conflict. A turtle's gaze seems to carry the reptilian knowledge that turtles can only persist in a world where human needs are fulfilled and resolved. A calm turtle near a crowded beach is evidence of a balance between humans and the sea, implying a powerful resolution of some of these conflicts and providing faith in the possibility of future improvements.

Judges understand conflicts better than scientists. They live in the world of conflict resolution, and (if my brief encounter sheds any light) appear to be suspicious of complex situations that scientists claim present no serious disagreement. The ocean and the roles we demand of it -- playground and farm, hunting arena and wilderness, mysterious depth and children's bath -- all involve so many facets that conflict is inevitable.

The Kona reefs survive our conflicting demands on them, but they strain with the effort. Turtles and whales breathe an atmosphere of relief, protected by U.S. laws that blunt the impact of tragedy of the commons. But few reef fish can say the same, and even the reef corals sit, resigned, in water clouded with sediment, sewage and fertilizer. Having raised the issue of conflict resolution at our conference, I let the turtles finish my job, bringing the goal of conflict resolution to life.

Turtles and judges are an unusual mix -- by any standard of law or nature. But neither fidgets much.

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By Stephen R. Palumbi

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