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Greed and the Oceans

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"The ocean eco-system is collapsing, study says." This headline from last
year still resonates. It is another sign - a major one - of the world's
ongoing and growing ecological crisis. This was the result of the first
major study of ocean conditions in 30 years.

The oceans are the soup of life on Mother Earth. Fish, mollusk and all
manner of abundance have been provided to humankind by the ocean. The seas
have been food security for billions of people. Even those among our
peoples in remote mountain ranges, those who never saw the ocean, still
rely on the life-giving power of the Earth's vast waters.

Now the oceans are collapsing, says the Pew Oceans Commission. The most
comprehensive study in three decades has reported that fundamental
destruction is going on.

The Pew Commission, a non-partisan effort, found:

Ever-increasing development has created a network of paved surfaces that
serve as "expressways for oil, grease, and toxic pollutants into coastal
waters."

The runoff of nutrients from farm and yard fertilizers is causing harmful
blooms of algae, resulting in the loss of seagrass and kelp beds, as well
as coral reefs - all of which provide critical shelter and important
spawning grounds for fish and ocean wildlife.

Over-fishing, destructive fishing practices and other threats to fish
populations are exacting a heavy toll. Thirty percent of assessed sea
populations are fished unsustainably, with an ever-growing number of
species on their way to extinction as a result. Worldwide, scientists
estimate that fishermen discarded about 25 percent of what they caught
during the 1980s and the early 1990s, about 60 billion pounds each year.

As of 2001, the government could only assure us that 22 percent of fish
stocks under federal management (211 of 959 stocks) were being fished
sustainably. Over-fishing often removes top predators and results in
dramatic changes in the structure and diversity of marine ecosystems. By
1989, the huge populations of New England cod, haddock, and yellowtail
flounder had reached historic lows. In U.S. waters, Atlantic halibut are
commercially extinct - too rare to justify a directed fishing effort.
Populations of some rockfish species on the West Coast have dropped to less
than 10 percent of their past levels.

At the heart of the Pew Commission recommendations is "the need to refocus
human activity in the oceans - away from constant use and extraction of
resources, and toward better stewardship, revitalization and recovery."

What's missing is a unifying vision of ocean stewardship, the Pew Oceans
Commission stated.

We agree, and suggest that such a vision might be better based in a
spiritual connection and respect for the gifts of the natural world. Indian
fishing peoples have known better and had good scientific sense about this
for a long time.

Some wonderful research a decade ago makes the case for old-style Indian
environmental conservation. It involves the Rainy River Ojibway Bands in
Minnesota and their centuries-old management of the sturgeon fish
population on that Minnesota River. Chief Willie Wilson, then of the Grand
Council of Ojibway Chiefs and scientist Tim E. Holzkamm conducted the
research.

Fishing was nearly always an important source of food and industry for
Indian people. It still is in many places. As with any resource, most
Native peoples kept some practical account of the population base of the
harvested resource. Up to the end of the 19th century the Ojibway and their
ancestors had fished the river continuously since 500 B.C.

Sturgeon, a respected spiritual fish in Ojibway culture, grows to four and
five feet and averages around 40 pounds each. In 1826, a local surgeon
noted that the Ojibway dried, pounded and made pemmican from sturgeon flesh
and also widely stored and consumed sturgeon oil. During that time, the
local Ojibway fought off the building of a mission church by missionaries
in order to protect their spiritual relationship to the sturgeon fisheries.

In their traditional and pre-contact life, most if not all Indian tribes
had modest but successful ecological economies. The interesting thing about
the Rainy Lake Ojibway is that they were substantially integrated into the
"whiteman's" economy by the 1810s. They traded widely for furs and
commercialized fish, wild rice, maple sugar, venison, birch bark canoes,
baskets and other items. What's more, they traded in the gelatinous
substance -isinglass - derived from the inner membranes of the sturgeon's
air bladder. This trade grew exponentially and by the 1840s, the Rainy
River Ojibway were selling over a ton of it yearly.

Nevertheless, the Ojibway-managed sturgeon harvest, as recorded for over 60
years (1823 - 1885), consistently averaged about 311,000 pounds per year,
some for the isinglass trade, but most of it for tribal use. According to
present-day biologists, this sustainable harvest, as managed by the
Ojibway, represented the exact maximum take without harming the steady
sustainability of their prized sturgeon population.

As they negotiated their treaty of 1873, the Ojibway in the Canadian side
insisted on their Rainy River fishing rights. Nevertheless, by 1888,
American fishermen on the U.S. side of the border began to option the
river. It was the death knell of the sturgeon. By 1892, Canadian
entrepreneurs and settlers pressured the opening of commercial fishing on
that side. Simon Dawson, a former commissioner for Indian Treaty #3,
lamented the loss of Indian fishing rights, "if the whiteman is allowed to
go wherever he likes, and to ... [pursue profit by] sweeping the fish out
of the lakes and sending them to the markets of the south?"

As Dawson predicted, after the annual average harvest rate for sturgeon
jumped to over one million pounds during 1895 - 1899, by 1900 sturgeon
production dropped dramatically. It has failed to recover after 100 years,
still impacting the present-day descendents of Treaty #3 Ojibway. If their
previous production level could be reestablished, the contemporary Treaty
#3 leaders still claim, they would be healthier and wealthier. (The average
annual value of caviar alone would be about U.S. $4.8 million at 1986
prices.)

Indian country is not immune from greed and avarice. It is in the human
condition to get value for your harvest, although different cultures
embrace or suspect the notion according to their own values. We point to
the superlatives in all cultures but certainly among Native peoples the
management of natural resources had moments of great wisdom. As the Pew
Commission and others pursue the defense of the world's oceans, the
approach of the Rainy River Ojibway in preserving their fisheries over the
long term is worth contemplating.