Daniel Pauly, fisheries biologist

This international man of fisheries wants his fellow researchers to take a global view—and he isn't shy about making waves. Interview by Daniela Hernandez

March 31, 2012

Photo: Martin Dee

Daniel Pauly, 65, arguably is the most well-known—and most controversial—fisheries biologist in the world. He’s candid and opinionated: He openly criticizes fisheries for ransacking the ocean’s resources and thinks if we don’t stop, we’ll be left with a plankton soup no one will want to eat. “Fisheries are the interface where fish and food meet people,” he said at the February 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada. But too often, he says, people don’t stop to think about what is happening out at sea.

Pauly has spent his career trying to assess the world’s fish stocks, concentrating some of his efforts in the developing world. He admonishes scientists who think they have a global perspective when, in his view, they don’t because they often ignore developing countries. But Pauly can’t turn a blind eye. Throughout his career he’s been drawn to the developing world, where he thought he might fit in better than in his native Europe. The son of an African-American father and French mother, Pauly grew up in Switzerland with another family, but he felt out of place there. 

Since he left Europe in the 1970s to study fish, he’s worked all over the world, including Western Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and India. He developed FishBase, an encyclopedia of more than 30,000 fish species, and Ecopath, an ecosystems modeling program. In 1999, Pauly started the Sea Around Us, a project whose purpose was to make more information about the world’s fishes available to marine conservationists than ever before. He named the project after the book by his hero, Rachel Carson, the catalyst for modern environmentalism.

Almost forty years after he began studying fish, Pauly—now a professor at the University of British Columbia—is still trying to give fisheries a global voice. He sat down in Vancouver with SciCom’s Daniela Hernandez to discuss his multifaceted career and his efforts to change our approach to ocean management.

Why did you choose to study fish?

I wanted to leave Europe, and I wanted to learn something practical so I could contribute. I like ideas. I like structure. I like to find out things. I like patterns. I thought of agronomy first. Then the Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, where I studied in Germany, offered a mix of applied and basic science that I liked. So I went into it, purely rationally.

What took you to Indonesia and the Philippines?

Oh! My first foray out was into Ghana when I did my fieldwork for my masters. My advisor got me a position with a German aid organization, similar to USAID in the U.S., and they hired me. I learned Swahili and I expected to work in a project in East Africa, but that didn’t work out politically, and I was sent instead to Indonesia, to help develop the trawl fisheries. I was fiercely working. I was working my ass off writing reports and papers.

How did you end up at the University of British Columbia?

They had just opened a center, the Fisheries Centre, and they needed a junior professor to look after students from developing countries. But I said I would only come as a senior professor, and they agreed. I had published like crazy! I also had links with the University of the Philippines and my alma mater in Germany, and I had expressed my commitment to students.

"In fisheries, there has been a tradition that it is sufficient to talk about the industrial fisheries in the north. That’s not enough."

So you did a lot of work in developing countries.

If you work globally, you work automatically in developing countries because most of the world is developing.

You speak Spanish, right?

Si. Y no solamente un poco.

Donde aprendió? (Where did you learn?)

I learned on the streets of Lima, in Mexico, and in other countries where I traveled to teach courses about fisheries and stock populations. In Mexico, I taught courses regularly at UNAM [Universidad Autónoma de México] for five years in the summers.

Do you have an emotional connection to developing countries?



To be honest, because I’m not white. But also, people in developing counties often see in me an image of themselves. Whether I work in Africa, Southeast Asia or elsewhere, people see me a little bit as representing them.

Do most people agree with you then?

There has always been opposition. When I worked on developing simplified methods, there were people who wrote papers against it saying, “It’s all wrong.” Then I developed modeling software. Same thing! Huge resistance. So the resistance that I get now for my work in diagnosing fisheries worldwide is not surprising. It’s part of a pattern, and I’m perfectly used to it.

What kind of resistance do you get?

When the tropical studies came out, it was the idea that you empower your colleagues by providing tools and expertise as opposed to maintaining the old, established relationship of power. I think lots of people have trouble with that.

But now, conservation is becoming a big issue. If we continue to exploit the natural resources of the world the way we do now, we will actually undermine the basis of life—the basis of good life—on this planet.

What do you see as the biggest threats?  

In the long term, it’s obviously global warming. But in the short term, it’s fisheries. Because I do not hesitate to characterize fisheries, especially in industrial form, as really the major factor for the destruction of life in the oceans, I get the people who work for industry and the people who work for government criticizing me for being too sharp or being wrong.

What are their major criticisms?

In any discipline as messy as ours, there is the data, and there’s always the penumbra around it. And if you’re coming from another perspective, you see differently even if you have more or less the same data. This is affecting much of the debate right now.

One big problem we have is that we rely on so-called case studies. This is best illustrated by a particular paper, published in Science in 2009, which is supposed to be on "global" fisheries. In it, you will see a map that is amazing. It has all these fisheries case studies from Europe and North America, but almost none from Africa, Asia and South America. The omission of these three huge contributors was done on the basis of having no data there. This is obviously wrong. I know this because I’ve worked in those places. They have not. They have worked Europe and North America, and they think that’s the world.

In fisheries, there has been a tradition that it is sufficient to talk about the industrial fisheries in the north. That’s not enough. Europe, North America and Japan import most of their fish from the developing world. The U.S. is consuming fish that come from outside: 60 to 70 percent. In Europe, 80 percent is imported.

But you say there’s no data. You declare there’s no data. But there are. They just don’t know about it.

What is the underlying reason for that?

Information about India is in Indian outlets. Information about Burma is in Burmese outlets. You have to get there. In science, we’re supposed to have a position about the world independent of our standpoint, of where you are. There is no reason to privilege one view when you talk about the world of fisheries. All of this reflects bias that tends to devalue the other.

What do you mean?

Why some guys will devalue others? Evolution built that into our psychology. Essentially, the “others” are no good.

What makes you different?

You see, I cannot afford these kinds of things. I’m European, right? But I’m also black. As soon as you get a little bit multicultural, as soon as you’ve been a bit outside and you have listened to people, that opens your mind. You have to have a closed mind, and not know much, to think that the U.S. fisheries are representative of the fisheries of the world as a whole.

Have you heard about third-culture children?

Is that when a child grows up in a different culture than his parents?

It means children who end up living in an international situation, in another culture. They are not part of that culture, and they are not part of the culture of their parents. So these children create a third culture. My daughter has it. She’s American and French, but she grew up in the Philippines. She doesn’t believe the things that Filipinos believe about themselves, nor the French, nor Americans. Third-culture people are unique. They have their own culture where certain things are never heard, such as “We don’t do that in my country.”

You’re a third-culture child too, no?

Not really, because I identify with European culture. The third culture is a specific thing with kids who cannot locate themselves. No tienen raíces. [They have no roots.] I rest in my European identity. That’s why I’m still not Canadian.


So [likewise], when you have a little bit of international dimension in your work, you can detect the limitations of studies, standpoints and views that don’t have that dimension.

Why do we need a global perspective when it comes to fisheries?

If we want to understand fisheries, we have to understand them all. It doesn’t make sense otherwise because things are systemic. They’re not happening in isolation. People have looked only at the atomic dimension of fisheries. If you go to the next level, you see patterns that you cannot see at the level of single fisheries.

What tools are you developing now to reveal those patterns?

We’re re-estimating the catch of the world, country by country. We’re almost finished. I want to publish papers on it, but it will also be available as a database and as a book, with every country having a few pages. We will describe the catch from 1950 to now of each country of the world. No exception. And for every country, the real catch will be there, as opposed to the official catch.

What's the difference?

It’s big. Developed countries tend to underestimate their catch by about 40 to 50 percent. And in developing countries, the sky is the limit. [The real catch] can be enormous: two, three, four times as large. That means that everything people write about food security is wrong. It means fish are contributing much more to food security than people assess because we catch much more than we know.

What do you want your legacy to be?

To get people to see that fisheries have a global dimension. To understand what really happens, you have to look globally. My legacy is going to be that I have enabled people to do that with fisheries.


Daniela Hernandez, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned her B.A. in biology from Amherst College and her Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Columbia University. Her internships have ranged from The Los Angeles Times (AAAS Mass Media Fellowship) and The Salinas Californian to Wired.com (both online news and social media). This summer, she'll write for the Minneapolis Star Tribune through the Kaiser Family Foundation health reporting internship.

© 2012 Daniela Hernandez