The central California coastal town of Monterey was the setting of John Steinbeck’s depression period novel Cannery Row. The story revolves around the people living there: Lee Chong, the local grocer; Doc, a marine biologist that is surely Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts; and Mack and his group of down and out buddies. It’s a rare treatment of Marine biology as a dramatic and entertaining slice of life novel.
Aside from the fascination with the ocean environment by movie stars, swashbuckling adventurers, and mermaid hunters most often real marine biology is considered an exotic form of geekdom, if it is considered at all.
The canneries of cannery row were thriving in the novels era but failed along with the collapse of the fishing industry in Monterey Bay. In his investigation of where the sardines had gone, legendary California marine biologist Ed Ricketts finally lamented “They’re all in cans.” He was partially right but this simple pointing of fingers at the overfishing problem was not the whole story.
Before the collapse, the fishery was one of the most productive in the world due to the upwelling of cold, yet nutrient rich water from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that is funneled to the surface via the vast underwater Monterey Canyon. But those upwelling waters while producing local coastal abundance for part of the year are important, the sardines of California live most of their lives in far offshore ocean pastures that have a much different and much more sensitive ecology.
A few decades after Ricketts another Californian marine science legend John Martin discovered that the real culprit in the fishery collapse was diminishing Pacific productivity due to steadily declining mineral micronutrients, especially iron. That diminished iron problem was exacerbated by the overfishing and reduction of sardines which were highly effective in recycling vital nutrients especially the mineral micro-nutrient iron. They were in effect farmers of the very ocean plankton on which they thrived.
Take away the farmer fish and the farms, ocean sardine pastures, collapsed in a relentless ecological feedback cycle. The fish you see create a rich manure out of what they eat and that fish manure keeps the crop growing. It’s clear now that had overfishing been the single cause of the collapse, the decades that have following with very little sardine fishing never resulting in restoration of the sardine populations pointed the finger of blame elsewhere. Something else had to be the key factor, something not amongst the “usual suspects.” John Martin’s iron hypothesis has now been shown to be the all important factor in this and the majority of ocean fisheries collapses around the world as is seen in this recent paper in the Journal Science in March 2014.
It’s the carrying capacity of ocean pastures that is most critical for the abundance of fish just like carrying capacity that pastures on land control the numbers of livestock there. The health and abundance, carrying capacity, of offshore ocean pastures is controlled most by mineral micro-nutrients, especially John Martin’s iron. Coastal California ocean pastures have long been known to be low in such mineral micronutrients and the condition is worsening by the year. John Martin studied this as director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory on the shores of Monterey Bay.
In another recent paper the importance of the oceans biological cycle is revealed by another group of scientists. It seems the big blue ocean is neither so uniform or simple as it seems.
In Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row one is spellbound by the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row. Mack and the boys want to do something nice for Doc, the proprietor of a biological supply house on the Row who is a gentle and intellectual man and a friend and caretaker to all but who always seems haunted by a certain melancholy.
They plan to give Doc a party and spend a good deal of energy acquiring provisions for the party in the process alternately enriching and enraging Lee Chong, the local grocer.
Give it a read or if you prefer look up the Nick Nolte movie of the same name. You’ll discover marine science has some good times.
After thought – Steinbeck seems to have been onto something in his ideas as another of his Novels “Of Mice And Men” has in its title a curious link to the troubles of the sardines and men of Monterey. Steinbeck took the title from a poem of Robert Burns titled “To A Mouse” which with some liberties might aptly describes as well the sardine.
Of course our point of view is that WE CAN BRING THE FISH BACK.
We have shown we can replenish and restore their ocean pastures and that the fish do immediately return to historic high numbers.
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