What did you read over Easter? I found myself absorbed in two books, one dealing with our endangered oceans, the other with why governments fail to deliver on their promises. And yes I found a connection!

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As a Christmas present, I received The Last Fisherman by Jeffrey Rotman with Yair Harel (Abbeville Press, New York, 2014). The title itself has symbolic meaning for both Christmas and Easter, but the subject matter dwelt not just on the beauties of nature but on our capacities  as humans to destroy . It is a magnificently illustrated text with stories of Rotman as a diver and photographer in coastal and oceanic waters around the world. Australia is well represented. Rotman’s photos covering several decades are quite gripping, both the close ups and the more panoramic. It is the story of his life on and under the sea together with his documentation of the world’s diminishing sea life. The experience of diving in areas where sharks were caught in their thousands and stripped of their fins made him more aware than before of the pillaging processes of fishing and failed attempts by governments to regulate, or not even try to regulate, the industry. One point he made was that 80 million or more sharks are killed each year while noting that in 2013 there were less than 100 known shark attacks on humans. Many other examples are given of the ‘’ emptying out of the oceans”, no more graphic than the story of the decline of the once massive cod industry of the North Atlantic.

Catching cod in a fiord in Labrador in 1967 was an experience I will never forget.  Throw over a line and up they come, easy as that. Yet over the next few decades,  off Newfoundland and New England,  successive governments failed to reign in over-fishing despite surveys and predictions from fishery scientists of consequences. Rotman quotes one fisherman who recalls back in 1976 the annual cod quota in New England as 100000 pounds weight; now in strictly managed areas the quota is down to 5000 pounds. Interestingly there is an argument that the local lobster industry has been boosted because there are fewer cod to feed on juvenile lobsters. Be that as it may, my reading of what happened in Canada suggests that attempts to maintain jobs for fisherman in Newfoundland after international trawlers were prohibited in Canadian waters, contributed to the decline of cod as a viable commercial fishery.

This leads me onto the second book; in 2003 Peter Crawford published Captive of the System (Richmond Ventures, Sydney). It was important to me to re-read this book given current matters that I am dealing with at various levels of government.

I met Peter when he was Commissioner, Healthy Rivers Commission in NSW. He was a public servant of great experience both nationally and internationally and it was soon apparent that I could learn much from him. At the time I was Chair of the NSW Coastal Council; we both found ourselves not only collaborating but also under criticism from within and outside of government. Both organisations were terminated by 2004. Peter had previously served as CEO of other agencies and in this book he brings together his thoughts on the functioning, or not, of government systems. Early in the book he asks a very coastal related question: why despite the expenditure of significant funds and energy by many institutions and people, have so many rivers continued to deteriorate? Legislative and administrative controls, along with institutional arrangements, rules and standards are designed to “ manage” rivers just as they do other systems of government. We do not manage such systems as a whole, but subdivide them into parts (silos) and design management approaches accordingly. Peter illustrates the book with examples of how those parts are generally determined more by tradition and past legal and administrative arrangements “than by any analysis of the needs of the whole and its interdependent parts”.

And here lies the connection between the books: we cannot say we do not have the knowledge to better manage our natural systems!

But doing it by different entities often with different agendas focussing on their part, their area of responsibility, can lead to the sorts of catastrophes seen so vividly in Rotman’s photos and text. Rotman does not attribute specific blame; that was not his purpose. For countries like USA, Canada, and Australia, Crawford has demonstrated the power of authorities working within federated governance arrangements, to make decisions in a disintegrated way often without regard for cumulative or long term consequences.

We must do better.

Words by Prof. Bruce Thom