On “hopelessness”, ignorant bliss, and pragmatism

Main point: One of the most intensely frustrating attributes of the general conservation community is a fear of realism – optimism is important, of course, but so is pragmatism. Species, ecosystems, resources (whatever you’re interested in conserving) will not survive merely because we hold hands and *believe* that they can.  Conservation approaches must be designed based on realistic understanding, not on fantasy.

While conducting dissertation at my main field site, Malampaya Sound, I found myself deeply discouraged many a night.  I was there to study potential avenues for mitigating the bycatch of Irrawaddy dolphins in local small-scale fisheries, but it became clear to me that the tiny population numbers of the dolphins, the ever-increasing fishing effort, and significant governance challenges spelled probable doom for our cetacean friends.  What was I even doing here? I was just documenting part of the extirpation of this subpopulation.

The realization that saved me from plummeting into apathy-born-of-despair: maybe research at this site wouldn’t be enough to save that particular subpopulation, but we could learn a lot from understanding why conservation efforts did not prevail. We could learn from our mistakes, and save ourselves from repeating those mistakes elsewhere.  Assessing failure is every bit as important as assessing success.

My results clearly showed that saving this subpopulation would be highly challenging and would require monumental changes in fisheries management.  From my in-prep manuscript, my conclusion read: “Reducing bycatch to below the PBR [Potential Biological Removal, or sustainable rate of human-caused fatalities] would require, essentially, completely eliminating bycatch – an unlikely scenario, particularly given the context of increasing fishing effort in Malampaya Sound, the widespread use of the two most problematic gears, and the high degree of overlap between intense small-scale fishing pressure and Irrawaddy dolphin area use.”

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At one of the important feeding areas for the dolphins (left), low tide reveals the high density of crab pots (right). This is one of the fishing gears responsible for most of the bycatch – the bottom-feeding dolphins get caught in the ropes connecting the pots.  This is also one of the cheapest and easiest gears to use, and as such is commonly used. Local indigenous people also garner extra income by making these pots.  In a site where fisheries management is essentially not implemented, removing this and other gears in the face of serious socioeconomic issues will require considerable effort to change key attributes of governance and communities.  That seems, realistically, “unlikely” to me, given the severe funding and personnel limitations at this site; even with plentiful funding and person-power, these steps would be substantially challenging.

Now, I’m in the “revise and resubmit” phase for this manuscript.  Most of the comments were generally helpful and appreciated. One, however, made me grit my teeth:

The author should be careful about backing conservation into a corner by judging a priori that eliminating bycatch is a hopeless task… hopelessness is a value judgment outside the scope of the author’s study. – Reviewer 3

Stating the obvious – that reducing bycatch to a sustainable rate, i.e. less than one dolphin per year, is highly unlikely – is not “hopelessness”.  It should be a wake-up call.  It should emphasize that years of research that state “we need more information about x, y, z” and “we recommend that fishing effort of this-and-that gear be reduced” has accomplished nothing practical in terms of saving this subpopulation. It should be a kick in the ass that prompts all of us to think, “This really is serious – what can we do to actually take concrete steps to save this, and other, populations???”

This is also part of the reason why I generally become grumpy at academic conservation conferences, where the focus is overwhelmingly on calls for optimism and vague recommendations, and very little honest talk (except in somewhat hushed voices in small side-meetings) about the more dire conservation situations.  It reminds me of my own immature reluctance to regularly check on my bank account – I know that what I see might well dismay (shock?) me, even though I really need to grow up and be more responsible with money, but an irrational part of me wants to waltz around in a happy daydream, spending beyond my means.

Optimism is great. We definitely need stories of success to inspire us and to learn from.  A notable campaign for such positive examples is the Beyond the Obituaries initiative led by Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson (see write-up here).

But we need to be realistic.  We need to face up to the unpleasant truth that conservation is full of seemingly intractable problems, many without any easy or even feasible solution.  Scolding young researchers who have spent time immersed in a challenging conservation situation, and who have worked closely with those who have dedicated years of their lives to the issue, because they candidly describe a solution as being “unlikely” is counterproductive.

To design realistic approaches for the very real problems that exist, we need to be…realistic.