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A Career Spanning Over 50 Years, Daniel Pauly Now Sets His Sights on One Last Theory

When Daniel Pauly, Ph.D., watched the sci-fi movie The Martian, in which Matt Damon’s character is presumed dead and left behind by his fellow astronauts, one line caught his attention. “In the face of overwhelming odds, I am going to science…out of this.” 

headshot of Daniel Pauly, Ph.D.
Daniel Pauly, Ph.D. Photo credit: Paul Joseph, the Sea Around Us

In an interesting parallel, Pauly, now 75, has also had to “science” his way out of very trying circumstances–some personal, most intellectual—to become the most cited fisheries scientist of all time.

In an autobiographical essay that appeared in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in 2016, Pauly detailed how his expertise in fisheries started in 1974 at Kiel University in Germany. He graduated with a master’s degree in Fisheries Science and Zoology based on field work in a small coastal lagoon in Ghana.

“The idea for [going to] this locale was that it would prepare me for a career in tropical developing countries where I planned to work because it was (and still is) not easy to be biracial in Europe,” he says. Following an intervention by his thesis advisor, Pauly was then hired by the German development agency—GTZ—to work in Tanzania.

“By way of training, GTZ sent me to learn about Indo-Pacific fish in Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Museum,” he says. When the job in Tanzania did not materialize—despite having spent months learning how to speak Swahili in preparation—GTZ re-assigned him to Indonesia where he worked on a German-Indonesian project devoted to promoting industrial-scale bottom trawling.

With vivid memories of the catches that he had made aboard a research trawler in the Java and South China Seas, Pauly returned to Germany where he began working on a doctoral thesis that aimed to develop a theory of fish growth. He also began working on a computer-based method for estimating the growth of fish from length-frequency samples to replace the pencil and paper methods in use at the time. Pauly also studied the natural mortality of fish and published what became a widely used equation for its estimation. However, while working on his research, he noticed a deep undercurrent running beneath his work. 

“It was clear that there was inequity in access to information because many so-called experts make forays from Europe to Africa or from the U.S. to South East Asia and then return to their countries and write papers. However, the people in the countries where they have been working in do not have access to this work” he says. “What we decided to do is to make available, as computer files, the information itself. In other words, we extracted information in tabular form and put it in a database.”

It was through such efforts at data collection that the first waves of FishBase, a global information system on fish, began to swirl. Now boasting over 50 million unique visits per month, the site has information on almost all fish species in the world – nearly 35,000. It is free of charge and is one of the most cited scientific databases in the world. “We now need to add the 300 to 400 species that are newly discovered and described every year,” Pauly says. “The database is absolutely monstrous.” 

With funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Pauly set up another project in 1999 to provide catch data and related information on all fisheries of the world—the Sea Around Us. As a principal investigator of this initiative, based at the University of British Columbia, Pauly researches the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world, offering solutions to a range of stakeholders.

Bottom trawling, for example, a fishing practice that is responsible for nearly a quarter of global seafood supply, is a focus of Sea Around Us because it destroys marine habitats. To make matters worst, the use of large nets contribute to overfishing and biodiversity loss. “Four jumbo jets can fit in the belly of a net driven by monster vessels,” according to a statement he made in Extinction: The Facts, a 2020 BBC documentary narrated by world-famous natural history producer and presenter David Attenborough.

Climate change, and its adverse impacts, are also of concern for Pauly. His Gill Oxygen Limitation Theory (GOLT), a further development of his doctoral thesis work, explains why fish are extremely sensitive to increases of temperature. In the case of global warming, this has the effect that their populations move into deeper water and/or poleward.

“The endpoint is that we are in deep trouble…if we don’t stop emissions drastically, this will be the end of marine biodiversity, our agricultural system will collapse, and very quickly we will get into catastrophes which will lead to wars,” he warns. Given the urgency of the situation, Pauly is not waiting for the world to get its act together and will continue to make contributions to fisheries science in hopes of building a better future.

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