Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#359: The Tragedy of the Common

Back in the late 1960s when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I would occasionally take the MTA into the city to visit the Boston Common. Even as a starving student, I always had the 20 cents it took to make the trip, so the conductor never asked for another nickel and I always returned to Cambridge... unlike poor Charlie in the song made famous by the Kingston Trio. Yes, you're all wondering what this has to do with the undersea world of Catalina. Bear with me. I usually get to the point... eventually.

The Boston Common was so named because it was a community grazing ground for the residents of early Boston. They could bring their livestock here to munch on the grasses... and the city saved money by not having to mow! The common is a concept dating back to medieval England. It was carried to the New World by the Pilgrims and other early English settlers coming to "New England."

In 1968 UCSB Professor Garrett Hardin published an article in the prestigious journal Science titled "The Tragedy of the Commons." In it Hardin looked at the grazing resource of the common in simple economic terms. Obviously it was in the personal self-interest of each herder to graze as many cows as possible on the land to optimize their benefit from that resource. This was a rational economic choice to make from a short-term perspective. However, the more herders that chose to do this, the quicker the common became overgrazed, exceeding its limited capacity capacity and ruining the grazing quality for all.

I have witnessed a local example of the "Tragedy of the Commons" right here in our waters off Catalina over my 40 years of diving. Those with longer term perspectives such as our early divers like Cap Perkins or fishers like Bill Hill, have seen even greater declines in their lifetimes. This is what scientists refer to as "shifting baselines." If we measure fish and invertebrate stocks based on what they were five years ago, we might see little change and even improvement in some. However, if we use the End of World War II as our baseline, or go back even further to the glory days of Zane Grey, Charles Frederick Holder and the early Tuna Club, we would undoubtedly see drastic declines in most fish stocks since those times.

The fish and marine invertebrates such as lobster and abalone in our waters have been treated as common resources by California and its residents. Yes, the State has implemented fishing regulations but in general they have been less effective than they should be in maintaining sustainable levels of these species. Anyone diving the Casino Point Dive Park can easily see it has fish stocks of generally larger numbers containing individuals of greater average size than in most areas outside it. Over the decades, we have taken the larger fish with the greatest reproductive potential as trophies. With many mainland nearshore regions seriously overfished and affected by pollution, anglers come to our waters for what remains.

Specifically I want to relate "The Tragedy of the Commons" to our own Dive Park. Wisely established by a forward thinking City Council in June of 1960, back in the early days of diving, the park has given de facto protection for most of the marine critters within its boundaries. Thanks to this, fish populations are higher and we see the large kelp bass formerly referred to as "bull bass" throughout southern California. They were largely fished out in the years following World War II due to the rapid increase in our region's human population. Lobster are numerous in the park and you can even see a few abalone as well.

This fall I've been doing more night diving than in any year since the mid 1970s when I stopped taking lobster. The water has been warm, giving me a perfect opportunity to dive and film after sunset for a future video on "The Night Shift." Prior to opening day of lobster season, the bottom teemed with bugs... although most were "shorts." It gave me a great opportunity to film them in the open out of their hiding places.

The night season opened, I watched a small inflatable with a diver suited up suspiciously moving up and down the boundary line of the park. I was diving more than four hours before midnight, so season had not yet started. On my next dive, three snorkelers entered the dive park after I emerged from my dive. Their behavior was suspect as well since they were being rather furtive about their reason for snorkeling in the dark. Last week I mentioned that the owners of a mainland dive shop arriving on the Express noticed divers with a large cooler waiting to board for a return trip to the mainland. They asked what was in the cooler and the reply was "lobster." When questioned as to where they came from, the divers responded without hesitation "the dive park."

Hopefully now my readers can see the link between the commons and our own dive park. In the short period since lobster season opened, I have observed a very apparent decline in the number of bugs I'm seeing on my night dives. This is especially true of legal sized ones. It appears that the park is being visited by mainland divers with the intent of removing lobster from it. By doing so, they are exhibiting the same self-interest seen in the herders who would put more and more of their cows on the common and degrade it for others. These divers are impacting the quality of the dive park as an educational experience for new and experienced divers as to what ecosystems can be (or were in years past).

Our current "Tragedy of the Commons" in California waters is not simply a result of take by today's anglers and divers. It is due to the cumulative take over decades of time by generations of anglers and divers, especially in the years following World War II. The take has simply not been sustainable. If it were, we'd still see the giant 10 pound lobster and lunker "bull bass" present back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Our grandparents and parents before us have affected the health of our marine ecosystems in our times, and in turn the current generation will affect it for future generations.

This same self-centeredness is exhibited daily on our streets and sidewalks when people will turn and walk right into you even though they've looked directly into your face, or when seven pedestrians walking abreast will not yield to someone walking in the opposite direction. More importantly, we have seen what the greed of some on Wall Street, mortgage lenders and insurance companies like AIG has done not only to our domestic economy, but that of the world. By pursuing their own interests, they have ruined or seriously affected the lives of millions of others. This is indeed "The Tragedy of the Commons." Is this what we want for our future and that of our children and grandchildren? I certainly hope not.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

To return to the list of ALL of Dr. Bill's "Dive Dry" newspaper columns, click here.

Few cows and high quality grazing conditions, too many and it looks like Bullrush Canyon in the 60s;
lobster at night scared that I'm a bug hunter, and the future of the California spiny lobster?

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2009 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia