On March 30th, Science, one of the world's most respected scientific journals, published a paper about how the overfishing of big sharks in our oceans has led to an increase in ray and skate populations which, in turn, is having cascading effects down the ocean food chain.
It's a fascinating piece of work — one of those big-picture studies that helps connect the dots and shed light on the complex interconnections between various species in an ecosystem. But what makes this particular piece of science so important to me personally is the lead author — Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Dr. R.A. Myers, RAM to his friends, died earlier that same week.
The Science paper is typical of RAM's work. He was a brilliant scientist who became a tireless advocate for conservation after finding disturbing trends in our oceans. It was those trends that led him to raise alarm bells over mismanagement of the Atlantic cod when he was with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. For his efforts, he was first ignored, and then reprimanded. The fact that he was later proven right I'm sure offered him little consolation as he watched the fisheries collapse. More than 15 years later, it has yet to recover.
In 2003, RAM published a paper in the journal Nature that earned him worldwide recognition. The report was a culmination of years of work with his colleague, Dr. Boris Worm. Together, they had carefully dissected decades worth of fishing data and found that major large predatory fish — the ones we most like to eat — such as tuna, cod and swordfish, had seen their populations plummet by some 90 per cent in just 50 years.
The paper was controversial, especially in the fishing industry, because it warned that many more fisheries would face collapse if we don't seriously cut back on what we are taking out of the oceans. But RAM was never one to back down from controversy. In fact, controversy probably helped the story earn media attention around the world — shedding light on a problem that for many is out-of sight, out-of-mind.
It was this sort of big-picture thinking that helped make RAM such a giant in his field. In 2005, Fortune magazine named him one of the world's Top 10 people to watch. He was indeed a distinguished scientist, an engaging public speaker and leading advocate for change. Sadly, we will now never know what else he may have accomplished. His death from a brain tumor, at just 54, came at the height of his scientific career and at a time when the world needs him most.
In February, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit RAM in the hospital. By then, he could only say yes or no, but he understood everything that was going on and what was being said. I hope I was able to adequately convey just how much he had accomplished and how much he had done for science and for conserving nature for future generations.
RAM's Science paper on the demise of sharks seems to be getting good publicity, as it should. Rather than merely being mindless man eaters, sharks are an integral part of the ocean's web of life. As the report shows, killing them off for shark fin soup has allowed other species, like rays to thrive. But booming ray populations are now decimating their favourite food source — scallops. And since scallops help filter water, their loss has actually resulted in poorer water quality in some areas.
Dr. Ransom Myers was at the leading edge of conservation biology. He consistently strove to dig deeper and go further in the search for answers to pressing ecological issues. His efforts raised the public's understanding of the plight of our oceans, and he inspired a generation of marine biologists. His work will be sorely missed, and so will he.