Book review – The Ocean’s Whistleblower: The Remarkable Life and Work of Daniel Pauly

7-minute read

The first thing I think of when hearing the name of marine biologist Daniel Pauly is shifting baseline syndrome. Once seen, this powerful concept of generational amnesia with regards to the state of the natural world is impossible to unsee. I previously reviewed Vanishing Fish, a collection of Pauly’s essays that introduced this and other influential ideas – and came away very impressed. It is followed by this outstanding biography that, true to its subtitle, convinces that the life and work of Pauly are remarkable.

The Ocean's Whistleblower

The Ocean’s Whistleblower: The Remarkable Life and Work of Daniel Pauly, written by David Grémillet, published by Greystone Books in November 2021 (hardback, 408 pages)

Written by oceanographer David Grémillet, this book was originally published in French in 2019 as Daniel Pauly: Un Océan de Combats by Éditions Wildproject. Canadian publisher Greystone Books enlisted Georgia Lyon Froman who delivers a fine English version that occasionally highlights “Frenchisms” that might have otherwise been lost in translation. Three elements, that I will elaborate on below, make this biography particularly impressive: Grémillet is balanced in his coverage of Pauly’s life, has been thorough in his background research by interviewing numerous people, and understands and explains Pauly’s scientific achievements.

First, that coverage. The Ocean’s Whistleblower is told in 23 chapters and three parts that, mostly chronologically, take you through the main phases of Pauly’s life. He was born at the end of World War II to a White, unwed French mother and a Black American soldier who did not stick around. Financial struggles led his mother to entrust him to a Swiss family for a few months in 1948 that turned into 15 years when they refused to return him. Struggling his way through school despite his intelligence and voracious reading habit, he left for Germany in 1963 aged 17, working to pay for his education, eventually reuniting with his mother and her new family in France in 1967.

Grémillet then follows Pauly’s professional career, the first phase of which plays out in relative obscurity. Starting as a fisheries biologist at the IfM, an oceanographic institute in Kiel, Germany, Pauly works in Ghana, Indonesia, Peru, and, prominently, the Philippines at ICLARM, a non-profit organisation focused on the management of aquatic resources. At this stage he is more interested in issues of social justice than making a name for himself, publishing obscure technical reports rather than papers in high-impact scientific journals. It is only when ICLARM comes under new management and things go south that Pauly enters first-world academic circles when he is offered a full professorship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The third part of this biography, then, charts his meteoric rise to fame and takes us right up to 2017.

“What soon becomes apparent, […] is just how many people around the world Grémillet has interviewed in person while researching this book. “

What soon becomes apparent, and is the second aspect that impressed me, is just how many people around the world Grémillet has interviewed in person while researching this book. Sure, he probably travels frequently as an academic, but it is not just colleagues Grémillet speaks to. With great effort, he tracks down some of Pauly’s “foster siblings” in Switzerland, a French teacher, and a South African friend to discuss Pauly’s childhood. He gets the skinny on his family life from his wife, daughter, and son. And, given Pauly’s busy professional life, he speaks to many co-workers, former students, and, notably, some of his rivals. He gets an honest appraisal from Ray Hilborn, an American fisheries scientist who does not think the sky is falling where fishing is concerned and opposes the idea of Marine Protected Areas. Yet, even from these, one gets an overall sense of respect for Pauly’s achievements.

The third aspect that I really appreciated is that Grémillet is an oceanographer who understands the science and can explain its relevance – important given how much Pauly has published (550+ papers and counting). He also gives good summaries of the games of “academic ping-pong” (p. 213) as critiques and rebuttals fly back and forth. Pauly thinks big and Grémillet compares his mind to Darwin’s, “a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” (p. 247), while a colleague remarks that “there’s a strategic aspect to his work where everything fits into everything else” (p. 285). None of what follows have, of course, been solo enterprises, and Pauly’s many collaborators get a chance to claim their share of the work. So, what has Pauly ever done for fisheries? Start the clock…

“Pauly has been a loud and persistent voice who has put overfishing in the public spotlight and on the political agenda.”

Of note, Pauly developed methods to quickly estimate growth rates and mortality (important for fisheries policies) from size data instead of from age determined by laboriously counting growth rings in otoliths (ear stones). He developed a suite of tools (Ecopath and Ecosim) to model complex marine ecosystems and how these are impacted by different fishing strategies and policies. He spearheaded the development of FishBase, a biological database with comprehensive information on all 30,000+ species of finfish. He led projects to review the global state of fisheries that popularised the idea of shifting baselines, kick-started the discipline of historical ecology (the study of past human-environment interactions), and warned that we are fishing down marine food webs. He memorably described that last idea to journalists: “having systematically stripped the oceans of top predators, we are now eating bait, and we’re headed for jellyfish” (p. 211). He uncovered how the constant decline in global fish catches since 1988 has been masked by China systematically overreporting catch figures to the FAO who are aware of it but do not see it as their mission to correct statistics. He subsequently started the Sea Around Us, a research initiative that reconstructed more realistic global fish catches from the 1950s to now by incorporating grey literature such as reports, and unofficial secondary sources such as port authority records, archives, newspaper articles, etc. He defends this by writing that “one must overcome the [psychological] notion that ‘no information is available’” (p. 260). This fed into the idea of ecosystem-based fisheries management: rather than focusing on exploited species, the focus should be on restoring ecosystems on which these species depend. In short, Pauly has been a loud and persistent voice who has put overfishing in the public spotlight and on the political agenda.

A final, brief aspect to mention is that, though Grémillet admires Pauly, this book is not a hagiography. He is not shy to point out how Pauly’s workaholic attitude has taken a toll on his marriage, his children, even his health (he suffered a stroke in 2005); how his PhD students struggle as he “set the bar astronomically high” (p. 249); or how his left-leaning tendencies and strong sense of social justice can get in the way. Didier Gascuel remarks on his controversial nature: “you drop him into a community that’s running smoothly, and the next thing you know, it explodes” (p. 281).

The Ocean’s Whistleblower is, simply put, an outstanding biography. It is incredibly well-written and well-researched and gave me a much better appreciation of this remarkable biologist. Greystone Books is to be praised for spotting this book and making it available in English.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Ocean’s Whistleblower

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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