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In Vancouver, a Young Science Confronts Its Limits

Black rockfish

Consider, if you will, the black rockfish.

Its skin a mottled black-gray, its belly white, and its dorsal fin spiny, the black rockfish is a saltwater species of unremarkable size and value. It’s a common catch off Vancouver Island, but only a blip in British Columbia’s commercial fishing haul. Sport fishermen, many from First Nation tribes, catch the rockfish occasionally, sure, but if you were appraising a fishery solely on the monetary value it provides—a strategy at the core of the Natural Capital Project, an effort I profile this week in the Review—the rockfish would be a ghost in the data.

That ghost, it turns out, carries a lot of cultural value. Salmon are as imperiled off Vancouver Island as elsewhere, and one region in the island’s north recently saw its Chinook run collapse. It was only then that the rockfish’s value to the First Nations revealed itself, Kai Chan, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, told me when we met this past spring. After that salmon run dried up, there were no fish left for their children to catch that were energetic and abundant enough to get them roped into fishing, Chan said. “Black rockfish is that fish, that plays this critical role in the perpetuation of their fishing life.”

An evolutionary biologist and former postdoc of Gretchen Daily, one of conservation’s leading minds, Chan has become an internal gadfly in the field’s push toward defining ecosystems by how they benefit people. Equal parts scientist and philosopher—one of his mentors at Princeton, where he received his Ph.D., was Peter Singer—Chan has doggedly searched for ways ecosystem services can better include the cultural, aesthetic, and inspirational values people place on nature.

As it happened, Chan had just sent an email to the Natural Capital folks the day before we met, he said. He had heard through the grapevine that, at the project’s annual meeting, there had been worries that they were missing a good amount of the human well-being that derives from nature, values they couldn’t easily capture.

“They’re hesitant to engage too deeply in that,” Chan said. “Not because they don’t see the importance of it, but because they realize to a degree it requires a new set of skills and tools, and they’re not ones that really fit well, either into the current team or under the paradigmatic assumption.”

Ecosystem services, as it’s practiced today, is basically natural-resource economics with ecology; its relationship to the other social sciences is more awkward. “The non-economic social sciences operate under a completely different set of assumptions about human well-being, about values, about culture,” he said. “So bridging those worlds is difficult, and it actually requires changing the concept.”

His email was about one way to add those cultural values to Natural Capital’s models. Instead of expressing human benefits or harm in purely quantitative or qualitative terms—dollars, say, or plain-language interviews—conservation scientists could construct metrics by interviewing local residents, asking them to explain, say, what damage to their cultural heritage looks like on a five-point scale.

Then you could ask, he added, in a scenario where rockfish populations were halved, how would that damage your culture? “At the end of the day,” he said, “you can have an expression that you can use and relate in numeric terms, but always having the expanded qualitative definition.” It’s not perfect, he knows, but it’s better than nothing.

Our talk soon shifted to conservation’s dueling ethics: preserving species for their intrinsic value and saving species for their value to human beings. It’s understandable that the latter, in the guise of ecosystem services, is on the rise, Chan said. It’s just such an easier sell. “I think the moral basis for conservation is actually contestable,” he said. “And the fact that the basis for caring about human well-being is not again makes it awkward to have the two sharing space.”

There’s a way to put intrinsic values on firmer philosophical ground, Chan added, though he hasn’t quite cracked it yet. It involves applying the extensionalism of Peter Singer, his mentor—the notion that deep uncertainty exists on the consciousness of a broad array of species, meriting them some sort of lesser moral status—with posthumous rights. For example, the world’s few tigers contain all the genetic interests of that once-abundant predator. “If you can bring yourself to care about those kinds of interests—which we do for people—then I think that all of a sudden makes species an important level,” Chan said.

The ecosystem-services approach ignores that discussion. And that’s OK, Chan said. The two ethics can coexist, even if they cause occasional fierce fires.

“Our motivations for having kids include all kinds of self-interested things as well as concern for the well-beings of others,” he said. “There are lots of decisions in life that have competing motivations.”

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