Mount Royal University biologist’s “lazy fish” research making a splash worldwide
Professor Jonathan Mee working to prove the efficacy of marine national monuments
A New York Times story on the possible loss of protection for marine national monuments in the U.S. has thrust research on “lazy fish” ― first published in March by Mount Royal biology professor Jonathan Mee, PhD ― back into the spotlight.
The legislation protecting these undersea reserves is under review by the Trump administration, according to the Oct. 30 feature story by science and nature writer Christopher Pala. The story is headlined Loss of Federal Protections May Imperil Pacific Reefs, Scientists Warn.
The story describes seamounts, or underwater mountains, reduced to a “biological desert” after being fished by trawlers and sea harvesters, comparing them to the thriving undersea ecosystems found in protected areas.
According to the story, “the Trump administration is considering rolling back federal protections to 10 national monuments, including two in the central Pacific. The Pacific Remote Islands national Marine Monument and the Rose Atoll National Marine Monument protect the waters around a handful of islands, most uninhabited, to the south of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Hawaii’s fishing industry is in favour of allowing fishing in these areas and has opposed the expansion of marine monuments.
The story quotes an array of marine scientists in favour of maintaining and even enhancing and growing the federal reserves, including Mee, who has been at Mount Royal since July 2016 and teaches in the Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science and Technology.
While opponents of the protected areas claim they offer false protection because fish don’t stay in one spot and don’t know if they are in a marine monument or not, Mee counters that lazier fish will move less, spend more time in the reserves, and have less chance to get caught.
This will lead, he argues, to an increase in lazy fish whose descendants will also spend more time in the reserves and avoid being caught.
The story was widely read online and picked up by a number of other publications, giving renewed interest to research Mee originally published in March 2017 in the journal Evolutionary Applications.
Mee said the reach of the New York Times piece was a surprise, although the research had garnered some public attention earlier, in Vancouver, for example.
“I did not know how expansive and widely read the story would be. I typically study fish that I find interesting for scientific reasons (e.g., they’re all female and reproduce asexually, or they have some weird morphology),” Mee says. “This was my first foray into studies of fish (and fishing) that lots of non-scientists, worldwide, seem to care about (like tuna and tuna fisheries).”
The study by Mee, Daniel Pauly, PhD, a fisheries scientist from UBC also quoted in the New York Times story, and Sarah P. Otto, PhD, also from UBC, was based on the idea that fishing itself leads to the evolution of traits that allow fish to live (fish too small to get caught in nets, for example, continue to pass on their genes), a concept called fisheries-induced evolution. It used mathematical models to predict the conditions under which marine reserves would likely cause the evolution of more cautious (or “lazy”) fish, and whether this evolution might actually make marine reserves more effective, as the evolved lazy fish would be more likely to stay inside the marine reserves and wouldn’t get caught.
“We found that marine reserves are likely to cause the evolution of lazy fish, and that this could result in very large numbers of fish inside reserves while fishing continues to cause declines outside reserves,” says Mee. “This would even be the case for large pelagic fish, which move a lot, like tuna and sharks.
“I’m not claiming that marine reserves will be beneficial to fisheries ― just that marine reserves, through the effects of fisheries-induced evolution, can harbour large populations of fish, thereby preventing extinction and protecting biodiversity.”
Mee was also in the news in April as one of nearly sixty scientists, who in a letter urged Alberta's environment minister not to back down from a plan to phase out off-highway vehicle use in two ecologically sensitive parks in southwestern Alberta, because they said the evidence to back the ban was clear. He says it’s important scientists speak out on matters of public concern.
“If we don’t try to talk to the public and policy makers about our work, then who will take our place when people go looking for information?” he asks. “In my talks with Archie McLean (a professor in the Bachelor of Communication – Journalism program at Mount Royal), he’s convinced me that people have an appetite for information, scientific information or otherwise. It’s our responsibility as scientists to convey accurate scientific information to non-scientists. If we expect policy makers to use sound evidence in their decision making, which I do, then we (scientists) have to communicate our evidence. This includes communicating with the public (through the media) so that policy makers are held accountable for evidence-based decision-making.”
Mee is currently working on a project involving the evolution of morphological (size, shape and structure) differences in brook stickleback ― a small fish found in lakes across Alberta.
He says that while “substantially less ‘sexy’ than tuna,” brook stickleback are an excellent species for studies of the genetic conditions that promote within-population diversity. Several populations, for example, contain individuals with stark differences in morphology, and Mee says there is an opportunity, based on recent advances, to make use of modern genetic tools to study their genomes.
“Finding the genetic basis of morphological differences is an important step in understanding the evolution of those differences.”
Nov. 22, 2017 ― Peter Glenn