Tjossem, The Journey to PICES

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in the Bulletin of the Pacific Circle 17 (2006), 20–22.

Sara Tjossem.  The Journey to PICES: Scientific Cooperation in the North Pacific.  Fairbanks: Alaska Sea Grant College Program, 2005. xii + 194 pp., index.

Marine scientists in the twentieth century witnessed extraordinary changes to their discipline.  New ideas revolutionized theories of ocean dynamics and the sea floor.  Technological innovations utilized the sea, air, and space.  Institutional dominance shifted from Europe to the United States, with marine sciences growing stronger also in Japan and the Soviet Union.  Maritime nations invested large amounts of money into scientific research for defense and economic reasons, including fisheries management.  And international cooperation played an increasingly important role in all of these.  Only recently have historians begun to explore these trends, and very few have focused on the issues particularly relevant to the peoples bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Sara Tjossem has written a short history of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, which its members know more familiarly as PICES.  The latter is a play off of ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, a predominantly European group that began to tackle fisheries problems at the dawn of the twentieth century.  PICES is a relatively new organization, which came into being only in the early 1990s.  One could argue that there is not enough distance from the story to give a balanced history, but Tjossem avoids this potential problem by also focusing on the decades-long genesis of the organization.  This allows her to devote considerable attention to the history of North Pacific fisheries and the many diplomatic issues that have hampered scientific cooperation in the area since the end of the Second World War.

The idea for PICES sparked at a fisheries conference at Vancouver in 1973.  Scientists from the United States, Canada, Japan, and the Soviet Union agreed in principle that a regional organization was needed to link the disparate scientific problems from all sides of the vast northern Pacific region.  This meeting produced very little action, however, and it was not until Warren Wooster took an interest in the organization that it began to take shape.  Much of Tjossem’s book focuses on the activities of Wooster, who championed the cause of PICES when he took up a position at the University of Washington in 1976.  Wooster brought a wealth of experience from his years at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in the early 1960s and his involvement with ICES as a United States delegate.  Tjossem highlights the political problems that have preoccupied Wooster over the years, particularly the issue of freedom of the seas.  When states began to claim Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) under the rules being discussed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, scientists (and fishermen) needed permission from coastal states to enter nearby waters.  As an intergovernmental organization, PICES had the potential to circumvent any sticky political problems about access to coastal waters.

Convincing governments of PICES’s usefulness was no easy task, Tjossem reveals.  Some governments were somewhat skeptical that a Pacific-wide organization focusing on scientific research could help them.  Although scientists claimed to conduct value-free research and to offer objective advice, government officials were well aware of the power such organizations could wield.  Particularly in countries with booming fishing industries, like Japan, what incentive was there to finance an organization whose scientific research was likely to criticize its policies?  For many years, Japan was reticent to become involved in PICES for this very reason.  PICES advocates argued that their recommendations would not be enforceable, but the Japanese knew that the political burden of ignoring scientists’ advice might be heavy.  According to Tjossem, Japan feared PICES would simply become another vehicle for “Japan-bashing” in international circles.  Even after Japan decided to participate in the organization’s planning meetings, it sent only people from government agencies, not academic scientists, to ensure that Japan’s interests were not undermined.

Once PICES was formed and had its first annual meeting in 1992, it got bogged down in the time-honored ambiguity about applied and basic research.  Should its principal goal be fostering marine science for its own sake, or should it focus on problems directed at fisheries management?  Oceanographers pointed out that studies of the North Pacific thus far had been conducted piecemeal, without much coordination, and that this was a major opportunity for marine research.  They tried to convince governments that research was critical for the world’s future.  But that claim begged the question: if the purpose of doing the science was to shed light on fisheries, was it not proper to conduct research locally, to help national industries?  PICES advocates answered this by arguing for an ecosystem approach to the entire North Pacific.  Assuming the interconnectedness of the whole region, studies of the region would be better served through international coordination.  According to such reasoning, knowledge of fish migrations, habitats, and other economically useful subjects would follow.

In the late 1970s the planners of the organization agreed that PICES should have no advisory responsibilities.  Yet by the 1990s, officials in the Canadian and U.S. governments began to put pressure on PICES to use their expertise to give advice.  PICES firmly stuck to marine research, noting that it was primarily concerned with long-term trends—studies of climate, weather, and human impact on ecosystems—than with identifying fish quotas.  As Warren Wooster put it, PICES was not PISCES.  PICES consistently sold itself as a scientific body with no policy teeth, but as Tjossem notes, PICES founders always envisioned some kind of advisory role—as in the case of ICES.  A cynic might have concluded that PICES spun itself as a fisheries body when it needed governments to support its existence, and as a purely scientific body when governments demanded specific advice.  The persistence of confusion among governments as to the nature of PICES suggests that the lines between fisheries management and scientific research have remained blurry.

Tjossem concludes with some comments about the difficulties in running an organization that tried to balance government interest with “curiosity-driven” science.  She reveals that the strategy of PICES leaders was to cast the whole North Pacific as an ecosystem.  This made their studies indirectly related to fisheries without tying them directed to fisheries management.  It also necessitated international cooperation to fully understand the ecological interconnections in such a vast region.  But despite this clever strategy, which Tjossem justly highlights, it is hard to see PICES as an unqualified success story.  The spirit of international cooperation that sparked PICES saw its zenith during the Cold War, but the Soviet Union collapsed before the organization came into existence.  The Japanese seemed to distrust it, the Russians could not afford it, and both saw it as a fisheries organization.  The Chinese tried to use it to advise on coastal fish farming, a booming industry but a hardly Pacific-wide one requiring cooperation.  Still, as Tjossem points out, PICES forged ahead, trying to promote cooperative projects that involved fish but were not explicitly geared toward fisheries policy.  Fortunately, the 1990s fascination with climate change saved the day, giving PICES a more specific raison d’être.  It began a project on Climate Change and Carrying Capacity (CCCC) to put the international ecosystem approach in touch with a scientific problem of global proportions.  The CCCC project coordinated disparate national projects, but also became, as Tjossem notes, a unifying vehicle for the member states who wanted to implement the ecosystem approach and to foster international, intergovernmental, and interdisciplinary cooperation in the North Pacific.

Tjossem’s book is a useful institutional history, not summarizing and celebrating, but instead placing the PICES story into an analytic framework by focusing on the ecosystem approach to international cooperation.  For source material she draws on the existing literature in the history of the marine sciences, American archival materials, and her own interviews some of the key participants.  Ultimately she has made a persuasive study of how the changing winds of international politics have shaped the scientific study the North Pacific.


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