The life of fishery scientist Daniel Pauly is one for the books


Biography delves deep into the story of UBC’s internationally renowned marine biologist

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UBC professor Daniel Pauly has spent his life traveling the world studying fish stocks and conducting groundbreaking research on overfishing.


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The 75-year-old principal investigator of the Sea Around Us project at UBC’s Institute of Oceans and Fisheries is the author of five books, 400 peer-reviewed articles and over 1,200 other writings.

“This is how I express myself. This is how I connect with the world, ”Pauly said when asked about his prolific writing in a recent Zoom interview from a hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany.

The famous Pauly is the subject of the new biography The Ocean Whistleblower: The Remarkable Life of Daniel Pauly by David Grémillet.

Reading the book, it becomes clear that the title is far from hyperbole.

We meet Pauly very young in Paris. He is the product of a brief affair between his French mother and a black American aviator at the end of World War II.


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Pauly was a sickly baby with an exhausted mother who fell prey to what appeared to be a couple of Swiss crooks she once met by the Seine. The couple’s wife convinced Pauly’s mother to let the couple care for her two-year-old son for three months while she rested and recovered.

His mother tried to get him back but eventually gave up and Pauly grew up in Switzerland.

Her mother married and had seven more children in France.

In Switzerland, Pauly’s childhood is Dickensian. There was a lack of schools to work on collecting recyclable materials and cleaning the apartments of people who died alone.

“If there is one habit that I have kept from that time, it’s that I always feel guilty when I’m not working,” Pauly tells his biographer.


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His youth in Switzerland was difficult. However, he managed to find his way to higher education in Germany and never looked back. The book takes the reader through the academic career of Pauly who initially leaned towards agronomy, but changed when he met former Nazis who worked in the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of Kiel. It was around this time that Pauly discovered politics and began his journey to become the self-proclaimed left-handed troublemaker he says he still is to this day.

“I don’t think much about my youth,” Pauly said.

Fortunately for the reader that Grémillet has. Oceanographer and research director at the National Center for Scientific Research, Grémillet has known Pauly for years and has always been intrigued by his old friend’s story.


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“I wrote this book because it’s such a good story, because everything made sense with this project – the person, the science, the environmental context, the fact that Daniel’s story takes us through essential parts of modern history, from the civil rights movement to current geopolitics, “Grémillet said via email from France.” I felt this book project was an environmental thriller about a child survivor who has changed the world by the sheer power of his intellect, his words. “

After years of knowing the world famous marine scientist Daniel Pauly, the writer David Grémillet delivered the biography The Ocean's Whistleblower: The Remarkable Life of Daniel Pauly.
After years of knowing the world famous marine scientist Daniel Pauly, the writer David Grémillet delivered the biography The Ocean’s Whistleblower: The Remarkable Life of Daniel Pauly. Photo by Bénédicte Martin /PNG

At first Pauly, who speaks French, German, English and Spanish, was reluctant to the biography project, but then began to see it as another platform in the fight to protect our oceans.

“It was intriguing to have a biography where you don’t have to die first,” said Pauly, who has two children and a grandchild. “It’s not just my story. It is the story of a generation, of a cohort of people who cared about the world around them.


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The list of research achievements of Pauly and his various cohorts is long. Highlights include things like establishing the theory of “base shifting syndrome” and understanding oxygen and fish growth. An article published in 1998 in the journal Science titled Fishing Down the Marine Food Web literally changed that. He explained how overfishing of large predatory fish has forced fisheries to depend on small fish until their stock is also wiped out. This would then let humans eat invertebrates or as Pauly puts it “jellyfish soup”.

“I hope (readers) will enjoy reading about this adventurous life around the world and about ocean science! Beyond an incredible personal story, this book shows how science is done, how Pauly and a few others have managed to report overfishing and provide tools to heal the oceans, ”said Grémillet.


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Dr Daniel Pauly is a Marine Biologist and Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us Project at UBC's Institute of Oceans and Fisheries.
Dr Daniel Pauly is a Marine Biologist and Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us Project at UBC’s Institute of Oceans and Fisheries. Photo by Mike Bell /PNG

One stream that runs through Pauly’s history is the constant struggle against corrupt corporate fishing practices.

One remarkable story in the book has whaling nations, seeking support, paying government officials to transmit a lie.

“The Japanese have bribed officials from several African countries, including Senegal, to say that whales eat fish, which is absolutely impossible because whales go to West Africa to breed, and everyone knows that ‘they don’t eat during this time,’ says Pauly. in the book.

Asked about this story, Pauly sighs, adjusts his glasses and explains that the fight has been difficult.

“I was depressed when I came back and wrote an essay on disappointment because, along with a lot of other people, I worked a lot in West Africa. It is well established that overfishing by the foreign fleet is ruining the place, ”said Pauly. “See the politicians pretend it was the whales that ate the fish, when they lie like that, they know I know they are lying. It was very disappointing. “


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Despite the solid science on overfishing, fish farms and warming waters, Pauly says finance still often beats its fins.

“There’s a simple answer,” Pauly said when asked why these worst practices continue. “If it was astronomy and we were debating the distance of a certain star, they would argue only on scientific grounds because there is no commercial interest behind it, but as soon as you have a commercial interest , people will lie between their teeth. “

Today Pauly still teaches, lectures and writes. He says he has no plans to retire.

“I catch up all the time and I’m 75 and can’t retire. It’s the only scar I can identify, ”said Pauly, who first arrived at UBC in 1994.“ I get nervous when I’m not doing things.

Forced to reflect on his heritage, Pauly explains that his science skills are not about delving deep into a subject but the ability to combine things for a bigger result.

Is he proud of his life, of his work?

“It’s a dangerous thing,” Pauly said.

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