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Humans have achieved another great milestone, but it's no cause for celebration.
According to a new scientific study in the journal Science, our species is so efficient at killing prey compared with other species that we should be considered a "super predator."
Using data spanning all the oceans and every continent except Antarctica, a team from the University of Victoria in British Columbia found that humans kill nine times as many land carnivores, like lions and bears, as other predators. And we're even more dominant in the oceans, killing 14 times more adult fish than other marine predator species.
"Our wickedly efficient killing technology, global economic systems, and resource management that prioritize short-term benefits to humanity have given rise to the human super predator," study author Chris Darimont, a geography professor at University of Victoria, said. "Our impacts are as extreme as our behavior and the planet bears the burden of our predatory dominance."
With new technology, any asshole can catch a fish.
Humans are unlike natural predators in an important way: Rather than targeting the young or weak, we often go after large adults for food and for trophy, which robs animals of their most productive breeding years and typically kills off the strongest members of a species's gene pool. Our dominance, Darimont and his team found, is disrupting the food chain, manipulating evolution by selecting for smaller, weaker members of animal populations, and threatening the long-term sustainability of species around the world.
The scale of commercial fishing and human-caused ocean acidification bodes ill for the future of the oceans, according to Thomas Reimchen, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Victoria, who co-authored the study.
"I don't know why [commercial fishers] have been slow at recognizing the value of the reproductive capital," Reimchen told VICE News. "It's not rocket science; it's pretty basic ecology that seems to be so difficult to get incorporated. We might not like the implications, but there's really no alternative. We have to not only shift to the younger ones, but use a quota that is comparable to what other predators are taking."
Darimont highlighted two factors that initially allowed humans to blow past non-human predators: our symbiosis with dogs, which allowed far more efficient hunting, and the development of projectile weapons and other means of killing that spared us dangerous face-to-face contact with prey. We settled down, developing agriculture and aquaculture, "which subsidized us as predators," Darimont added.
The rapid pace of technological development soon after the development of early hunting techniques and weapons meant that humans quickly ascended to the apex of the world's predators.
Peter Shelley, interim president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, told VICE News that the term super predator is an apt description of human beings — but with a catch.
"Ironically, they're not super smart predators," Shelley told VICE News. "They are driven to catch as much as they can, as quickly as they can, without really focusing on the long-term sustainability of their practices."
Shelley, who is based in New England, said knowledge about fisheries — where fish could be found, what type were where, and when — was passed from generation to generation through oral tradition and detailed, historical logs. But with the emergence of electronic devices like GPS and sonar all that changed.
"They never used to have that kind of precision, but with the new technology any asshole — that was the phrase they used — could catch a fish," Shelley told VICE News. "They were substituting skill and experience for gadgetry and electronics that, in a lot of ways, are even more effective than the log books."
He added, "Modern technology has converted us from a predator to a super predator, and we don't have the systems yet that are capable of adjusting to it."
But, as much as humans seem predisposed to kill without consideration of the long-term impacts, we have also undertaken concerted efforts at mitigating our impact on the landscape and oceans.
Bans on commercial fishing and establishing wildlife preserves might stem the tide of our seeming blood lust toward other species, but they remain limited in scope and enforcement.
The key to mitigating the impact of humans, said Darimont, is to reign in the actual technologies that brought about the problem in the first place.
"In a general way, we've recommended to transform hunting and fishing so that they more closely mimic the behavior of non-human predators," Darimont said. "They are the ultimate long-term models of sustainability. We can look to nature in designing how we can do things better, as harvesters of the ocean or hunters on the land."
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