Pricing the Priceless

Jesse T. Trushenski | AFS President

The English language is full of idiosyncrasies. For every so‐called rule of spelling or grammar, there is a word or circumstance that breaks it. The word “priceless” is one example. Those unfamiliar with the word might understandably mistake its meaning for “without a price” or without value. Of course, we know it is meant to suggest the opposite: we say something is priceless when it is so valuable that its true worth is beyond calculation. These mirrored meanings—without a price and priceless—spring to mind when I consider the existence value of fish. As fisheries professionals, we talk about the importance of biodiversity and the ecological roles different organisms play. But what is the intrinsic value of a species? We are usually forced to think of conservation in dollars and cents, so we ask economists to price the priceless. They ask constituents about their “willingness to pay” for restoration activities, tally up the money spent by anglers, and grapple with the uncertain statistics of ecosystem services. However well intentioned and comprehensive the analysis, the results still seem somehow inadequate. When it comes to grasping the significance of an imperiled species simply continuing to be, I suspect we are no better accountants of their last days than we are of our own. Anyone who’s gone through the actuarial exercise of determining their life’s worth would probably argue we’re not very good at that either. When it comes to intrinsic or non‐use value, we often lack the means to articulate the true meaning of priceless, and so are left with the default assumptions of little or no value.

An estimated 99.9% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. The roughly 8.7 million species that remain are the fortunate 0.1% whose ancestors survived a series of mass extinction events, each having wiped the slate of life nearly clean. The first fish came into being some 530 million years ago, jawless children of the Cambrian explosion. They survived the Ordovician–Silurian Extinction (439 million years ago) that killed off 86% of life on Earth. They survived the Late Devonian Extinction (364 million years ago) that took out 75% of all living species. They were among the 4% of species surviving the Permian–Triassic Extinction (251 million years ago), the biggest of the “big five” mass extinction events. They also bore witness to the Triassic–Jurassic Extinction (199‐214 million years ago), as well as the Cretaceous–Paleogene Extinction (65 million years ago), which felled the dinosaurs and 76% of their contemporaries. Most species do not last more than 1–10 million years, but some fish species are remarkably resilient. For example, the Queensland Lungfish Neoceratodus fosterihas existed for more than 100 million years and may be the oldest of all extant vertebrate species. Fish that we recognize today as bichirs, gars, arowana and arapaima, hagfish, sturgeons and paddlefishes, mudskippers, various sharks, the infamous coelacanth, and others have existed—in more or less their current form—for hundreds of millions of years. These living fossils and the rest of the 30,000+ extant species of fish are the result of both happenstance and the patient, unyielding forces of natural selection. Some say it is better to be lucky than good; over the course of their evolutionary history, fish have been both. Where so many other species have winked out of existence, they have persisted and thrived, each a bewildering, beguiling wonder of life.

Many fishes will survive the current Anthropocene Extinction, but not all. A great number have already been lost, including more than 50 North American freshwater taxa in the last century alone (Burkhead 2012). There is a vague melancholy that comes with the realization that future generations shall only know Las Vegas Dace Rhinichthys deacon, Stumptooth Minnow Stypodon signifer, Pahrump Ranch Poolfish Empetrichthys latos pahrump, and so many other evocatively named fish from ichthyological specimens (Miller et al. 1989). The tragic fate of the Snake River Sucker Chasmistes muriei—known only from a single specimen, both the first and the last of its kind—elicits a sharper regret. These feelings of loss are not readily articulated, much less translated into monetary terms.

Not all species will survive the Holocene (present era). Some will go extinct because of human activity, some will survive despite us. We must be pragmatic and practical, and not let our desire to save all species spread efforts so thin as to save none. However, we must also leave a little room for idealism and allow ourselves to be occasionally awed by these uncanny creatures. The battle to save imperiled fishes is worth fighting, but not just because of the economic value we assign them. We can try to price the priceless, but should also remember that victory belongs not to mercenaries who fight for a price, but to warriors who fight for a cause.