Finding Fish

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Six experts discuss the global fisheries crisis; the economic, political, and social pressures that contributed to it; and what it will take to make fish stocks bounce back.

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The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

What will it take to make the ocean’s fisheries bounce back?
Our Panel Responds:

Overfishing Is Also About Overeating

Jennifer Jacquet is completing her PhD on seafood markets with the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre. She maintains the blog Guilty Planet.

When we talk about overfishing, we are really talking about overeating.

Most fishing exists to feed humans or to feed other things that we eat, such as farmed fish. So it stands to reason that some tools to assuage overfishing would try to reform the human appetite.

Many campaigns attempt to change eating habits by pointing out which seafood we should consume or avoid with wallet cards or eco-labels. But these “choice campaigns” can be confusing, premature, and still require consumers to relate to fish as commodities rather than as wildlife. Plus, changing consumers is slow.

With the rise of industrial fishing, we have seen big changes in the ocean in a very small amount of time¬—a fishing trawler can extract 60 tons of fish in a single haul! Which means that when it comes to reform, we also require big changes very rapidly. Working to change one consumer at a time is not the speedy recovery we need.  In terms of making big changes in seafood consumption, we should:

  • Deal with pigs and chickens. We currently turn one-third of seafood into fishmeal to feed farmed fish, chickens, and pigs.  Pigs and chickens alone eat six times the amount of seafood as US consumers. We must work to reform the absurd fishmeal industry.
  • Eat local and leave seafood for survival. In the name of globalization, we are importing seafood from poor, developing countries to feed the rich. European shrimp trawlers off the coast of Tanzania, for instance, are in direct competition with local fishermen trying to feed their families. Many of the agreements that provide developed countries with access to foreign fishing grounds should be revised.
  • Consider a seafood boycott. A major conservation group should call for a total boycott of seafood. While anti-consumption campaigns are never likely to be widely adopted, such a campaign would widen the spectrum of voices in ocean conservation and serve to help de-commodify marine life.
  • Agitate vertically, rather than laterally. The public should engage in conservation primarily through the democratic process and activism rather than simply through personal consumption. But if one has the gumption to also engage as a consumer, convictions about personal consumption and disapproval should be expressed vertically up the supply chain (to chefs, store managers, and seafood suppliers) rather than simply laterally (consumer-to-consumer reproach).

A Smorgasbord of Innovative Approaches

Christopher Costello is a professor of environmental and resource economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on natural resource management for profitability and sustainability.

Ray Hilborn is a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle specializing in natural resource management and conservation.

The solutions to the fisheries crisis proposed in The End of the Line may protect marine ecosystems but will not solve the whole problem. Fisheries fail when institutions are weak and fishermen have the individual incentive to overfish. Closed areas can be an effective way to restore ecosystems but often do little to protect fishing-dependent communities or the more than 1 billion people who derive much of their protein from fish. While also important, consumer awareness has done little to change the manner in which fish are exploited because it does not include a mechanism for the delicate adjustments of catch levels as stock abundance changes¬—a tuning instrument required for successful fisheries management.

Yet innovative approaches to protect marine ecosystems and the food derived from these ecosystems do exist. These involve a broad set of tools, including catch limitation, effort limitation, gear restriction, closed areas, catch shares, consumer action, and community-based management. Key to all of these measures is resetting incentives so that individual fishermen will benefit by conserving rather than by catching as many fish as fast as possible.

A few notable examples where such tools are being implemented are in Alaska, New Zealand, Chile, and Iceland. Here, the majority of fisheries are regulated by programs in which individual fishermen, companies, cooperatives, or communities are allocated “catch shares”—essentially guaranteed shares of the total catch or of the area being fished. As a consequence, the track record of ecosystem health is much better there, overfishing occurs much less frequently, fisheries are profitable, and fishermen prosper. 

A recent global analysis showed that fisheries that employ these catch-share incentive systems are dramatically less prone to collapse. Yet fewer than 2 percent of the world’s fish stocks are managed with these innovative approaches. If one looks globally at fisheries, the norm is depleted stocks and impoverished fishermen impelled to further deplete the stocks. Breaking this cycle is a near universal objective of governments and management agencies, and we know how to do it—we have an example of success in our own backyard.

The Pacific halibut fishery in the US and Canada was overfished in the 1920s, so an international commission between the two countries was established to set catch limits. This commission did an excellent job of biological conservation, and the halibut resource has been healthy and sustainably managed for more than 60 years by setting well-enforced catch limits. However, in both countries pressure mounted to join the race to fish: Fishermen steadily increased capacity of their operations to harvest as much as possible during the allowed fishing season, resulting in an ever-shrinking season to stay within biologically acceptable catch. By the late 1980s, the fishery season in Alaska lasted only two days. Thousands of boats raced to catch the fish as fast as possible, lives were lost if those were stormy days, and almost all the product was sold frozen. Finally, individual catch shares were assigned. Fishing now takes place over 6 months, almost all fish is sold fresh, and the much smaller fishing fleet makes a very good living.

Collapses in many high-profile fisheries worldwide will require stark changes to reverse. But we are optimistic about the future of the world’s fisheries. A mixture of catch limits, catch shares, and area allocations and closures customized to different locations will allow fish stocks to rebuild; the larger stock will spin off a larger harvest of fish. While this will cause short-term costs to fishermen, the long-term benefits—to fishermen, communities, consumers, and the ecosystem—will be worth it.

The Business of Extinction

Suzannah Evans is the senior editor at Oceana, the world’s largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.

For millions of years, cod fish thrived along the North American coast. The fish, in its cured, salted form, was such a treasured commodity that Basque sailors crossed the north Atlantic in search of it, eventually discovering vast populations along the rocky shoals that skirted the island John Cabot would name Newfoundland. An early report described Cabot’s men picking up the cod from the sea in great overflowing baskets. The story may be apocryphal, but it speaks to the cod’s near-mythic abundance.

By the early 1990s, 500 years later, cod populations along the North American coast would be utterly depleted with little chance of recovery. (The time in between is described in terrific detail in Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.)

Since then, we’ve learned to decimate fish populations in a fraction of the time it took to kill off the cod. Patagonian toothfish, a scowling fish from frigid near-Antarctic waters, was hauled up, renamed Chilean sea bass and made a staple of upscale North American menus in the 1990s. By the end of the decade, the fish was in steady decline, but even now you can still find it on some menus at a greater price.

Meanwhile, the imperiled bluefin tuna, already teetering on the edge of commercial extinction in the Atlantic, commands higher and higher prices. Earlier this year, one bluefin sold for $104,800 in a Tokyo market and was parceled out as sushi for $22 a slice.

So why do we keep fishing seafood to the brink of oblivion? Because the business of extinction pays—and not just when it’s on a diner’s plate.

The global fishing industry receives an estimated $30 to $34 billion a year in government subsidies. These subsidies have helped build a world fleet that’s up to two and a half times the size needed to fish the seas sustainably. They push boats that are no longer economically viable to find fish that are no longer abundant. Subsidies have also been linked to a shadow industry of illegal fishing estimated to be worth $9 billion each year.

As Charles Clover notes in The End of the Line, fish populations are resilient. They can rebound, but only if they get a breather from subsidy-fueled, intensive fishing. That didn’t happen for cod, which looks like it has been driven past the point of no return. And it isn’t happening for bluefin tuna and many other seafood species.

Economics, which drove merchants to pursue cod across the vast ocean hundreds of years ago, has a chance to help save the oceans in the modern age. Removing the billions of dollars that artificially prop up the fishing industry would result in an enormous release of the pressure on many fish stocks. It would only be one step, of course, in the larger process of restoring global fish populations, but it would be a major one and swift one to implement.

Originally published July 16, 2009

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