What’s the Next Scrutiny for Fisheries?
JEREMY BROWN / Fishermen’s News Jul03
[Also by Jeremy Brown: Privatising the Ocean, the Last Great Mahele?]
It has now been almost ten years since the Marine Stewardship Council and the Precautionary Principle first appeared as distant blips on the radar. Since then Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Audubon Society and others have weighed in with wallet cards telling consumers just how green their fish is, and every star marine researcher worth their Pew grant has rushed to publish papers announcing the end of the oceans and fisheries.
But whilst each one claims the backing of the latest science, and science indeed has been able to measure the oceans more in the last ten years than we have in the preceding hundred, could it be that what is being claimed and measured is not really giving us the information we need to make the right decisions?
Art or Pornography.
Much of the discussion surrounding ‘good ‘or ‘bad ‘fishing practices revolves around the concept of ‘sustainability’. This is a concept that is surprisingly difficult to define objectively. Much like art or pornography, while we all have strong opinions on the subject, no two people seem to be able to agree on quite what it is, yet we all insist that we know it when we see it.
Since 1996 fisheries have been governed by the ‘Sustainable Fisheries Act’, yet nowhere in the act does it say exactly what sustainability is! Go to NOAA’s sustainable fisheries web site, again no concise definition. Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), principle apostles of ‘sustainable fisheries’, lack a clear straightforward answer.
Certainly there are plenty of pundits willing to offer their opinions; Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, leader of ‘the sky is falling’ school of fisheries science holds that fisheries can never be truly sustainable, but rather like perfection, they can only move towards that goal of negligible impact. The FAO has convened talking shops to come up with answers, but defaults into platitudes about subsidies, flags of convenience, sharks and seabirds.
A trip ashore to agricultural web sites doesn’t help much more either. One would think that some help could be found there, considering that sustainability is a word pervasive in agriculture even to the bizarre realms of Monsanto’s and Archer Daniels Midland’s promotion of genetically modified crops. But cool reflection should warn us from seeking help there- even the greenest farming so totally denudes the landscape of native species and changes its very structure as to be quite inapplicable to the marine environment.
So really we might need to start reappraising just what it is that we intended sustainability to mean. Once again a trip through various websites leaves us with something along the lines of ‘fisheries that can keep doing what they are doing without making things worse’. Like a pin-up with the potentially offending details blacked over, this doesn’t really upset anyone, but that was not the point, it lacks any real meaning too!
It’s the fishery, stupid.
The reason we are stumbling on this point, I believe, is that we are looking at it in quite the wrong way. The discussion of sustainability presently focuses on the marine environment and how fisheries affect it. Since the marine environment is for most purposes a passive player ie we don’t manage the marine environment directly, but we manage things, like fisheries, which affect it. Therefore it stands to reason that our attention should be applied to those active things, like fisheries, that we can affect. This may sound pointless, but it can be demonstrated by the simple statement; no fishery is sustainable if it is not profitable.
Right away we can see that efforts to make fisheries sustainable by reducing their profitability are simply efforts to reduce their profitability, even to eliminate them. That would be just fine to those of Pauly’s persuasion, the oceans would be perfectly safe then!
Wrong. Without fishers, some of the ocean’s staunchest advocates, to care, pollution and habitat loss could run rampant, and as we have learned from the west coast salmon struggles, these can hurt the resource far more deeply than any fishing!
No, fisheries have to be part of the solution. Economically sustainable fisheries on an ecologically sustainable ocean should be what ‘ecosystem management’ is all about.
It is becoming clear focusing on this blurry notion of sustainability may be inadequate to truly measure fisheries and how they interact with the marine environment. It is far too common to find examples of the best of intentions in fisheries management driving fisheries further from the goal of providing healthy food while treading lightly on the planet.
Possibly the largest case of these unintended consequences was the shift in Pacific Tuna seining as a result of the ‘dolphin safe’ campaign. By the time US boats were driven from the rich fishing grounds of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the fleet had already put its house in order with the adoption of Medina panels, improved fishing techniques and intense observer coverage. The dolphin stocks in question were no longer in jeopardy, and the fishery was remarkably clean. The forced relocation to fishing on ‘logs’ and fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the western Pacific shifted fishing pressure onto immature fish and created problems with high bycatch.
In order to address the problem of seabird bycatch in pelagic longline fisheries, one professor Bob Furness of Glasgow University has recently suggested using satellites to identify seabird ‘hotspots’ which would be closed to fishing. Sounds great, if the birds don’t follow the boats, which they do appear rather prone to do in most fisheries! There is a larger problem with Prof Bob’s idea that nicely illustrates the flaw of driving these ‘sustainability’ notions only from the one end. The fishermen, like birds, tend to seek the places where the fish are. Close those, and fishermen will have to fish harder and longer in lower abundance areas to catch the same amount. If seabird interactions in the absence of other changes are a function of total hooks set, then these changes would likely increase seabird bycatch!
In search of a better yardstick.
The consequence for fishing from these well-intended changes is a decrease in efficiency. When efficiency falls off, in order to maintain productivity, effort will rise, only even more fish will now be needed (quotas permitting) to cover the increased operating cost at the lower efficiency. This means more fuel, more bait, more wear and tear on the boat and gear which will need maintenance and replacement sooner. All these things require additional resources, most of which, oil, plastics, chemicals, are non-renewables. The outcome is a greater burden on the planet.
It has long been said of economists, engineers and fisheries managers that when they see something happening in practice, they cannot help but ask themselves if it could possibly happen in theory.
A new measure.
Several researchers have sought to resolve this conundrum by developing a revolutionary set of tools to analyse what is happening.
Begun by Dr William Rees of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, the ‘ecological footprint’ measures all the inputs and outputs of an activity in a way that enables us to make meaningful comparisons with others activities, and better understand the overall impact on the planet.
Table 1. A Comparison of Edible Protein Energy Return
Cultured carp (Indonesia) 94.0% Wheat (USA) 41.0% Purse seine fishery for salmon (B.C.) 18.0% Commercially caught pink salmon (B.C.) 14.0% Gillnet fishery for salmon (B.C.) 9.0% Troll fishery for salmon (B.C.) 8.9% Sea ranching of Atlantic salmon (Sweden) 8.3% Milk (USA) 7.1% Chicken (USA) 3.8% Intensively cultured Atlantic salmon (B.C.) 3.3% Intensively cultured chinook salmon (B.C.) 2.6% Intensively cultured Atlantic salmon (Sweden) 2.0% Intensively cultured shrimp (Thailand) 1.4% Beef (USA) 0.8%
Source, Tyedmers, P. Salmon and Sustainability: The Biophysical Cost of Producing Salmon Through the Commercial Salmon Fishery and the Intensive Salmon Culture Industry. UBC 2002.
Rees’ former student, now Dr Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University applied this analysis to fishing in particular, and produced some interesting results. (see Table1). By using approach familiar to investors- return on investment ratio, Tyedmers is able to draw useful comparisons between different methods of providing food.
It is also said that a fisherman is one who buys fuel and gear in order to go out and catch fish so that he can afford to buy more fuel and gear.
What we start to see emerging from this may seem quite familiar. It is. The seat-of-the-pants frugality necessary to survive in fishing has meant that most fishermen have an instinctive understanding of how this works. In the absence of subsidies, which economists argue distort the function of market forces, small boat fishers deal with the simple input/output, income/expense equation that is how prices and costs reflect some, but by no means all of the factors involved in these calculations. Agriculture, so buried in subsidies and hidden distortions, has a much tougher time relating to this concept. As one farmer friend observed; "It takes ten calories of petrochemical inputs to get one calorie of food to an American’s dinner plate- we’d all be better off if we could just eat oil!"
Simply concentrating on the one dimensional ‘sustainability’ of fisheries is likely to decrease their efficiency, as fishers are given ever more standards to meet to satisfy utopian goals of a pristine ocean.
Whether measuring the stress a fishery puts on the planet against the benefits it returns to mankind is something fisheries managers, politicians and environmentalists would care to get their heads around, it may help us to better survive the realities of doing better with less.
More passive fisheries that are currently unpopular with the whims of green critics, such as gillnetting and longlining, may actually be less damaging to the planet than those currently trendy with environmentalists.
An ambitious research project, described as a Life Cycle Assessment, is currently being developed by scientists from Sweden, Denmark, France, Canada and the US. The answers that they may be able to provide would go a long way to helping us reach an agreement on just what exactly we intend by sustainability, and better, what we might do about it.
Jeremy Brown trolls and longlines out of Bellingham. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.