by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA’s Science Coordinator
As the hybrid hurricane Sandy
recently demonstrated to Northeasterners, Bob Dylan got it just about right –
our waters are indeed growing and changing. Although Dylan may not have been specifically
referring to the ocean, it applies. And, in our use of ocean resources, it’s
time to swim with the currents of change.

In the face of environmental change, ecosystems must be
resilient to remain healthy and functional, and likewise fisheries. In order
for fisheries to be resilient and to enhance the resilience of ecosystems, the
fishing fleet must be flexible and management must be nimble and responsive. That
is not the direction they’ve been heading.

Resilience of an ecosystem is its capacity to respond to major
changes or disruptions by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Biological
resilience, we know, is enhanced by a healthy and diverse complement of
species—such rich biodiversity
enables ecosystems to be flexible and adaptable when environmental changes
Similarly, a flexible fleet that can and will disperse and
differentiate itself in harmony with changing spatial patterns of the ecosystem
and its fish populations is likely to be more resilient to environmental
changes on a wide range of scales.

A diverse fleet of smaller boats–even a sizable, though not unlimited, number–are able to fish a diversity of species throughout the
year and with smaller, diverse, switchable gear. Are you beginning to see the
value of diversity? This strategy avoids overly intensive fishing on select areas that can lead to pock marks of fish depletions scattered across an ecosystem. A diverse smaller-scale fleet that
is attentive to what is happening in the fishery ecosystem can be flexible
enough to reduce pressure on vulnerable species, to quickly switch to new
species as seasons change, and to adapt as environmental change brings in new species
and drives changes in relative abundances of fishery species.

Since fisheries are responsive to markets, flexibility is
important there as well. The fishery in general is more resilient when it can
serve diverse local markets flexible enough to vary and value a wider selection
of species. This is a route to effective ecosystem based fisheries management

Contrary to this desirable pattern, consolidation of the
fishing fleet has resulted as management has continually favored bigger boats, regionalized
wholesale markets, and global trade of fish. But an ever-shrinking fleet,
composed primarily of big boats, has little resilience in the face of large or small
ecosystem changes. By nature, large-scale fishing depletes target fish
populations even further, as it concentrates heavy fishing pressure on fewer
and fewer hot spots where fish are dense enough to be profitable. And at the
same time this design of fishing, encouraged by fisheries management, continues
to devalue co-caught species and discard or otherwise waste them.

Total catch of regional fleets has continued to be severely
restricted because fish populations are not recovering fast enough or are continuing
to decline. And the small boat fleet is dwindling, as management measures make
it too expensive for them to stay in business. The movement of fisheries
management toward catch limits has unnecessarily turned in the direction of
privatization, which drives access to fish (a.k.a. shares) into the hands of those who can afford it—ever fewer boats
and larger operations, targeting fewer species of fish for growing global

Even as it shrinks, the fleet becomes ever more efficient at
catching ever fewer species. This contributes to destabilization of ecosystems,
so it cannot persist. A consolidated, monolithic fleet is a short-term fleet
and must roam to stay afloat.

In times of environmental change and persistently limited
fisheries resources, only flexible and resilient, smaller-boat fleets grounded
in communities, will survive and foster the revival of diverse and vibrant local
marine ecosystems
. So it does indeed matter who catches the annual allowable
catch and how and where they do it. As the planet changes, who fishes matters.