Tipping the Scales of Fisheries

by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA’s Science Coordinator

Perhaps it’s fitting that nearly all fisheries issues boil down to scales. Fish populations became depleted worldwide, after more than a half century of exploitation culminating with an explosion in the scale of fishing operations after World War II, when industrial fishing fleets pursued and gobbled up fish across the ocean until not much was left. And while laws and management have forced cuts in total catch, they have not moved to downscale operations. In fact, in the US, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s (MSA) main purpose when passed in 1976 was to scale up US fishing operations to match those of the foreign industrial fleet.

Commercial Fisheries News 1994

Smaller fishing operations – those that fish close to their home community, fish with relatively low-impact and small-scale gear, and generally fish a variety of species through the year, rather than focusing on single target species – continue to be driven out while larger, narrowly targeted, higher impact operations are rewarded by regulators, global markets, and eco-labeling.

Legal and management frameworks have failed fish and fisheries by ignoring critical scales, perhaps through a mistaken notion that regional catch limits alone will solve the problem, which, absent associated design restrictions on the fishing fleet, they do not. And prevailing market structures are driven by the scale of demand not supply. As seen in previous blogs, that even applies to eco-certification (the largest being the Marine Stewardship Council or MSC) and ratings (green, yellow, red lists) that presumably guide consumers to the best fish to buy based on ecological sustainability. These systems are trying to shift the demand away from less sustainable to more sustainable fishing practices, and presumably that includes the volume caught. But they still focus on the large, roaming fishing fleets of the world, and on catch averaged over time and area; so they are driving more “conscientious” consumers into, not away from, the global markets and largest fisheries. By not addressing the scales of the markets being fed, the scales of operation of fisheries supplying these markets, the spatial distribution patterns of fish, and scales and patterns of ecosystem processes, these ranking and certification systems fail to protect wild fish populations within their natural ecological constraints.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature
(J. Jacquet, D. Pauly, D. Ainley, S. Holt, P. Dayton, J. Jackson. Sept 2010.
Seafood stewardship in crisis. Nature 467: 28-9) copyright 2010

In my last blog, I referred to an opinion paper in the journal Nature by scientists Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Pauly and several colleagues, who say, “We believe that the incentives of the market have led the MSC certification scheme away from its original goal, towards promoting the certification of ever-larger capital-intensive operations. Small fisheries that use highly selective, low-impact techniques, such as hook-and-line fishing or hand picking, are often sustainable, but make up only a tiny fraction of MSC-certified fisheries.” (Nature, September, 2010, vol. 467: p. 28-29) Their illustrative graph shows that low impact fisheries (based on habitat impact and by-catch) account for a negligible portion of certified fish, while medium-impact, certified fisheries supply over 5 million tons of seafood to the world market each year and an additional ton comes from high-impact certified fisheries.

The authors go on to suggest that, “Different models of certification might help to redress this balance. For products such as coffee in the Fairtrade scheme, for example, certification is available only to cooperatives of small producers; large plantations are not eligible. This helps to correct for market advantages held by larger companies.”

I would suggest that while this is a good model, it can only go so far, because fresh fish, unlike coffee, does not have a shelf life, and the quality deteriorates with increased processing and with distance to market. Instead of a system of small community-grounded tributaries feeding the mighty river of global markets, the obvious solution for fisheries is to remain small and community based and to focus on local markets. A variety of cooperative aggregations of fishermen could be established to enable efficient direct marketing and ensure fair prices paid to fishermen to reduce their need to maximize catch. Eco-standards should apply only to such community-based fisheries restricted to local markets. The goal to supply giant national and international retail outlets with “green washed”… uh, excuse me… rather, green labeled fish, is terribly misguided.

Limited ecosystems cannot sustainably produce fish to supply virtually unlimited and ever-growing markets. Wild fish populations simply cannot feed this ravenous giant. And we are fooling ourselves if we believe that buying only “eco-approved” fish from round the world is effectively restraining our use of wild seafood while feeding the hungry and saving wild marine ecosystems. It appears that these eco-labels may not even be accomplishing the goal of changing the way fisheries are executed (Marine Policy 36 (2012) 1123-1130). The global trade of fish may never be closed down, but let’s not insult our own intelligence or betray marine ecosystems by naming it “sustainable”. There are better, far more sustainable, ways to catch and distribute fish – primarily keeping fisheries and markets anchored in local communities with heightened awareness of fishing practices that will keep fish populations and ecosystems healthy.

Local markets, including direct marketing through Community Supported Fisheries and Farmers Markets, and supplying local institutions such as hospitals and schools, offer an opportunity to treat local consumers to the diversity of seafood that characterizes their region and to value them all similarly. That in turn will translate into more diverse fisheries that do not prey too heavily on any one species. If fishermen stick closer to home when they fish and sell their fish, seafood diets will be more healthful, more diverse, and tastier. The health and diversity of coastal ecosystems everywhere will flourish.

Furthermore, it is important to mention that, as we have found in industrialized agriculture, we should not expect industrialized aquaculture to be able to do much more without serious consequences to the future of food quality and the conservation of natural ecosystems. Consumers must be warned that investment in vast aquaculture endeavors, especially fin-fish aquaculture, threatens wild fish and their ecosystems – it does not take the pressure off them. In some cases, community-based shellfish aquaculture can be conducted in a manner that is neutral or helpful to ecosystems, but not on too large a scale.

Getting back to the lists and certifications, if it proves too cumbersome to evaluate fisheries at sub-regional and community-based scales, and to provide labels or rankings of sustainability, then these national and international organizations might be more honest and effective if they simply supplied the critical standards and let local consumers make sure their fishermen are fishing accordingly and fisheries managers are applying important standards on scales consistent with local fish population dynamics and matched with local ecosystem processes. It’s time to tip the scales of fisheries here and round the world. Serious transformations in scales of marketing and management design are needed in order to effectively reduce scale of fishing while providing high quality seafood at fair prices that provide community fishermen with decent livelihoods and effectively feed local populations. Fair fisheries = fair food.

Here in New England the Fishery Management Council is beginning to look at the critical scales of fish distribution that should dictate how catch is managed. The cod crisis has led to reduced catch limits and a demand for reassessing the structure of the populations of cod in this region – should smaller scales be assessed and the fishing effort distributed accordingly? Some on the Council, supported primarily by parts of the fishing fleet who would benefit from status quo, and some regional managers believe that regional catch limits (which ignore finer fish population structure) are enough to recover New England’s fish stocks. But strong interest in ecosystem-based management at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, by fishermen who do believe finer scale management best reflects the reality they see on the water, and by some on the Council suggests they may not have their way. At the national level the MSA will soon be up for reauthorization and there are efforts afoot to bring ecosystem-based fishery management more effectively into that legal framework. But even now, the national standards in the MSA could be interpreted and applied more effectively and on more appropriate scales – something to explore in future blogs.