Can fisheries be managed rationally?

08 Oct 2012
The Abel Tasman (formerly Margaris)

The Abel Tasman (formerly Margaris)

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks at the issue of fisheries management.

It seems that rationality and objectivity have drowned in the tumultuous waters of the world fisheries.

Emotions and semi-religious agendas, on one hand, and big fishy business interests, on the other, have combined to muddy fishermen's waters. Much of the prevailing official fisheries science cannot be trusted to impart unbiased assessments and rational recommendations. It has been stagnating for years in sclerotic population dynamics models unable to represent aquatic realities, as European and American fisheries management has petrified around a system, or rather a cult that worships managing-by-output and total and individual marketable quotas.

The popular media, always prepared to repeat any panicky and sensational statement do not help, either. The Sunday Times reported recently that there are only 100 mature cod left in the North Sea, causing the Scotland’s Fisheries Secretary to quote scientific estimates that there are 21 million mature fish in the North Sea cod spawning stock. Some difference….

Economists or bookkeepers?
It appears that economists, devoted to short-term financial parameters, have been promoting shallow economic approach without any consideration of ecological and social realities end externalities. This was translated by fishery managers, leading to the brainwashing of the public opinion that only catches control the size of fish stocks. Yet, in real life the size of most fish stocks depends also on several major fishing-unrelated parameters.

In September, NOAA's North East Fishery Center (NEFC) published a report entitled Changing cod distribution observed as ecosystem warms bottom to top. Accordingly, during the first half of 2012, temperatures over the US Northeast continental shelf were the highest above-average temperatures in all parts of the ecosystem, from the ocean bottom to the sea surface and across the region, extending beyond the shelf up to the Gulf Stream. Evidently, it became too warm for Atlantic cod, which wandered northeastward from its historic distribution range.

Routine surveys and fallacious reports
Now, how would such shift be detected by a routine ‘fishing-independent’ stock assessment survey based on sampling hauls performed along a prescribed network of fixed ‘stations’, on year by year and season by season schedule? It wouldn't. The fish wouldn't be there, hence overfishing verdict. Already numerous scientific papers and books have described the dependence of periodically fluctuating fish populations' size and location on oceanographic conditions. Nevertheless, the controlling stock size by catch-control fallacy keeps being advocated.

Most recently, The New Economics Foundation (NEF), in its report entitled No Catch Investment, argues that a long-term moratorium (until 2023) on fishing stocks would produce after a few years a nice profit. And what will they say if the early 2020s would happen to coincide with a bust phase of a fluctuation cycle of some stocks? Fishing or not, they would be shrinking.

NEF says that it wants the EU fisheries to return to MSY, but it seems that what it really wants is back to the virgin stocks size. This could be nice, if not for a ‘little’ snag: virgin stocks stop being virgin as soon as exploitation is started, while for the highest production, the stock may have to be about halved. The production of a virgin stock equals zero.

Abel Tasman
In my own and some others' opinion, any rational fisheries management must consider each fishery separately, for there're no two fisheries that are alike. They all differ in such aspects as ecology, species biology, capture and handling-processing technology, social and cultural background of the participants and market characteristics. Hence, there's nothing rational in any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, however bureaucratically and politically convenient it may be, or in the overall banning of deep-sea fishing, or trawling, hotly advocated by some NGOs. The same goes for the distribution of fishing vessels over the fishing grounds of coastal nations.

Letting the fishing grounds and resources of inshore and coastal fishermen to be exploited by large fishing vessels represents truly bad management, at least from the general social and economic point of view.

On the other hand, there's certainly no point to resist employing large fishing vessels and factory ships in distant, offshore areas, where small and medium scale fishermen can fish neither safely nor cost-effectively. This brings us to the case of the Dutch-owned super-trawler Abel Tasman, over whicha wrangle started when the Seafish Tasmania company joined forces with the trawler's Dutch owners to fish for jack mackerel and redbait within Australian waters. The trawler, previously named Margaris, has been granted Australian flag and a new name.

She initially had been given a license to fish, reportedly, inside Australian coastal waters, but by the time of writing this column might've been legislated out of them. According to the Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke, this turnaround required a special amendment to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, already narrowly approved by the House of Representatives.

The operators of the 9,500mt, 142m ship, twice as big as the largest trawler that ever fished in Australian waters, hoped to be allocated a quota of 18,000 tonnes of jack mackerel and redbait, to the outrage of ‘green NGOs, who claimed that she would harm large fish, seabirds, and mammals by fishing for their prey with considerable bycatch, including dolphins and seals. On the other hand, the company director Gerry Geen said that the venture accepted all the strict requirements imposed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to limit the bycatch. The whole quandary deteriorated into political manoeuvres among the federal and regional governments, House of Representative and Senate, NGOs, and the fishing interests, apparently with little rational management thinking.

In my opinion, any license given to large vessels to fish in national EEZs should be stipulated that they don't trespass into waters and resources fished by smaller-scale fishermen. Only under such conditions should such large fishing ships be permitted to fish, provided that bycatch of non-targeted species, including marine birds and mammals was well under control.

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