New name, new game?

One of the proposed amendments to the Magnuson Act is to replace the term ‘overfished’ with ‘depleted’. Credit: Jsome1/CC-BY-2.0
One of the proposed amendments to the Magnuson Act is to replace the term ‘overfished’ with ‘depleted’. Credit: Jsome1/CC-BY-2.0
NOAA scientists are developing ways to incorporate environmental data into stock assessments. Credit: Macieklew/CC-BY-SA-2.5
NOAA scientists are developing ways to incorporate environmental data into stock assessments. Credit: Macieklew/CC-BY-SA-2.5

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks at the recent shift in fisheries management science.

The inadequacy of the prevailing fisheries management science has been long recognised by knowledgeable fishermen, and by many scientists independent of their governments' authority. Not that establishment's scientists have been unaware of this deficiency - one can read it between the lines of official reports. But, improving the existing science-management system requires a major strategic shift, a difficult undertaking for a large, well-financed and firmly established decades-old system.

In the USA, fisheries are managed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson Act). Accordingly, any fish stock that is below the level which, according to calculations by mathematical models would produce MSY (maximum sustainable yield), is treated as ‘overfished’. This term implies that the condition of the stock is caused by excessive fishing to be dealt with in the management practice. Scientifically fallacious, this approach has been revered for many decades now, in spite the fact that everybody concerned knows very well that in the real world there are plenty of other factors that affect the size of fish populations.

The tanker syndrome
So, what are the reasons that while so many and for so long have been talking about the needed shift in official American and European science/management systems, hardly anything has happened? Dr Serge Garcia, the former head of the FAO Fishery Resources Division once told me that even when individuals among the scientific-management system have made up their mind regarding the need to change an old-school paradigm, they have large ‘tanker ships syndrome’ - it takes them long time to change direction…

But, now, it seems that the ‘tanker' has started turning. One of the amendments to the Magnuson Act proposed by the U.S. Congress' Natural Resources Committee Chairman, Doc Hastings, would replace the term ‘overfished’ wherever it appears throughout the Magnuson Act, with ‘depleted'. And rightly so – ‘overfishing’ is a misnomer that has, for years, distracted American fisheries management from all natural and man-caused factors affecting populations of commercial fish other than fishing. Thus, as long as it's only ‘overfishing’, it is only fishermen who are to blame and management by simply restricting fishing is the best way to rebuild stocks

This change, once approved, should force the management science to consider such factors as, for example, upstream and coastal pollution, excessive use of spilled-oil dispersants, degraded inshore habitat, low egg/larval/fingerling survival, predation, food availability across all growth and maturation stages, and fish population migration. Also, offshore environmental degradation, and deterioration of sea water quality by inflow of polluted water from rivers and agricultural sources exert pressure on marine life. All the more that most marine species, in general, and fish in particular use inshore and inland riverine habitats at some stage of their life. Eventually, therefore, any assumption that overfishing is the sole cause for stock depletion would have to be scientifically proved and participation of other factors refuted.

Such routine would also expose situations where limiting fishing effort is not a remedy, and point to the actual ‘villains’, however difficult it is to contend pollution and habitat deformation, and withstand the lobbying power of major NGO foundations. These are spending a fortune in fighting ‘overfishing’ and thus diverting the attention of public opinion from all the other factors and, in particular, from the damage caused by pollution from petro-chemical industry sources. It may be quite fascinating to unearth their financiers…

Those important amendments to the Magnusson Act will affect U.S. fisheries management in all federal and individual state controlled waters.

NOAA's shift
Reportedly, both, NOAA (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and ICES (Europe's International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) have started talking about another major shift in its approach to fisheries management, from managing single-species towards system ecology.

Sixteen years ago, Dr John Caddy, at that time with FAO, wrote that, "The tendency now seems to be towards setting holistic management objectives, as opposed to simply fisheries management on a species by species basis" (Rev. Fish. Sci., 1(1):57-95 (1993)).

In the USA, over the last two decades, independent scientists, such as Professor J. Russ McGoodwin (see his book Crisis in the World Fisheries (Stanford University Press, 1990), Dr Gary D. Sharp (see his paper in Fisheries Oceanography, Vol .4, p.324-341), and several others, have tried to show us the light.

A recent NOAA report, which carried an important message not only to American, but also to other Western European fisheries, confronted the U.S. fisheries scientific and administrative establishment with the inadequacy of single-species management. The new gospel is straightforward and worthy to be quoted here: "…the single-species approach relies on an assumption that (stock abundance) is affected only by the abundance of its spawning adults, natural mortality and fishing mortality and by the recruitment of juveniles…" "This enables mathematical modelling approach to stock assessment" and "…implies that the stock exists in isolation from the ecosystem…". The ‘still evolving’ ecosystem approach to management, is "…placing the management of fish stocks and their habitats into a broader context of societal priorities…", such as "...improved water quality…employment and economic activity" and embodies "a more holistic philosophy".

NOAA presents the ‘Issues affecting habitat’ in the following order:

  1. Pollution and water quality 
  2. Alteration and degradation of rivers and migratory pathways
  3. Fragmentation and loss of estuarine and shallow water habitats
  4. Fishing effects on habitats
  5. Climate variability and change
  6. Invasive species and marine debris
  7. Vessel traffic and noise

Now NOAA is saying that its scientists - with stakeholders - are developing ways to incorporate environmental data into stock assessments.

Ecosystem approach to management
This news is quite refreshing, as certain scientists and NGOs, for their own reasons, have been trying to misrepresent ecosystem management as the effect of fisheries on the environment and nothing else. An ICES newsletter 10 years ago carried an article by Dr Mikko Heino of the Bergen Institute of Marine Research: ‘Does fishing cause genetic evolution in fish stocks?’ (see World Fishing, March 2004). Apart of the genetic change he assumed, Dr Heino wrote that “models that consider fish stocks in isolation from their ecosystem have clearly had their day…” (hear, hear!). Arguably, those models have been never any good, but, in spite of this and many other scientific publications, fisheries management and the underlying science have hardly changed course.

Dr Heino also wrote that "ICES is helping to develop the ecosystem approach by improving understanding of how the marine ecosystem functions, including the effects of climate and oceanography", etc. It seems that this ecosystem approach has still to be implemented in real world management.

Part of all this is old news for our readers. World Fishing &Aquaculture for two decades has been drawing attention to the drawbacks of the 'conventional' stock assessment and management practices, and especially those based on simplistic models isolated from non-fishing effects, and on catch quotas. It followed a gallery of dissent of which Dr Jonas Bjarnason and Jon Kristjansson of Iceland, and Dr Gary Sharp and Professor Russ McGoodwin of the USA, were just a few whose voices that had gone unheeded for years.

While NOAA and ICES may use different terminology, both sides of the Atlantic Ocean seem now to appreciate that to become workable, pragmatic and realistic, the ecosystem approach must be about concurrently exploited groups of species, rather than separate single stocks. Also quantified assessments, such as TAC (total allowable catch) and MSY (maximum sustainable yield) would make more sense and are closer to biological realities, when understood as a range of values rather than fixed points often presented in ridiculously precise figures.

According to the World Ocean Review 2013, (, the marine ecosystem comprises not only of the various fish stocks, but also predators such as marine mammals, birds and predatory fish, as well as prey such as plankton and other species of fish. Some species interact with the fish stocks in other ways – corals are one example, as they form habitats for fish. Ecosystem approach must consider the dynamics of the marine environment, in space, time and character. Climatic and oceanographic trends and fluctuations that have been occurring in the ecosystem throughout history must be taken into account, as well as the relationships between the various species occupying the ecosystem at all stages of their life, as well as all the physical, biological and chemical forces imposed upon habitats by human activities. It must be concerned with all stakeholders, their performance and activities, not only with management of fishing, but also with habitat protection against unreasonable development, coastal and upstream pollution, extraction of various sea-bottom components and of oil, shipping and other traffic, etc.

A shift must come
At least the reality that conventional methodology produces quite a few ineffective and even adverse management steps is now being recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. While most scientists keep working within the old context, they know that sooner or later new paradigms must replace those they have been trained in and used to.

David Thomson, a veteran international consultant once wrote that "the 30-year disaster of the EU Common Fisheries Policy” was partly due to failing to challenge false assumptions. Take the traditional use of a constant value of natural mortality of 0.18-0.20 for all stocks and all circumstances. Years ago, a committee of the U.S. Academy of Sciences recommended peer-reviewing the management advice and the way it has been derived. More or less similar conclusions have been reached by the UK Royal Society, and the Scottish Royal Academy. The problem was, in my opinion, that not the individual recommendations, but rather the whole system of fisheries management science should have undergone revision and a consequent change of direction.

Rational and sustainable management of aquatic resources is a complex problem area. It must be alert for the follies of the dynamics of the ever-changing environment, and consider the state of the stock on the background of natural fluctuations and other environmental changes. Along with assessment of the current biomass, trends in the climatic processes and events should be monitored and taken into account. The complexity of the problem consists in the combination of natural and man-caused environmental changes, pollution and eutrophication with economically-viable overfishing. Yes, there’s such an animal ‘economically-viable overfishing’ - a product of increasing demand both for high-quality and for cheap and industrial fishes and, hence, of raising prices on globalised markets.

No wonder that if the conventional methodology must produce flawed assessment of the stocks, so would be the recommended allowable catch or fishing effort. Although this reality is being now more and more recognised, the inertia still rules and most scientists are working within the context of the old ‘paradigms’.

From time to time - as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn teaches - paradigms shift, although for those clinging to the old ones, such ‘redefinitions’ can appear cataclysmic. Nils Stolpe, a well known advocate for a shift in the U.S. fisheries management wrote last February, "Needless to say, when you have a fisheries management system which is predicated almost entirely on controlling fishing mortality, which our fisheries management system is, and there are other factors that impact fish stocks as much as or more than fishing mortality, your management system is going to break down…".

I've got the feeling that this ‘dissent is gradually becoming more and more ‘in’ among fisheries scientists and managers, and sooner or later the ‘dissidents’, me included, will find ourselves, incredibly, part of a respectable official establishment.

Further reading
For more information on the proposed Magnuson Act amendment:
For more information on ICES’ new integrated approach:


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