One Layer Deeper (Part 1): 5 Marine Biologists Weigh in on Sustainable Fisheries in 2017

***In case you missed it, we now have a permanent home at anewlens.net. I’ll continue posting new articles here as well for the time being.  

What is a sustainable fishery in 2017? I started writing today’s article with that question in mind. Because my background is in marine biology, I asked marine scientists from my past and present to weigh in.

What does a sustainable fishery mean to them? What are the challenges in defining it? And what parts of fisheries sustainability do they wish made it into the mainstream conversation more often?

They gave incredibly thoughtful answers and challenged some of my own beliefs. I couldn’t fit it all in one article, so I’m splitting it up. Today will be Part 1, and I’ll have Part 2 ready for you next week.

No Emotional Harm

My simple starting point for sustainability (fisheries and otherwise) is that the activity does no harm ecologically, economically or emotionally.

– Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author, Blue Mind, and Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences

Nichols’ summary has universal appeal – simple, memorable, and broad. Ecological harm ranges from overfishing to bycatch to habitat damage. Economic harm would be something like closing a fishery, preventing fishing communities from making a living, or necessitating the use of a fishing subsidy. I feel like we all largely agree that those outcomes are to be avoided.

“It’s that third ‘e’ that is often left out,” Nichols told me. “A dehumanized workforce, for example, doesn’t meet this definition even if no harm is done ecologically and economically.”

That caught my ear. And it was something that just about every other marine biologist wanted to talk about, too. Emotional harm is a layer deeper than we all tend to go. That makes it an interesting place to start. For example, if a fisherman’s coastal fishing grounds have been closed, you might find him another job or give him a subsidy. But you’ve done emotional harm in disassociating him from his life on the water. Here’s an example.

Sea Turtles in El Salvador

“I always hear people saying we need to provide alternatives [to fishing], but you know, a lot of fishermen just want to be fishermen. They don’t want to make tortillas, they want to be fishermen…maybe some of them will want to do that, but a lot of them, fishing is what they love.”

– Alexander Gaos, Co-Founder and Director, hawksbill.org

Gaos works with small fishing communities throughout Pacific Latin America to promote sea turtle conservation. His perspective points to something raw and human going on. Solutions cannot be wholly academic. We need to put on our people hats. We need to remember what we’re asking of someone whose dad and granddad were fishermen – for whom pulling their boats out of the water is divorcing them from a way of life. Fisheries scientist Marisa Trego similarly told me that “if the fisherman or his/her community experience a decline in financial stability or food availability, the need to survive will take precedence.”

On the other hand, Gaos acknowledges that taking no action has devastating consequences. Lobster fishermen in El Salvador use gillnets that unintentionally catch non-target species, like critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. “It wrecks the reefs, it kills hawksbills, and it kills other species as well,” Gaos says. “These artisanal fisheries aren’t necessarily causing less harm than commercial ones. They are much more ubiquitous than I think people realize. These gillnets that are out there are so effective that it’s not like the fisherman back in the day, who was throwing a line over the edge of his boat.”

This is a very, very important point. I say that because as consumers, especially in seafood sustainability, we typically believe that smaller is always better. But Gaos points out that “artisanal fishing has had a huge impact. It’s spread over a much larger scale as far as people and geography, so per boat it doesn’t have as big of an impact. But collectively, it sure does.”

It’s my own opinion that small-scale fishing is a good model for things like maintaining traditions and keeping businesses within local communities. But it doesn’t guarantee ecological sustainability. Large and small boats alike can do great harm, and we need to regulate both carefully. Gaos concurs, but reminded me that because artisanal fisheries involve a lot more people, they can be much harder to regulate from a logistical and political standpoint.

Fisheries Management: Cudgel or Cure?

“There’s already a lot of variability, and just dealing with that natural variability is really challenging for fisheries managers.”

– Dr. Sarah Wheeler, Ocean Science Trust

Fisheries managers play a crucial role in balancing the competing demands of ecosystems and economies, of hearts and mouths and wallets. They do this in part by deciding catch quotas, allowable gear types, and issuing permits within a fishery. But something as seemingly fundamental as a catch quota is not easy to decide.

It’s easy to think that once a fishery is “certified sustainable,” that’s the end of it. But the truth is messier. There can be a lot of science and biology that go into setting a harvest level. But, because the environment is so variable, it is sometimes difficult to link environmental conditions to fisheries production.

For example, you have some warmer years, you have some colder years, and the assumption is that they average out overall. Variables like this can affect the productivity of a fishery. The challenge managers face is setting the allowable catch at a level where the population can still withstand that environmental variability. There’s also concern that as variability increases (due to climate change), “average conditions” may no longer be stable. This means we would need to adjust for how we set harvest levels, possibly making them more flexible or responsive to environmental change.

Moving into the future, flexible management strategies will be essential. Set the catch limits too high, and your fishery could crash. But set them too low? That can have dramatic effects, too.

An anonymous federal fisheries scientist pointed out to me that “transfer effects” can occur when regulations are stricter. This results in “basically putting local fishers out of business.” The market demand for seafood still exists, however, “which opens up greater import of lower cost fish product [from other countries]. Most of which are not caught with the bycatch technology that we mandate in our own fleets.” This is a big reason I encourage eating local, or at least domestic, seafood.

Getting Better All the Time

If any of this is making your head spin, you’re not alone. Regulation is a double-edged sword, and its cuts are felt deeply by fishing communities and conservation groups alike.

So, why do I believe that ours (the U.S.) is a good system? Because it provides a mechanism for attempting to prevent harm and also to catch mistakes. When there is a system for catching mistakes, they can be measured, studied, and corrected. That is how solutions emerge.

That’s where we’ll go in Part 2 of this conversation next week. We’ll discuss potential solutions, future problems, and how solid science and clever thinking may hold the keys to success.

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