At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice


Thursday, November 29, 2012

AS THE PLANET CHANGES, WHO FISHES MATTERS




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 occur.  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 markets.

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.

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