One Layer Deeper – The Challenges Facing Sustainable Fisheries in 2017 by Bradley MacDonald

What is a sustainable fishery in 2017? It seems like it should be obvious: don’t catch too many fish. But sustainable fisheries are often way more complicated. So today, let’s go one layer deeper and ask: how?

I asked marine biologists 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?

Their answers were rich, insightful, and even challenged some of my own beliefs.

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 everyone else I spoke with 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,

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.

That brings us to fisheries management, where ecological, economic, and emotional sustainability intersect.

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.

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.

California Sardine Fishery

It’s easy to be lulled into the sense that “science” has already figured everything out. Not so. True, the wealth of knowledge out there is tremendous. But the reality is that we’re still learning, and always will be.

Sardines, for example, tend to have a predictable response to climate, reproducing better in warm phases than in cool ones. Overfishing during one such cool period in the 1950s and 1960s crashed the California sardine fishery. By hammering them during a period when they were not reproducing fruitfully, we (unintentionally) decimated the population at the onset of a long cool phase.

This is where flexibility comes in. The harvest levels were probably set right…for an average year. But several consecutive below-average years occurred, and the fishery crashed as a result. There are now special rules around the sardine fishery and it is one of the textbook examples of a fishery in which flexible management decisions can be made within a fishing season based on environmental conditions.

What Exactly is Flexible Fisheries Management?

One side of flexible fisheries management is closing or reopening a fishery mid-season based on environmental conditions. But another side of adaptable management is helping fishermen to target other species when their primary fishery is closed or unproductive. To understand this issue, you have to also understand that having a fishing permit is often tough to get (and expensive). So once you have one, you’re not going to let it go. But what if we made those permits more flexible, or made it easier to lease fishing permits?

Say, for example, that the sardine fishery above is closed. In the same season, what if there is a boom in market squid or another species? If we intentionally enabled and permitted fishermen to pivot and target secondary fisheries, they could target non-sensitive species in years when they’re doing better. In turn, they would reduce effort on sensitive species.

Coastal Logistics

So what’s the catch? Well, even if we manage flexibly, there are serious logistical challenges to making it work.

A hugely diverse and asset-heavy infrastructure of equipment and support networks exists to catch fish. So even if you gave fishermen a flexible permit, there’s a lot more at play.

You need the right kind of boat, the right kind of gear, a port that can process it, an ice plant, and access to planes or trucks that can distribute your fish to an appropriate market. This highlights the difficulty of switching fisheries. Building flexibility into that without asking fishermen to buy “one of everything” is a tough nut to crack. They’d be drowning in debt before they ever touched the water.

Like Solving an Ocean Rubik’s Cube

If we make permits more flexible, one method of attack is obvious: what else with the same gear type can they fish that’s doing well that year? This is a good start, but fishermen may find that there are not many compatible options within geographic range of their boat.

Some NGOs offer buy-back programs to help fishermen get off one gear type or boat type and on to another. Typically, this helps fishermen move onto a more sustainable fishery that commands a solid market price. Removing destructive fishing practices is a positive benefit of doing this.

However, emerging catch-share programs typically limit the number of vessels in a fishery. This may prevent or make it very difficult for fishermen to transition into a new fishery. The cost of entry into a catch-share fishery can be exceptionally high, and shares are often heavily consolidated by big business. That rabbit hole of a topic is the focal point of The Fish Market, a new book by Lee van der Voo.

One of the most promising possibilities is to develop co-op fishing communities, in which permits, boats, and gear are held by the community, not the individual. Many fishing communities are in favor of this type of solution. This would offer more mobility within the community to target healthy fisheries and not spend effort on less healthy ones. It would also allow for permits to be accessed by younger fishing generations, as older generations (read: most of the fishermen out there today) retire.

Still No Cure-All

No panacea has emerged yet. We’re still waiting for an AirBnb-equivalent for fishing boats and gear to upend the industry and change the game. Until then, there are still amazing ways to directly support fishermen, whether you buy directly from a local boat or fishmonger, or buy online through sustainable seafood delivery programs like Dock to Dish, Vital Choice, and Sea to Table.

Continuing the conversation remains mission critical. Minimizing the ecological, economic, and emotional harm of our fishing activities is a generational challenge.

What do you think? What are our best bets for sustainable fisheries? And how do we protect the cultural and ecological heritage that fishing communities have stewarded for so long? Leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

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