Ocean Management in the Modern Era

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Earth Journalism Network, Washington, DC

With territorial ownership clarified, many nations began the process of taking inventory of their marine resources and planning for rational, sustainable harvests of seafood. But it is important to note that even the most advanced nations and well-trained scientists must rely on random sampling and abstract mathematical modeling to judge the size of a wild population of fish and the amount that can be harvested. Nobody is yet capable of physically counting every fish in the sea. At times, the models used to judge the size of fish populations have proven to be flawed, leading to overestimates of the number of fish that could sustainably harvested over time.

In tandem with this historical overestimation was the application by fisheries manager of a concept introduced some 80 years ago called “maximum sustainable yield,” or MSY. As defined by the US’s National Marine Fisheries Service, MSY is “the largest long-term average catch or yield that can be taken from a stock or stock complex under prevailing ecological and environmental conditions.” The basic premise behind MSY is that a given population of fish or shellfish can and should be fished up to a maximum value that is calculated according to an estimate of the existing biomass of a fish’s population, that population’s fecundity (or rate of replacement), and the extraction rate (or “fishing effort”) present in the fishery.

The primary criticism of an MSY approach to management is that this model of exploitation does not adequately address other variables within a marine ecosystem, including natural (non-fishing) environmental causes for population fluctuations as well as the inter-related dynamics of multiple organisms that may be disrupted in the presence of significant fishing effort. In addition, critics argue that “limited information regarding catch levels, the impact of management measures, and the condition of the fish population at the time of exploitation adds to the uncertainty.” It is for this reason that in 1995 The U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA) was established to require that “precautionary standards” be set that take into account some of these uncertainties. In addition biologists are increasingly advocating for “ecosystem-based management” schemes that, theoretically, would seek to establish multiple species parameters to ensure long-lasting stability of an entire range of species within a given environment.

The application of UNFSA has been inconsistent across nations. But as computing power has increased and sampling methodology has improved, it appears that scientists are building better fisheries models. Among fishing nations, Iceland, Norway, the United States, Australia and New Zealand have all in the last 20 years implemented fishing policies that have caused a stabilization and rebuilding of many stocks of fish. The US, through management plans instituted in 1996, has focused on 44 fish stocks for improvement. According to a report by the US NGO Natural Resources Defense Council, “Of these [fish stocks] 64 percent can currently be considered rebuilding successes: 21 have been designated rebuilt (and have not been determined to again be approaching an overfished condition) or have exceeded their rebuilding targets, and 7 have made significant rebuilding progress, defined as achieving at least 50 percent of the rebuilding target and at least a 25 percent increase in abundance since implementation of the rebuilding plan.”

Perhaps the most important tool for fisheries rebuilding has been the institution of rights-based quota systems. Sometimes referred to as individual transferable quotas (ITQs) or “catch shares,” the various forms of rights-based fishing system assign a certain tonnage of a catch to a limited number of fishing entities. The goal in doing this is to limit the total number of fishermen that can enter a given fishery, and to prescribe the amount of fish that each fisherman can catch. Rights-based fishing systems started as early as the 1950s but began accelerating in earnest around the mid-1970s. Prior to the institution of rights-based fishing schemes, fishing was often regulated through a seasonal approach. Managers would open a fishery on a given date and close it months, or sometimes only days, afterwards. This practice resulted in what has come to be known as the “race for fish”– too many vessels trying to extract as much fish as they could before the season closed.

With rights-based fishing systems, managers predetermine a science-based harvest tonnage and pre-allocate that tonnage to the different participating parties. With a limited number of permits being issued to a limited number of vessels for a prescribed amount of fish, managers can theoretically arrive at a more precise tonnage of fish that are withdrawn from the system. Rights-based approaches to fisheries management seem to have positive ecological benefits. In a 2008 paper in the journal Science, researchers found that fisheries that used rights-based systems were half as likely to suffer collapse as those without rights-based management systems in place. Some examples of successful rights-based fishing programs can be found here.

But rights-based fishing schemes can come at societal cost – something the journalist would be well advised to track. The assignment of quota has a tendency to consolidate the ownership of fisheries into the hands of fewer and fewer more powerful entities. The “transferable” aspect of ITQs mean that large companies may purchase quota from smaller parties. In Chile, for example, one of the world’s largest fishing nations, consolidation in the fisheries sector has resulted in only seven companies controlling 90% of that nation’s fishing quota. This, critics argue, undermines coastal communities and overly “corporatizes” fishing.

One solution to this phenomenon is a recently emerging concept called community-based management (CBM) systems. CBM systems may also employ a quota approach. But whereas most quota systems divide harvest among fishing interests regardless of their local affiliation, community-based management proponents often seek to acquire quota for the community at large and then divide quota among parties in the community that would, theoretically best serve the interests of those who live and work on the coast. The goals of community-based management as defined by the American NGO Ecotrust are to achieve a system “in which fishermen and their communities exercise primary responsibility for stewardship and management, including taking part in decision making on all aspects of management, such as harvesting, access, compliance, research and marketing.”