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Can we have our fish and eat them too? Maybe so — with better management

A merger of fisheries data with economic models suggests the world’s fish stocks could regain health even as catches, and profits, soar.

Good news about the fate of the world’s fisheries is a rare thing, usually heralding some narrow or tenuous interruption in a relentessly downward global trend line.

So please celebrate with me for a moment the finding of a fresh research paper which concludes that a different approach to catch management could yield these results:

  • Restoration of most of the world’s major fish stocks to full productivity, sometimes at levels not seen for generations.
  • An increase in harvest or profit – and often both – for a large majority of the world’s commercial fishing operations, after a painful but short-term adjustment period.
  • Achievement of all these goals within as little as 10 years, on average, and within 35 years for 98 percent of all fisheries worldwide.

This is strikingly good news, and not just for those of us in the wealthy, health-conscious, industrialized world who tire of tilapia and long for the return to guilt-free status of Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass … maybe even swordfish some sweet day.

Three billion people around the world, many of  them very poor, rely on fish and other seafood as a key source of dietary protein, and a half-billion rely on fishing or related enterprises for their livelihoods. (China, the paper notes, is pursuing a policy objective of increasing its seafood consumption by 50 percent over the next six years.)

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That puts a little bit different frame on the paper’s suggestion that an alternative approach to fishing quotas could  generate annual increases of 16 million metric tons of catch, 619 million metric tons of new fish biomass in the recovering populations, and $53 billion in aggregate profits.

In percentage terms, that means a doubling of the world’s total fish population by 2050, even as harvests continue to grow. As for profits, the paper projects potential growth of 204 percent in the same 35-year period.

Published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research is the work of a cross-disciplinary team with backgrounds in biological and ecological science, environmental policy and economics. Notably, three of the dozen authors are associated with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Database of unparalleled size

Their work draws on data from 4,713 fisheries worldwide, or about 78 percent of the total, which they claim represents the largest database of its kind ever assembled.

This was coupled to “state-of-the-art bioeconomic models” to test the impact of three management scenarios: a business-as-usual continuation of current policies and practices, use of quotas and other regulations to achieve maximum long-term catch, and “rights-based fishery management (RBFM), or economic value is optimized.”

If you have already guessed that the authors came to prefer Door No. 3, congratulations, but note for a moment that this choice places a lower value on ensuring long-term productivity – a typical aim of quota systems – than on raising the value of the sector’s output.

Overfishing is an enduring tragedy-of-the-commons problem, in which a shared resource is harvested under a system that encourages each user to take as much, and usually as quickly, as possible.

Quota systems that place ceilings on individual producers, or groups of producers, slow this down somewhat, so long as they achieve voluntary appliance or are backed with expensive enforcement mechanisms. Keeping an eye on neighbors who bring their cattle to graze the village green isn’t quite the same challenge as policing the world’s fishing fleets as they roam the broad ocean.

The rights-based method sets overall harvest quotas intended to maintain healthy populations of fish, grants fishing rights to a group of producers, then assigns each producer a share of the total catch.

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If total catch goes down for a while, as quotas are set with recovery in mind, that’s not so bad – the market sends prices up. As populations recover and the quotas rise, so does the catch and the income to be divided.

Ending the ‘race to fish’

Perhaps most important, the system eliminates the “race to fish” factor in which each competitor rushes to outdo the others. Instead, the incentives tend to reward efficiency, which also enlarges profit, as participants work toward a common target and predetermined payouts.

(And though the authors don’t say so, it’s not hard to imagine that such a system might also encourage tattling when one operator’s bad practices threaten everyone’s stake in the outcome.)

Though this is a paper about big ideas, it does not lack for hard numbers. Here’s a sample of those I found most compelling:

  • Only 32 percent of the world’s fisheries can be considered biologically healthy today, and fewer still are in good economic condition from an industry standpoint. The reset are overfished, with overfishing continuing for the most part – except in those that have been fished to the point of collapse. But that number could climb to 77 percent within 10 years under a rights-management approach, and to 98 percent by 2050.
  • At the national level, those gains don’t necessarily progress in lockstep; some countries might gain more on some measures than others, and some countries might experience slower growth overall. Still, the authors predict simultaneous growth in catch, population and profit for 56 percent of all species, and for 23 of the 30 nations that now catch the most fish.

I’ve not seen much coverage of this paper as yet, but early reaction from other scientists is positive. From a piece by Brian Clark Howard at National Geographic, where I first saw it mentioned:

Daniel Pauly, a leading fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the team’s research, calls the new paper “excellent and methodically sound.” Most previous analyses only looked at a few hundred fisheries, so the scale of this work adds new weight, he notes.

“Most of the world’s fisheries are in bad shape, with the business-as-usual scenario heading toward a collapse of all stocks in a few years,” says Pauly.

And the editorial writers at the Washington Post, having concluded that the world’s ailing fisheries constitute “a classic instance in which government should step in and regulate the market to prevent the wanton and unnecessary destruction of precious natural resources,” strongly endorse the shared-rights approach.

They even add a wrinkle: allowing the shares to be traded among holders so that the most efficient operators are further rewarded for their work.

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The full paper, “Global fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes,” can be read here [PDF] and access is free.