Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Overfishing is a political problem

I stand accused of being a raving environmentalist. Actually, it's even more fun than that, I'm told: "you are just another ranting environmentalist yelling half truths" because blogfish says something that was not published in a peer reviewed journal (see comment 7 from "anonymous").

Note: this is a blog, which is a personal take on the issues of the day. It includes commentary, also known as opinion. Below, I offer some opinions on why we have so much overfishing in the US and beyond. My views are based on my own observations of the fishery management mistakes I've observed first-hand.

Fishery managers often respond unevenly to scientific advice. Where science suggests fishing can increase, the management response is typically a quick and certain increase. Where science suggests that fishing must be reduced, managers typically defer and delay and sometimes deny the need to reduce fishing. Such an approach inevitably leads to fishery collapse. All because of intense political pressure. There are exceptions to this pattern, but it's fairly typical in the US and elsewhere.

Surprisingly, some blame inadequate science for this type of failure. The expectation seems to be that fishery science will unerringly identify the very maximum limit of fishing that can occur without endangering the health of a fish population. By pushing right up to the predicted limit every year, overshooting the limit is a near-certainty and fish population collapse is likely.

To use an analogy, this is like assuming that I can drive my car just one mile per hour below the very limit of safety and expect to avoid a crash every time. All because I have a scientist with me predicting exactly how fast I can go without crashing. If I crash, do I get to blame the scientist for being wrong?

We won't succeed at ocean conservation until we can reverse this risky approach to fishing.

Andy Rosenberg said it very well, and maybe this takes the point out of the "raving environmentalist" category:

Managing to the margins: the overexploitation of fisheries

Andrew A Rosenberg

Front Ecol Environ 2003, 1(2), 102–106

Overfishing persists in many of the world’s fisheries, despite the fact that scientists have clearly identified overexploitation as a problem. The solution seems straightforward – reduce fishing pressure – and the benefits are clear and often obtained rapidly, if action is taken before stocks are driven to very low levels. The problem persists, however, because the politics of fishery management favor continued exploitation. How stocks will recover and who will be able to reap the benefits is uncertain, so the political incentive is to maintain the status quo. Management immediately tries to capitalize on any apparent stock increase or marginal fishing opportunity, but only slowly responds to apparent decreases in the stock. This approach inevitably results in resource declines, and therefore cannot succeed in conserving public resources. We need to change this perspective and view the oceans as a system to be managed wisely, rather than a resource to be exhausted.

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