Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fishing for the future

How do we solve the overfishing problem, is it a massive overhaul or a minor tweak? To borrow from my daughter, we need a big-big-little-little change. Dr. Science would translate that as a subtle but profound revolution in thinking.

On the surface, a few small adjustments seem adequate. We can lower our fishing goals, let fish populations rebuild, and fishermen can prosper with good, reliable catches (Ray Hilborn’s “pretty good yield”). If a few small worries pop up, a tweak here and a nudge there and everything’s fine again. Right?

Well…yes and no. Ask any big business how easy it is to move towards sustainability. It’s more than just buying a few compact fluorescent lightbulbs and reducing packaging.

The important part of moving towards sustainability is the revolution in thinking that underlies all the many small changes that appear on the surface. And solving the overfishing problem is more about changing the way we think than how we adjust fishing.

Why is sensible blogfish headed for these dangerous waters--fuming at flawed belief systems that promote dysfunctional behaviors? I’ve been getting comments, public and private, asking why criticize Ray Hilborn and his “Good Depletion.” And it’s hard to answer without this risky expedition.

On the surface, Mr. Hilborn is doing OK, he says maybe we should back away from Maximum Sustainable Yield and settle for “pretty good yield.” This will leave more fish in the ocean, so everything’s fine right? Well, Mr. Hilborn is just tweaking a broken system. He’s buying a few compact fluorescent lightbulbs and saying he’s done, he’s now truly sustainable. The problem is…he’s still focused on YIELD, the taking of fish out of the ocean.

What necessary to fix the problem? In the immortal (tweaked) words of John Kennedy: “ask not what your fish can do for you, ask what you can do for your fish.”

What Mr. Hilborn (and all of us) need to do is invest in fish population health and ocean ecosystem health, and quit worrying about how many fish we can squeeze out of the system. Ironically, and paradoxically, that’s the best way to catch a lot of fish—by not focusing on catching a lot of fish.

It’s not astral woo-woo nonsense, it’s reality.

Every time we try to squeeze the system and get lots of fish we end up harming some of the ocean processes that produce lots of fish. If we fish too hard, we kill off the big, old fish and reduce spawning success. If we fish everywhere, we lose locally distinct fish populations that might be the big winners in the spawning lottery next year or next decade.

The best way to get the ocean to produce a lot of fish is keep oceans and fish healthy. We should focus on keeping fish populations looking something like unfished populations, with lots of young fish, old fish, and middle aged fish. We also need to keep all, or nearly all local population segments alive and reproducing, waiting for their turn to thrive as ocean conditions vary.

Mr. Hilborn’s tweak of Maximum Sustainable Yield is not a solution, it’s a minor tweak to a broken idea. Pretty Good Yield still fails to focus explicitly on important needs, such as protecting big, old fish. It lets a few fish get a little older, but fishing is still likely to remove the biggest, oldest fish. Pretty Good Yield may keep more locally distinct populations alive, but fishing is still likely to reduce life history diversity. The funny part is that iconoclastic Mr. Hilborn likely knows all of this. He comes most of the way to a solution, only to turn away within sight of the real goal. Why? Maybe because he wrote the textbook on Yield modeling, and it’s easier to smash other people’s icons than one’s own.

To fix the overfishing problem, we need to shift the focus of management towards investing in the health of oceans and fish. We need to monitor and manage for geographic range, life history diversity, and letting fish get big and old. If we manage according to the advice of that eminent fishery biologist John Kennedy, then we’ll be most of the way there ;) I repeat: ask not what your fish can do for you, ask what you can do for your fish.

How’s that for a big-big-little-little change?

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