Fishing is the last commercial hunt on earth. While agriculture long ago displaced hunting and gathering, providing a steady source of food for cities and civilizations to expand, an important share of the world's population still depends on the ability of fishermen to go out and catch fish in the wild.
And the prey are finding it harder to escape. Today's fishermen are equipped with global positioning satellite technology that can help fishermen pinpoint and return to an especially productive spot, fish finders that can help determine what's under the boat based on the fish's swim bladders, and nets made out of strong, synthetic materials that are invisible to fish.
But fishermen are increasingly victims of their own success. As more fishermen become more efficient, they can outstrip the fish stock's ability to replenish itself. The end result: Greater and greater effort is required to catch a diminishing number of smaller and younger fish. The combined effect, perhaps together with other human activities such as those that generate pollution, has led to flattening yields from ocean fishing. As it is, over a quarter of the major marine stocks tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations face diminishing catches or are showing very small yields as they recover from near depletion.
At issue is not just humanity's ability to catch fish. World population growth has fueled demand. And technological innovations ranging from the diesel engine to improved refrigeration have facilitated trade and opened markets for fresh fish in areas far from traditional coastal markets.
The oceans, which once seemed inexhaustible, have now shown that their productivity has limits. After rising very rapidly following World War II-in the face of increasing demand-the growth of the world marine fish catch has leveled off at about 85 million tons per year since the 1990s.
This situation is having a deep impact on how we look at our oceans and the right to fish. What used to be an open field, where the adventurous and the skilled were free to enter in pursuit of bounty, is increasingly regulated and controlled. In particularly hard-hit areas, communities built around fishing-where skilled fishermen passed their secrets from generation to generation-have been left scrambling for new ways to make a living. But, beyond the painful adjustments made by any industry in transition, the matter touches on vital costs that are harder to quantify, such as negative impacts on marine biodiversity, and the health of ecosystems.
New England is ahead of the curve. In the early 1990s, the collapse of several of the region's principal groundfish-a mixture of bottom-dwelling species including Atlantic cod, haddock, and redfish-was one of the earliest signs of trouble. The demise captured the imagination of many because cod fishing is closely intertwined with the region's history. (Those in doubt should read Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.) As members of the environmental Conservation Law Foundation point out, "The threat of preventing the spread of 'another New England' to other domestic fisheries in the United States has been repeatedly used as a prod in Congressional proceedings" on fishery legislation.
Today, New England offers a look ahead and a slightly more optimistic outlook. After several years of draconian restrictions imposed on the region's fishermen, scientists see the beginnings of a recovery. But difficult challenges remain. And, the ultimate question facing the fisheries in New England and around the globe is how to ensure that such painful collapses do not happen again.
The common tragedy
(Chronicle of a tragedy foretold)
Fishing issues stir up heated debate. But in the collapse of New England's staple fish stocks, scientists, fishermen, and managers now seem to agree on one thing: Too many boats were chasing too few fish.
Distant-water fleets from Europe and Asia began working the waters of the Northwest Atlantic after the Second World War and landings of groundfish reached unprecedented heights in the 1960s. By the late 1960s, the landings of cod from foreign fishing vessels were close to triple those of Canadian and American vessels combined. Fish stocks soon declined sharply and, in 1977, Canada and the United States extended their exclusive fishery rights to 200 nautical miles from their shores. With the expulsion of the foreign fleets, the fish stocks began to recover. But the domestic fleet exploded to fill the void left by the foreign trawlers. As a result, in the 1980s, far more fishing effort was being applied than the stocks could support.
Finally, in the early 1990s, groundfish populations fell to record lows and landings of the principal groundfish stocks fell by 60 percent from the previous decade. These facts, together with increasing pressure from environmental groups, led to a halving of days at sea for all fleet sectors and the closure of over 5,000 square nautical miles of prime fishing areas.
Excessive fishing capacity is not unique to New England. The rate of growth of the world's fishing fleet during the 1970s was faster than that of fish landings. By the 1980s, fishing fleets were about 30 percent greater than was needed to catch the maximum sustainable level of fish worldwide, according to researchers at the Worldwatch Institute. And during the 1990s, the fishing fleet continued to grow in size and sophistication, albeit more slowly.
The fundamental problem, according to economists, is that fishing is an example of the "tragedy of the commons," named after the experience of fourteenth-century British villages, which tended to have a common pasture for villagers to graze horses, cattle, and sheep. In a pasture open to all, each herdsman will try to keep as many animals as possible on the commons. Each additional cow imposes costs on all the other villagers whose cows must make do with less grass and who jointly suffer the effects of soil erosion. But so long as the price the individual herdsman receives by selling another cow is greater than the costs he directly experiences, each herdsman is likely to continue bringing additional cows to the commons. And as the village grows in size and more and more animals are placed on the commons, overgrazing ruins the pasture.
Likewise, since no person or company owns the fish stocks and, until recently, anyone who desired to was allowed to fish, fishermen have the incentive to enter a fishing ground so long as what they catch will cover the costs of their equipment. The impetus is to catch as many fish as possible before other fishermen get them-even if this undermines potential catches in the future. Individual fishermen are not rewarded for self-restraint: Any fish they leave in the water to allow the stocks to replenish themselves are likely to be caught by someone else. This fierce competition results in reduced incomes for fishermen as well as in an inefficient use of capital for society: Money could have been better invested in other industries.
The crux of the problem is that when fishing becomes excessive, fish stocks shrink and their productivity diminishes. Fishermen then have to scramble to catch the same number of fish that they could have easily landed with a healthy stock.
The tendency toward overfishing has also been aggravated historically by public efforts to build and sustain competitive national fishing fleets. The growth and modernization of the domestic fleet was encouraged in part by government subsidies. Since the 1970s, for instance, fishermen have been able to defer income tax on profits from fishing if the money was set in a special account destined for the purchase or refurbishment of a fishing vessel.
Some had hoped that fishermen and fish might be regulated by a natural "predator-prey" cycle where a declining abundance of fish would force some boats out of business until the reduced fishing effort would permit stocks to grow, and fishermen would reenter the industry. This may still be true in the long term, but New England saw its groundfish stocks bottom at levels far lower than ever expected, as rising prices helped offset emptier nets. Moreover, while fishermen go out of business, the boats may continue operating longer. "A steel-hauled trawler has a lifecycle of about thirty years," points out Steven Murawski, chief of population dynamics at the National Marine Fishery Service in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Even when vessels are repossessed by banks, they are likely to be resold at lower prices and go right back to fishing.
Counting the fish in the sea
As the problems of overfishing have become evident, regulators have used licenses to limit entry into most fisheries and have furthermore imposed a variety of restrictions that aim to match the level of fishing effort to the right number of fish.
Any type of management regime must start with an estimate of how many fish can be taken out of the ocean without harming the future of the stock. And, for the most part, the fish themselves are not particularly cooperative. Many of the species migrate, disdainful of international or state borders and other human jurisdictions, which complicates estimating populations and exerting effective control over fishing activity.
"We have a task that is literally of biblical proportions-we are trying to count how many fish are in the sea," observes Murawski, who is responsible for developing information on marine fishery resources off the northeast coast of the United States. Using the landings reported by the region's fishermen, information from scientific survey cruises, and other data, his office puts together fish population estimates for New England.
The specific details of each population and how it responds to fishing vary widely from species to species. Some, like the spiny dogfish-a small shark found in the North Atlantic from Labrador to Florida-bear live young, with a gestation period of about 18 to 22 months, producing an average of six pups per female. This makes the dogfish population very vulnerable to fishing-especially when effort is directed at the larger females.
Others like cod, for instance, are incredibly prolific spawners. A forty-inch female can produce three million eggs in a spawning. Such fertility led people to think cod could not be overfished. But, with experience, we have learned that very few cod eggs reach maturity. Changes in currents and temperature, predators, and a myriad other factors stand in the way of the eggs becoming larvae, then juveniles, and finally adult fish. Because of this, populations of cod can fluctuate widely from year to year-which also complicates the estimation of the impact of fishing on future populations.
Moreover, when it comes to fertility, not all fish count equally. Managers try to ensure that young fish don't get caught so that they grow old enough to reproduce. But also, they often want to protect some of the older, bigger fish because they are more experienced and successful spawners, as a higher share of their young seem to grow to adulthood.
In spite of the difficulties, scientists produce the best picture they can of each fish population (with a margin for error on either side), and they estimate the largest number of fish that can be taken under existing conditions without reducing the size of the stock.
In the case of New England, scientists were issuing warnings of significant overfishing as early as the mid 1980s. According to some experts, fishermen were taking up to six of every ten adult fish each year, over twice the sustainable amount.
But misunderstandings and mistrust between scientists and fishermen made it difficult to act on these warnings. Even while scientists are issuing warnings of stock collapse, fishermen may see increasing landings and healthy populations, notes David Dobbs, author of The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery. Scientists may observe the abundance of females of a certain size and age, for instance, or try to determine how many fish are caught by a fixed level of effort; for their part, fishermen will count the fish in their nets and use new technology to catch fish-without taking into account how much increased effort is being applied. The difficulties are, of course, exacerbated by the fact that the scientific findings have direct consequences for fishermen's livelihoods.
In the midst of heated debates, managers and fishermen were slow to heed the warnings. In the early 1990s, the experts' pronouncements proved to be tragically accurate.
Matching boats to fish
Even when there is agreement on a target number of fish that can be taken out, ensuring that this is the number that winds up trapped in the nets is a difficult challenge. In the United States, eight regional fishery management councils are charged with developing plans to manage marine organisms in their areas. The councils are composed of representatives of commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as marine scientists and state and federal fisheries managers. The different regulatory regimes they have imposed run the gamut from fixed limits on the amount of fish that can be taken out to limiting licenses, to restrictions on vessels and gear, and even to creating private ownership of fish quotas. However, each option has its own costs and weaknesses.
With Alaska halibut, for instance, a decision was reached in the late 1970s to set a total allowable catch and close the fishery after this limit was reached. But this led to a race to capture the largest share of the available quota. Fishermen competed by building up their vessels and gear. As a result, seasons became progressively shorter until by the late 1980s fishing was limited to two 24-hour seasons a year. "In a scene reminiscent of a horse race, fishing vessels would line up, awaiting the opening of the season, and then rush out, regardless of weather, to catch as much as they could as quickly as they could," observe Suzanne Iudicello, Michael Weber, and Robert Wieland in Fish, Markets and Fishermen: The Economics of Overfishing. In the mad frenzy, accidents proliferated in an industry that already had the highest number of work fatalities in the United States. Moreover, as fish flooded the processing plants, consumers would see short-term market gluts, and then face very high prices for the rest of the year.
In contrast, fishery managers in New England have opted for arriving at the desired level of catch indirectly, through restricting the effort and gear that fishermen use. Managers try to set regulations that reduce the efficiency of fishermen to the level they think will approximate this catch by measures such as limiting the number of days boats are allowed to fish, limiting the areas available for fishing, and regulating mesh sizes. This reduces somewhat the "derby" nature of fishing and ensures that fresh fish are available more of the year. But the regulations tend to become increasingly restrictive as fishermen find new ways to increase their efficiency. If vessels are restricted in their maximum length, for instance, fishermen are likely to increase width or engine power. Furthermore, adequate regulations may be slow in coming, particularly because such actions can become highly politicized and end up pitting different groups of fishermen against each other-say gillnetters against trawlers, or big boats against small boats-as regulations tend to hit some groups harder than others.
Alternatively, regulators could, at least in theory, design a tax that would raise the costs of fishing to just the "right" level to discourage an excessive catch. In this way, fishermen would have greater freedom in choosing cost-effective gear, while the government could collect and invest the tax revenues productively. Yet, designing such a tax would be difficult, especially in the face of continuously changing fishing technology and widely variable fish populations. It would also be difficult to implement in New England, where a large number of boats and fishermen are already reeling from economic hardship.
A radically different approach is to address the ownership problem that gives rise to the tragedy of the commons directly, and grant fishermen the equivalent to private property rights. This has been done in countries like Iceland and New Zealand, as well as in some fisheries in Canada and the United States (see sidebar). For instance, fishermen are granted the right to a fixed share of the available quota; these shares are tradable and their value depends on the health of the fishery. Fishermen have less incentive to race each other, as their catch is fixed. They can concentrate on finding the most cost-effective way to harvest their allocation. And they may also have an incentive to use gear that is more environmentally friendly, or at least that minimizes the impact on the habitat for the fish stock they have a stake in. Property rights will also allocate wealth to fishermen by granting them, at zero cost, a right that can be sold.
Nonetheless, this type of program is extremely controversial because it dramatically alters the open approach to the oceans. Opponents fear that these programs ultimately lead to consolidation of quota shares, with big boats and businesses buying out smaller mom-and-pop businesses and their traditional way of life. This is especially of concern in New England, where the fishing industry is currently composed of several thousand independent boat owners. Creation of such property rights could strain intricate social networks that go back for several generations, and the special nature and attractive quaintness of some traditional New England fishing communities could be imperiled, points out anthropologist Madeleine Hall-Arber.
Private quota shares are also difficult to establish because of the highly controversial questions of who is entitled to quotas and how they should be allocated. And, once in place, there is still a need for enforcement to ensure that no cheating occurs. Of particular concern is the practice of "high-grading" in fisheries where larger fish are more valuable and fishermen could gain from dumping overboard smaller ones to maximize the value of their quota.
The difficulties in establishing or implementing the tried policy options is feeding into the growing popularity of another alternative-protecting marine areas in something akin to underwater parks. Beyond frustrations with the current options, interest in establishing such reserves stems from a recognition that fish are parts of complicated ecosystems: While species are managed individually, their fates are really interconnected.
For instance, managing species separately may not take into account delicate predator-prey balances. Since the 1970s, as the groundfish were being subjected to intense fishing pressure, for example, the ratio of dogfish to groundfish has doubled. This has caused some fishermen to worry that dogfish would take over the niche of the groundfish and prevent their recovery.
Also, managing each species independently makes it difficult to take into account what impact regulations destined for one species will have on others. When New England managers drastically tightened regulations to protect groundfish, something like a "domino effect" ensued: Boats turned their attention to other species, including monkfish and dogfish, and soon these came to be declared overfished as well.
In contrast, marine protected areas can help preserve entire marine ecosystems and biodiversity, points out economist Priscilla Brooks of the Conservation Law Foundation. A good example is the barn door skate. Although the fish is not commercially valuable, some thought it was destined for biological extinction because its large size means that it gets trawled up as "bycatch" before it reaches sexual maturity. However, this does not look as likely now. Over 17,000 square kilometers in Georges Bank and southern New England waters were closed to fishing in 1994 as part of the drastic measures to protect groundfish. Six years later, the barn door skate was showing greater numbers than anybody had seen for a while.
Aside from the inherent (and unquantifiable) value to preserving the variety of living organisms, species that are not commercially valuable now may prove valuable resources for biotechnology in the future.
Still, the extent to which marine protected areas can protect stocks that are part of targeted fishing efforts is a current topic of debate. Proponents argue that such reserves potentially offer a hedge against management or implementation errors. Some even claim that they may allow for larger stocks and higher sustainable yields. But much remains to be studied. The impact of protected areas will probably depend on, among other things, their size; whether they cover a particular type of habitat-such as a spawning ground of a particular species; the types of species covered (the impact on scallops would be very different from the effect on a highly migratory species such as bluefin tuna); and what happens in the surrounding area in terms of fishing effort and contamination or pollution. New England offers a case in point: The areas closed in 1994 were aimed mostly at protecting groundfish. While, for the most part, these are showing signs of recovery, it is difficult to know how much of the improvements are due to area closures and how much to other measures, such as halving available days at sea, or the dramatically reduced fishing effort in Canada.
Thinking long term
The collapse of some of the historically more important fish stocks has left some clear and painful lessons. As fishery scientist Murawski puts it, "The lesson about the hubris of unlimited resources has been learned for this generation." And there are some hopeful signs of change.
What happened may be altering our way of responding to fishery crises. One current example: Monkfish-a deepwater fish with skin instead of scales that is prized for its sweet, firm, white tail meat-was declared overfished by scientists in 1999 even as landings were at historically high levels. A monkfish fishery was scheduled to be closed by May of 2002. But, fishermen argued that the scientists run the fish surveys with equipment that cannot accurately determine the state of the monkfish population because it cannot reach as deep as is needed to get to them. Now, instead of being locked in a self-defeating argument, scientists and fishermen are collaborating in a research project that is among the first of its kind. With federal fishery disaster relief funding, fishermen and scientists have jointly planned a survey of monkfish populations using two chartered commercial vessels that can survey deeper waters than the National Marine Fishery Service's trawl vessels. The project may lead to a reassessment of the status of the monkfish stock. It may also aid scientists who will benefit from the knowledge accumulated in fishermen's experience and help to improve the understanding between fishermen and scientists.
Similarly, while fishermen of old spent centuries designing technology to hunt the very last fish, new developments are more likely to focus on how to make fishing more precise and less harmful to the fish's habitat. Dolphin-safe fishing methods for tuna and Nordmore grates used by shrimpers to allow unwanted fish to escape their nets are already common. Still, much remains to be learned about fish biology and the way in which species interact amongst themselves and with fishermen.
But perhaps the greatest challenge lies above water: how to get fishermen, managers, scientists, environmental groups, and all who have a stake in the health of our oceans to come up with a shared vision of what the fishing industry can look like, in a way that ensures its long-term economic health and protects marine biodiversity. Though there are many options, there are no clear right answers at this point. What is certain is that the days of the last unlimited commercial hunt are probably over.
|The Collapse of the Groundfish|
|Landings of these groundfish species peaked in the 1960s under intense fishing from foreign fleets. After the foreign vessels left, catch levels recovered slightly before plummeting to record lows in the early 1990s.|
Source: Murawski et al.,
Groundfish Stocks and the Fishing Industry. Updated
by Steven Murawski.
|The Beginnings of a Recovery|
|As fishing restrictions have taken effect, the share of fish populations harvested each year has decreased, and the collective mass of all the breeders in the population is beginning to increase.|
|Source: Murawski et al., Large-Scale Closed Areas as a Fishery-Management Tool in Temperate Marine Systems: The Georges Bank Experience. Updated by Steven Murawski.|
Is Farming an Alternative?
Much as the development of agriculture reduced the dependence on hunting and gathering and increased food supplies for human societies, fish farming or aquaculture can help ease some of the constraints on natural fish supplies. Farming also eliminates altogether the issue of “overfishing” the natural stock. And, having a private owner allows fishing to be run as a regular business, making it more likely that inputs and investment will be commensurate with maintaining the long-term level of fish production.
People have been farming fish for many centuries (fish farming was invented in China over three thousand years ago). But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the production of fish at an industrial scale really started taking off. Since then, inland and marine aquaculture has been growing rapidly—about 10 percent per year in the 1990s, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Indeed, as the catch from wild marine species has leveled off, the main growth in the supply of fish has come from fish farming. Today, as much as 25 percent of the fish consumed worldwide is grown in farms.
American consumers may be well acquainted with the farm-raised salmon, catfish, and shrimp commonly served in restaurants. Still, carp grown in Asia (especially China) currently accounts for the largest share of farm-raised fish.
But fish farming is not without problems. The farming of salmon and shrimp in particular can pose a threat to wild marine stocks. Unlike carp and catfish, salmon eat other fish, so salmon farms do not reduce the pressure on wild stocks. The diet of farmed salmon consists of fishmeal from anchovies or herring, among others, and it can take up to five tons of landed fish for each ton of salmon produced, according to a report of the Worldwatch Institute. In addition, since farmed salmon are bred for fast growth and not for survival in the wild, some worry that if they manage to escape and breed with wild salmon they might weaken the wild stock’s capacity to survive.
Likewise, shrimp—mostly farmed in developing countries such as Thailand—are often produced by clearing coastal mangrove forests that serve as nursery habitats for local fish, and thus can end up leading to the decline of wild stocks.
Greater efforts and attention are being placed on addressing some of the negative environmental impacts of aquaculture. Many have experimented with sterilizing farmed fish so that they don’t breed with wild ones, for instance. But fish farming remains controversial in many places, and managing the concentrated refuse produced is always a challenge.
Fish farming is expected to continue growing at the same clip in the next couple of years. But, unless the wild stocks become exceedingly scarce and greater technological innovations in fish farming are made, our reliance on wild fish stocks is not likely to go the way of hunting and gathering anytime soon.
In 1990, the surf clam and ocean quahog fisheries became the first in the United States to be managed through individual transferable quotas (ITQs), a system in which fishermen have private rights to a share of the catch. Since these fishing shares can be traded, the most efficient fishermen can buy shares from others who, in turn, are able to receive compensation for exiting fishing—and total fishing capacity can be reduced.
Well before the establishment of ITQs, in the early 1970s, surf clam fishing—particularly in the Mid-Atlantic—had been rocked by wild boom and bust cycles driven by a combination of overfishing and natural disasters. A particularly bad period of low dissolved oxygen in the waters off of New Jersey killed a large portion of the surf clam stock and gave momentum to prevent the unregulated industry from harvesting the remaining clams into economic extinction.
Thus, in 1977, the Mid-Atlantic surf clam fishery instituted a total allowable catch and became the first in the nation to limit the entry of new vessels. Fishing time limits per vessel also were instituted to spread the catch over time.
Though the idea of allocating a share of the quota to individual vessels was present from the beginning, instituting such a system was stymied by arguments about how to allocate the valuable shares, given large differences in interest and power in the industry, according to Sharing the Fish, a report by the National Research Council.
Owner-operators and small fleet owners, for instance, resisted an early proposal to allow fishermen to trade and consolidate allocations of fishing time because they feared that this would give unfair clout and advantage to larger owners. “Everyone had a different point of view and they were watching out for their own interests,” explains David Wallace a former surf clam fisherman and industry consultant. Also, the idea of allocating quotas to vessels was problematic to many, as it was tantamount to giving away a public resource.
While the debates raged, the capital invested in the fishery steadily increased. Though the total number of participating ships remained the same, the number of small vessels decreased as they were replaced by bigger and more powerful boats. As a consequence, allowed fishing time steadily decreased until, in 1987, surf clam boats were allowed to fish only eight hours out of every month, even though the harvestable clam population had greatly increased.
Finally by 1988, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council created ITQs that could be freely sold and traded. Quota shares were divided among the owners of vessels that had harvested surf clams and ocean quahogs in the previous decade, according to complicated formulas which varied by region and were based on catch history.
Since the introduction of the ITQ program in 1990, the surf clam and ocean quahog industries saw dramatic change. The number of vessels active in both fisheries has declined markedly—from 133 vessels harvesting surf clams in 1988 to 48 by 1994 and, similarly, from 62 to 35 in the ocean quahog fishery over the same period. About one-third of vessel owners stopped fishing and leased out their quotas. At the same time, total employment in the clam fishing industry declined, but full-time employment became more common.
Thus, the ITQ program helped address the vexing issue
of excess capacity. But whether or not it is applicable
to other fisheries is not clear. The surf clam and ocean
quahog industries were much smaller and more concentrated
to begin with than say, the groundfish fleets, which
consist of more than 3,000 vessels distributed over
a much larger geographic area. The surf clams and ocean
quahogs are relatively easy to target, and their extraction
is more akin to mining than to fishing (they get dug
out of the ground with large dredges, in a way that
makes it less likely that other species get harvested
at the same time). In contrast, groundfish involve a
mix of several different species that share the same
habitat. The number of landing sites for the clams was
relatively small, facilitating enforcement of regulations.
And, the industry was not in direct competition with
other interest groups such as recreational fishermen
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