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One Layer Deeper (Part 2): Why the Future of Fishing Depends on Solid Science and Clever Thinking

February 24, 2017

Last week, I wrote about some of the challenges facing sustainable fisheries in 2017. That was Part 1 of our conversation, so I recommend starting there if you’re reading for the first time. This week, we pivot to the future. Addressing future problems in fisheries sustainability requires a mix of solid science and clever thinking.

Still Need That Science

I mentioned in Part 1 of this article that solutions cannot be wholly academic. I believe that, but we really do need solid science to keep fisheries sustainable. There are some challenging times ahead for global fisheries, and we need to stockpile scientific knowledge like it’s going out of style (which, in the current administration, it feels like it is). Here are two brief examples.

California Sardine Fishery

It’s easy to be lulled into the sense that “science” has already figured everything out. Not so. True, the wealth of knowledge out there is tremendous. But the reality is that we’re still learning, and always will be.

Sardines, for example, tend to have a predictable response to climate, reproducing better in warm phases than in cool ones. Overfishing during one such cool period recently crashed the California sardine fishery. By hammering them during a period when they were not reproducing fruitfully, we (unintentionally) decimated the population at the onset of a long cool phase.

This is where flexibility comes in. The harvest levels were probably set right…for an average year. But several consecutive below-average years occurred, and the fishery crashed as a result. There are now special rules around the sardine fishery and it is one of the textbook examples of a fishery in which flexible management decisions can be made within a fishing season based on environmental conditions.

Chemical Cues in Crabs

“When I brought up a few minor points involving tidal flow, crab reproduction, and chemical cues, it changed [a crab fisherman’s] whole game plan, and actually improved the efficiency of his fishing efforts.”

– Renee Dolecal, Manager, San Diego State University Coastal and Marine Institute Laboratory

My friend and colleague Renee hits on an important point: scientists and fishermen can and should be allies. Too often, they are pitted as adversaries, and that’s simply not necessary. It’s also not particularly helpful, when at least in theory they want the same things: a healthy and productive marine environment.

Fishermen know the local ecology and history of their fishing grounds like the back of their hand, and we should celebrate and leverage that knowledge. But scientists know the life cycles of fish and other marine organisms, often to a minute and biochemical level. That depth of knowledge, cumulatively across the board, better equips us to evaluate the larger scale health and performance of a fishery. That information can and must route back to fishermen. If science can help fishermen be more efficient and place less pressure on a fishery (and reduce bycatch and overall footprint on the ecosystem as a result), then we have a win-win.

Climate Change

So, what I mentioned above sounds great, but what if averages aren’t stable and predictable over time? Like, what if the average is steadily going up, but any given year could be wildly greater or smaller, too? Unfortunately, that’s how climate change affects our ability to monitor ecosystems.

Not only do the ecosystems change, but they also experience wider fluctuations in environmental conditions – the pendulum swings farther in both directions. In other words, global climate change only exacerbates our slate of problems. Naturally, this is the kind of stuff that keeps scientists up at night…and working on ways to monitor and predict a more variable environment in the future.

Get Clever

If we’re going to solve the challenges of the future, we need to be more flexible, creative, and agile. It’s that simple.

Adaptable Management

Okay, so one of the solutions I’ve mentioned so far is more flexible fisheries management. But what does that mean?

One side of adaptable management is closing or reopening a fishery mid-season based on environmental conditions. But another side of adaptable management is helping fishermen to target other species when their primary fishery is closed. To understand this issue, you have to also understand that having a fishing permit is often tough to get (and expensive). So once you have one, you’re not going to let it go. But what if we made those permits more flexible?

This type of solution is particularly promising. Say, for example, that the sardine fishery is closed. In the same season, what if there is a boom in market squid up the coast? Normally, that would be of no consequence. But, what if we intentionally enabled and permitted fishermen to pivot and target secondary fisheries, instead? Targeting non-sensitive species in years when they’re doing better would allow us to minimize our effort on sensitive species, a more sustainable solution all around.

Coastal Logistics

So what’s the catch? (PUN). Well, even if we manage flexibly, there are serious logistical challenges to making it work.

For starters, you have to remember that a hugely diverse infrastructure of equipment and support networks exists to catch fish. So even if you gave fishermen a flexible permit, there’s a lot more at play.

You need the right kind of boat, the right kind of gear, a port that can process it, an ice plant, and access to planes or trucks that can distribute your fish to an appropriate market. This highlights the difficulty of switching fisheries. Building flexibility into that without asking fishermen to buy “one of everything” is a tough nut to crack. They’d be drowning in debt before they ever touched the water.

Solving the Puzzle

So how do we solve for these kinds of logistical constraints?

If we make permits more flexible, one method of attack is obvious: what else with the same gear type can they fish that’s doing well that year? This is a good start, but fishermen may find that there are not many compatible options within the range of their boat.

Some NGOs offer buy-back programs to help fishermen get off one gear type or boat type and on to another. Typically, this helps fishermen move onto a more sustainable fishery that commands a solid market price. Removing destructive fishing practices is a positive benefit of doing this. However, emerging catch-share programs typically limit the number of vessels in a fishery. This often prevents or makes it very difficult for fishermen to transition into a new fishery. The cost of entry into a catch-share fishery can be exceptionally high, and shares are often heavily consolidated by big business. That rabbit hole of a topic is the focal point of The Fish Market, a new book by Lee van der Voo.

One of the most promising possibilities is to develop co-op fishing communities, in which permits, boats, and gear are held by the community, not the individual. Many fishing communities are in favor of this type of solution. This would offer more mobility within the community to target healthy fisheries and not spend effort on less healthy ones. It would also allow for permits to be accessed by younger fishing generations, as older generations (read: most of the fishermen out there today) retire.

Still No Cure-All

We’re still waiting for an AirBnb-equivalent for fishing boats and gear to come along. Until then, the above solutions feel like solid options. They come the closest to meeting the definition of sustainable fisheries we discussed last week: minimizing the ecological, economic, and emotional harm of our fishing activities. This is particularly the case if they can protect the cultural and ecological heritage that fishing communities have stewarded for so long. 

What do you think? What are our best bets for sustaining fisheries and fishing communities? Leave a comment and let me know!

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