POLICY: What’s Fishy About Fisheries

April 19, 2012 6:57 pm0 comments
Teal Arcadi

 Exploitation and destruction of marine ecosystems has long been hidden – literally – from the view of the public. Out of sight and mind, buried beneath the waves, marine ecology is all too easily forgotten. 

But issues surrounding ocean sustainability and marine food production have increasingly come to the forefront in the last decade or so, led by the publication of the influential article “Fishing Down Aquatic Food Webs” (Daniel Pauly et. al). The article describes the tendency of fisheries to overharvest large fish, leaving only smaller and smaller individuals. 

Rather than seeking to maintain a sustainable harvest and a constant supply of large fish, preserving ecosystem balance, fisheries are often tempted to simply keep on harvesting, taking smaller, younger “seed fish” which should be allowed to grow to maturity, replenishing the marine ecosystem and replacing larger fish from older generations.  

This practice wreaks havoc on the stability and functionality of the ecosystem, destroying ecosystem services in the process. But the practice is often equally detrimental to humans.

As fisheries overharvest large fish, they inadvertently create an arms race amongst themselves and handicap the long-term ecological and economic sustainability of their fisheries. Supply often exceeds demand, because rather than coordinating efforts to maximize their catches, fishermen are swept into needless, and in this case detrimental, competition. 

Rather than hurrying to catch as many of the biggest fish as possible, fisheries could ensure a higher level of overall productivity with the introduction of regulations and a more ground-up fisheries management system, in which the fishermen themselves could work together to determine catch sizes and quantities that would bring the highest profits and the greatest degree of ecological, economic and social sustainability for all involved. This is exactly what has begun to happen in a groundbreaking situation in California. 

The Nature Conservancy recently announced the formation of a new fishing agreement for California’s coast designed by the Fort Bragg Groundfish Association, the Central Coast Sustainable Groundfish Association, and the Nature Conservancy itself. 

The driving goal behind the project was to innovatively increase environmental and economic sustainability. The agreement is community focused, and built around a quota system that seeks to improve the economic and environmental performance of the fisheries while maintaining conservation benefits. 

Known as a “risk pool,” the quota system will manage the supply of previously overharvested species. In effect, the fisheries will make agreements amongst each other regarding the number of fish that can be harvested from depleted species. This will allow the fisheries to avoid an ecologically harmful race to take all of these fish, and allow them to focus on harvesting more abundant species. 

Perhaps most crucially from a human standpoint, this system will allow fisheries the opportunity to maximize profits by fishing from the “insurance pool” of abundant fish, with little to no risk of incurring high economic or ecological costs.

Teal Arcadi is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ta245@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Policy appears on appears on Thursdays.