Today’s post is from Roger Martini of the OECD Fisheries Division
When I tell people I work in fisheries, the first question they ask is: “What fish can I eat?” Concern about the sustainability of fish stocks is widespread, and many people want to be sure they are making responsible choices when they buy fish. Given that most fisheries, especially in OECD countries, are managed by governments committed to their sustainable exploitation, this demonstrates a stunning lack of confidence in current approaches to fisheries management.
They are right to be concerned. It is estimated that about 30% of world fisheries are currently overexploited, with many depleted or recovering from depletion – and this is not specific to any region. Despite their best intentions, fisheries managers often struggle to effectively restrict harvest to sustainable limits. Fishers are often accused of being part of the problem by rushing to catch as many fish as they can, but this is unfair. They respond to the incentives that governments give them as the regulator of the fishery. Some rules encourage responsible behaviour, while others promote getting as much as you can today.
There are many reasons why fisheries become overexploited, but it usually comes down to asking fisheries to be and do too many things. Fisheries are often depended on to provide jobs and support rural communities, notably in developing countries where the sector acts as a buffer of last resort for marginalized populations. Communities seek to preserve fishing’s traditional role, and consumers are reluctant to find alternatives to culturally-important fish. Fisheries often have multiple objectives, not all of which are explicit, feasible or compatible. Something has to give, and usually it is the fish stock that suffers.
Our understanding has advanced greatly about how to manage a fishery sustainably and profitably. For example, we know that fishers are willing to take a long-term view of the fishery if they know they can benefit, even if it involves short-term sacrifices. Establishing individual or community rights to the fishery does this by giving fishers a stake in the health of the stock. Allowing fishers to trade these rights among themselves promotes more efficient fishers and reduces overcapacity and the pressure it places on management.
Half a century ago, the main interest that governments had in fisheries was how to expand them. That seems like a long time ago, but many of the policies developed back then are still around in one form or another. Subsidies for building vessels, or for their modernisation and improvement, once a way to bring economic development to coastal regions, now mainly aggravate problems of fleet overcapacity. Given that governments also spend considerable sums on decommissioning vessels – removing them from the fishing fleet – it seems strange that such policies could continue. But beneficiaries of existing programs can always be expected to resist change. The trick is to show them that the alternatives are even better.
The OECD Handbook for Fisheries Managers describes how to do just that. It demonstrates the importance of putting stock management first, having a sound objective-setting and policy-making process, and making practical changes that encourage progress. The advice put forward in the Handbook can help put fisheries on a sound footing such that one day when my friends see fish in the store they can buy it with confidence, knowing that the fishery it comes from is sustainable and responsible. And that’s what really matters.