Fishermen’s News December 2014

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Rethinking Fisheries Management:
Why Fisheries Management Fails

By Glen Spain


The following are slightly updated excepts from a presentation given by PCFFA’s Glen Spain at the 10th Biennial Conference of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) at Oregon State University, 10-14 July, 2000. In light of the current debate over Magnuson Act reauthorization 14 years later, these issues are more relevant than ever.



Modern fishery management most often fails because the traditional role of fisheries managers is merely managing fishermen, never fish ecosystems themselves. Fisheries management today thus typically glosses over the biological reality that fish populations are supported and maintained by a highly complex and interwoven, yet fragile, coastal and marine ecosystem.

Yet many of these vulnerable ecosystems are now suffering from, or threatened with, widespread destruction caused by generations of habitat loss and increasing estuarine and coastal pollution, not to mention accelerating impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. These long-term habitat loss impacts usually far outweigh any possible impacts of mere fishing. The trend toward increasing habitat loss is also often a far more insidious and lasting impact than transitory overfishing.

Since fish managers traditionally have control over only one small portion of these total impacts — fishing harvests — they are legally helpless to prevent continuing declines of many commercial valuable species when the driving force behind these declines is not fishing but widespread habitat loss.

A classic example is the current salmon crisis in many places along the U.S. west coast, including Canada. In the Columbia River, for instance, all sport, commercial and Tribal fisheries combined account for only an estimated 5% of all human-induced fish mortalities within the system (less for some species), while the hydropower dams and slack water reservoirs in that basin account for almost 85%. Yet the most recent version of a Columbia River salmon restoration plan still has federal fish managers attempting to squeeze yet more adult returns out of already nearly nonexistent harvests, but unwilling (and unable) to deal with the widespread destruction of fisheries caused by too many dams, too many water diversions, too much grazing and too many logging operations, which cumulatively have had far more negative and lasting impacts.

In fact most commercially fished species are utterly dependent on inland and near shore habitats for at least part of their lifecycle. In addition to salmon, pollock, crab, halibut, shrimp, and menhaden are all species that are very wetlands dependent, yet coastal wetlands are disappearing rapidly everywhere. California, for instance, has lost 91% of its wetlands, Oregon 38% and Washington 31% and the remainder has been biologically compromised. Counting coastal wetland losses only, these loss figures would be even greater.

Coastal wetlands losses have already had a dramatic impact on salmon and many other fisheries throughout the west coast and the nation, costing tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars each year in loss of productive fisheries capacity. (See for instance Fisheries, Wetlands and Jobs, www.pcffa.org/oldsite/wetlands.pdf ). Almost every coastal area is now under massive assault by agricultural, industrial and residential development as well as victimized by widespread pollution.

Fisheries management can no longer be seen as merely the management of fishermen without reference to all other biological impacts. Fisheries management MUST deal with all impacts at ALL stages of a species’ lifecycle, or the species will inevitably fail because non-fishing impacts remain uncontrolled.

Some efforts have been made to correct this problem. For instance, in the 1996 amendments which codified what is now the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) (16 U.S.C. 1801 et. seq.), were new requirements, advocated primarily by PCFFA, that fisheries managers designate “essential fish habitat” (EFH). To date NMFS has poorly implemented this provision, but this was at least a start in the positive direction of addressing lack of habitat protection authority for fisheries.

Another way, of course, is for fishermen themselves to use other tools to protect the fish habitat that their industry depends upon. PCFFA and other fishermen’s associations are making increasing use in court of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Control Act and many other environmental protection statutes to protect fish habitat. Indeed, fishermen have every reason to be far more aggressive defenders of habitat than any environmental group, since it means protecting their jobs.

Finally, one of the most important fields that fisheries economists need to pay real attention to are the emerging methods for quantifying (and thus internalizing) environmental externalities through environmental cost accounting. In fact, once you ascertain the full economic value of all the many environmental amenities Nature provides, and if full environmental cost accounting were in fact used to assess the full range of social costs from the loss of these amenities through habitat destruction, many projects such as dams and wetland conversions would no longer be economically justifiable. (One good source on this developing field for Economists is the “International Society for Ecological Economics.” See: www.isecoeco.org).

Disinvesting in Data Collection Promotes Disaster

A second and increasingly common source of fisheries management failure has been the distressing tendency of governments to seriously underfund basic fisheries data collection programs. Fisheries management without current and accurate data is nothing more than guesswork. Indeed, chronic lack of U.S. Congressional funding to gather essential management data makes major and economically painful crashes inevitable, doing far more long-term harm to fishing dependent communities than any combination of proactive and rational restrictions that protect long-term sustainability.

Unfortunately, data collection programs based on annual Congressional appropriations battles are inherently unstable. Ultimately, what our industry needs is a research and data collection Trust Fund, funded automatically by the industry itself through poundage fees or other routine assessments, that pays for basic data collection programs in perpetuity outside the annual political federal budget food fight. There is now finally some movement in this direction (see “Senate Progress on Fishery Funding Front,” www.pcffa.org/oldsite/fn-sep13.htm).

Clashing Models and Redefining “Efficient Use”

A third major failure of fisheries management generally is the inability to make the institutional transition from the outmoded “Industrial Model” to the “Biological Model” in determining how commercial fisheries should be structured and managed. Both paradigms have real but very different and largely incompatible implications for the future direction and composition of the fishing industry.

The Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act requires the “efficient use” of fisheries resources (see for instance 16 U.S.C. 1851(a)(5)), but nowhere is it defined in the Act what that “efficient use” really means, nor for whom. Unfortunately, defining efficiency solely in economic terms, as was so often done in the past (particularly by fisheries economists), has in fact led to massively overcapitalized multinational factory fleets creating serious bycatch and ecosystem problems wherever they go that, when viewed from a purely biological point of view, others see as rampant and ultimately unsustainable waste.

In the older Industrial Model, driven almost entirely by Economic Utilitarianism, the organizing principle of fisheries management should be to optimize return on investment by optimizing profits of its participants by harvesting the “maximum sustained yield.” In this simplistic model, the ocean is seen as a gigantic factory out of which we can extract almost unlimited amounts of food for markets to our own profit. Decision-making is thus driven almost entirely by commercially marketable species, rather than ecosystem needs as a whole, with each species managed in isolation from all others. Open fisheries are the general rule under this model, on the theory that economic forces and free trade alone will somehow “optimize” or “rationalize” the markets, and that the most economically efficient participants (usually the largest and most highly capitalized) will — indeed, should — prevail.

Maximizing private profiteering from a public resource, however, eventually comes at the biological expense of the resource itself (the so-called ?”Tragedy of the Commons”), leading inevitably to fisheries collapse. Thus moderating mechanisms such as the maximum sustained yield (MSY) concept have been imposed on the Industrial Model, but only as a last resort.

The preferred tools of the Industrial Model are simplistic economic modeling, including an economy of scale theory that bigger and faster is inevitably more economically efficient. This way of thinking also relies on a free market theory actually based on Social Darwinism that ultimately implies the globalization and concentration of fishing capacity in the hands of a small number of big multinational companies. Issues of community or biological sustainability are non-economic concepts which are meaningless under this old but still pervasive model. Instead of biologically-based sustainability regulations, Industrial Model proponents instead put their faith in the “invisible hand of the market” to keep things in balance. This is what most current cries for regulatory “flexibility” (i.e., deregulation) really amount to — Social Darwinism.

Privatization of public resources is another favorite rallying cry for those locked into the Industrial Model. ITQ and other quota programs fit well within this model, because they will likely lead to the kind of economic centralization and concentration that proponents of this model believe is “best and most efficient” (i.e., most profitable to themselves). However, under the full Industrial Model, most of today’s commercial fishermen would essentially become either factory workers or sharecroppers.

The vast majority of fisheries economists were trained in and deeply emotionally committed to the Industrial Model, perhaps because they have no biological training. The very fact that NOAA now resides within the Department of Commerce, rather than in Interior with most other natural resource Trustee agencies, or as a separate agency like the EPA, is a mark of success of the Industrial Model in fisheries management today. Judging by its past history, however, the Industrial Model itself has led to overcapitalization, overconcentration, depopulation of traditional artisanal fishing communities and numerous fisheries disasters worldwide.

The emerging Biological Model of fisheries management takes a very different management approach. This model starts from the premise that every fish species is part of a complex, fragile and interlocking food chain. Thus impacts on one species may impact a whole range of other marine species, both positively and negatively, often in ways that may not be foreseen. The Biological Model is therefore driven primarily by concepts from conservation biology rather than economic theory. Based on a multi-species ecosystem approach, it lends itself to “carrying capacity” sustainability limits on fishery utilization based on ecosystem protection, including protection of genetic diversity and multi-species biodiversity.

The preferred tools of the Biological Model include new economic tools such as “equilibrium analysis,” food web modeling (i.e., charting interactions among species), protection of forage species, cumulative impacts analysis, and the other common tools of environmental impact assessment, conservation biology and conservation genetics. This model also implies a much greater degree of fisheries monitoring and data collection than the Industrial Model — when management is driven primarily by ever-changing biological impacts rather than market profitability, it is far more important to know what those ecosystem impacts actually are. This model also lends itself more readily to considerations of human fishing community sustainability as well.

The vision of the ideal commercial fishing fleet under the Biological Model of management is also very different. Instead of intensive harvests by large factory boats with high bycatch rates, this model implies that fleet composition should move toward smaller, more diverse and more flexibly deployed boats whose ecosystem impacts are far more spread out over time and space, and therefore less biologically disruptive. A fleet of this type would in theory also allow more effective use of discards and bycatch in secondary manufacturing or value-added products, sustaining a diverse on-shore fishing-dependent community with less waste. It would also be more flexible in responding to major fisheries changes, including to major (but largely unpredictable) climate-driven changes.

Ultimately, which management model prevails will define “efficient use,” “sustainability” and even “optimum yield” of the resource under the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act. Under the Industrial Model, “efficient use” means more capital intensive use in which corporations and factory fleets, and not family fishermen, will play the primary future role. Under the Biological Model, however, both ecosystem protection and diversified small and mid-sized boat fishing communities will play the primary roles. At present, we have an uneasy — and incompatible — mixture of both.

PCFFA believes that maintenance of a diversified, small and mid-sized boat fleet of family fishermen as well as a viable fishing profession is far more achievable under the Biological Model than the Industrial. We also believe that in the long run the Biological Model makes the most sense for fisheries management as a whole, as well as better supporting fishing families as communities and as a culture.

Though economic considerations must always necessarily play a major role in fisheries management once there is a fishery, long gone are the days when fisheries management decisions could (or should) be made primarily on the basis of economics alone.


PCFFA is the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families, at: www.pcffa.org. Glen Spain is PCFFA Northwest Regional Director, and can be reached directly by email at: fish1ifr@aol.com or by phone to (541)689-2000.