Rebuilding Global Fisheries

Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn, and, among others, Chris Costello, recently had the article ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ in Science (Vol 325, pp. 578 – 585). It discusses trends in the rebuilding of fisheries and marine ecosystems. The inherent problem in fisheries is the tragedy of the commons; many fisheries are poorly managed and access rights are not distributed properly. ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ touches upon it in the introduction:

[…] progress toward curbing overfishing has been hindered by an unwillingness or inability to bear the short-term social and economic costs of reducing fishing [p. 578].

And again, while discussing species collapse:

Rebuilding […] collapsed stocks may require trading off short-term yields for conservation benefits [p. 581].

Short-term costs are like an investment in future abundacy; if fishermen are uncertain whether the promised future will enrich themselves, they will probably avoid the investment if they can. Accordingly, Worm et al. list access rights and economic incentives among tools for rebuilding fisheries:

Assingning dedicated access privileges, such as catch shares or territorial fishing rights, to individual fishers or fishing communities has often provided economic incentives to reduce effort and exploitation rate […] Realigning economic incentives with resource conservation (rather than overexploitation) is increasingly recognized as a critical component of successful rebuilding efforts [p. 583].

Another problem for many fisheries is simply that they are located in the developing world:

On a global scale, a key problem for rebuilding is the movement of fishing effort from industrialized countries to the developing world […] This north-south redistribution of fisheries has been accelerating since the 1960s […] and could in part be a perverse side effect of efforts to restore depleted fisheries in the developed world, as some fishing effort is displaced to countries with weaker laws and enforcement capacity [p. 584].

Collapsed fisheries in the developed world, like the Canadian Northern Cod scandal, are also a likely source of effort movements to the developing world. Further, the technological ability to fish far from, and even independent of, (home) port, poorly regulated fisheries, limited enforcement of regulations, corrupted, political systems, and lack of knowledge are all probable reasons for the sorry state of many fisheries in the developing world. Also, many fisheries in the developing world are small-scale, artisanal fisheries and such fisheries cannot be managed in the same way as industrial fisheries (p. 582).

Finally, Worm et al. discusses open questions in relation to the rebuilding of fisheries. One I found interesting (I’m doing related research) relates to by-catch problems of vulnerable, and, one might add, endangered species:

[An area] of inquiry relates to the question of how to avoid contentious trade-offs betweeen allowable catch and the conservation of vulnerable or collapsed species. Recovering these species while maintaing global catches may be possible through  improved gear technology and a much more widespread use of ocean zoning into areas that are managed for fisheries benefits and others managed for species and habitat conservation. Designing appropriate incentive for fishers to avoid the catch of threatened species, for example, through tradable catch and by-catch quotas has yielded good results in some regions [p. 584].

In conclusion, Worm et al. has a grand view for fisheries science:

We envision a seascape where the rebuilding, conservation, and sustainable use of marine resources becomes unifying themes for science, management, and society. We caution that the road to recovery is not always simple and not without short-term costs. Yet it remains our only option for insuring fisheries and marine ecosystems against further depletion and collapse [p. 584].

Maybe the most important message I take home from ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’ is the crucial role the economist must play in order to make conservation and rebuilding strategies work; incentives matter and are very important. The same message, by the way, is made by Gardner Brown & Jason Shogren  in relation to the Endangered Species Act (I’ve posted excerpts from their article here).

Hat-tip: Legal Planet


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