Is the Overfishing Crisis Oversold?
Has “the increasingly energetic and sophisticated fishing industry has left the world’s oceans a shambles?” asks the New York Times at the outset of its review of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know. As it turns out, that’s not a particularly great way of framing the question, because you can get pages and pages of learned and contradictory debate on how the “world’s” fisheries are doing.
The pragmatic question is, Can we avoid shambling oceans? And this book argues: Yes, we can.
Now, if you’re not up to even a slim book on overfishing, its author, Dr. Ray Hilborn, got to make some of its points in an April op-ed in the Times, “Let Us Eat Fish“–originally less imperatively titled “The Unheralded Revival of America’s Fish Stock.”
That unused title is important, because when Hilborn says in his article that “The overall record of American fisheries management since the mid-1990s is one of improvement, not of decline,” that’s not to give the world’s fisheries a coattail A+ in management.
But it is to suggest that the U.S. may have found a way to break out of the vicious circle that leads invariably to collapse. (Nor is it just the U.S.; in his book, Hilborn references other fisheries that have found “good enough” management methods, while acknowledging there are plenty of spectacular failures out there.)
You could say that Hilborn is “talking back” to the rhetoric of apocalypse used by environmental groups pushing for closing areas to fishing entirely. Their message is that everything we have tried has failed, so it’s time for desperate measures. To quote Oceana: “85 percent of the world’s fisheries are now either overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation. No matter which category is considered, there is no good news.”
But it’s equally important to stress that there is such a thing as sustainable fishing because an absence of better options hasn’t, historically, led to people adopting strict conservation so much as it has resulted in a general shrug as the last whatever is used up.
For Overfishing, Hilborn, who also writes papers with titles like “Bayesian hierarchical meta-analysis of density-dependent body growth in haddock,” has taken up a more general-interest tone (that may be the gift of his co-writer Ulrike Hilborn). It’s informational, structured for easy reference, with questions as subheads, beginning with the big one: What is overfishing?
Much depends upon context. Hilborn’s concern is not to maintain a “natural” state–whatever that is–but is with “harvesting” and “yields.” So yield overfishing is when you take more fish than you should if you want to get the best harvest. It doesn’t mean extinction, though it can, if pursued–but the weakened population simply doesn’t produce as many fish as it would otherwise.
Then there’s economic overfishing, when you overshoot the economic return, and may begin a race to the bottom, with each participant earning less the more fish they take. Hilborn singles out Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway for their stewardship of the economic commons, as well as for avoiding yield overfishing.
Often, these two modes of overfishing join forces to almost eradicate a fish population. And it’s not a new concept: Hilborn locates an 1877 reference to “overfishing” in Nature. But this would also be a good moment to point out that fish populations can fluctuate dramatically, and that is also natural. If you compare year-over-year fish populations, you may see a lot of volatility, but that doesn’t always have to do with the number of fish taken. What is important is to keep the percentage of fish taken in line with the actual number of fish out there, which is easier said than done.
One important factor in developing a fishing management strategy, Hilborn notes, is to realize that fish reproduce on different timelines (whales, being mammals, are particularly vulnerable to overhunting). You can more or less draw up formulas for taking sustainable percentages, based on reproduction rates and growth rates. The optimal time to take a fish is after it has reproduced and has reached its mature size. If you know that, and the number of fish, it’s just math.
Unfortunately, there’s an ocean in the way that makes it a challenge to count fish precisely. And that ocean contains different ecosystems in which fish react differently to different pressures. Hilborn discusses the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, but also contrasts that with American and European cod fisheries that stabilized at a lower abundance, and the Barents Sea and Icelandic cod stocks, that never collapsed.
A theme that emerges is successful fishery management will depend upon what’s known in software circles as localization. You can’t roll out a one-size-fits-all program due to differences in fish and fisherpeople habitats. What works in the U.S. because of legislation and infrastructure may not work elsewhere. (Conversely, the perverse economic incentives that exist in the U.S.–creating a “race for fish,” where each boat tries to hoover up the maximum–may not exist elsewhere.)
Chilean caletas, for instance, use a more “local-motion” ethos to manage fishery catches–each has been granted the responsibility to exclude others from fishing their patch. With a local group of stakeholders managing their waters, things have improved without central governmental enforcement. (Though, again, natural variability in fish abundance makes it difficult–fishing boats will almost always go in search of “missing” fish.)
Hilborn tackles recreational fishing (Is it next to godliness?), trawling (Is it pure evil?), and marine protected areas (How protective are they?). If this is your first real dive into the topic, you’ll become intimately acquainted with complex the issues are.
In concluding, Hilborn is careful to steer away from Pollyanna prediction; while he’s impressed with the rebound he’s seen in fisheries with good management, the world is still weighted toward overfishing. If not critically in all cases, certainly in terms of getting the best yield from the fish populations in whatever abundance there are: “at present about two-thirds of stocks are below the abundance level that would produce maximum sustainable yield.”
Followers of Eurozone troubles will not be surprised to hear that, with European fisheries, part of the problem is the many disparate stakeholders whose interests need to be harmonized.
As mentioned, the subject of overfishing is a subject that engenders lively debate, and Hilborn, while well-known and -respected, is not the last word, especially when it comes to how the world’s fisheries are actually being managed. But if you’ve been staring at your guide to fish that are okay to eat and wondering whether it’s not easier to give up fish entirely, this book has insights that you do need to know.