Fishery Collapses

March 31, 2010:

Fishery collapses continue around the world. Remediation is slow. Fishery collapse stories introduce many issues dealing with Compression in other contexts.

In 2006 Boris Worm (Dalhousie University – Nova Scotia) made headlines for a day. Extrapolating the rate of global fishery collapses, his curve went to zero in 2048. No fisheries would be left, but after peaking 20 years ago world wild catch tonnages only leveled off. Should we be alarmed? Global collapse projected by a two-variable model isn’t very convincing, so Worm and other researchers began sharing data on fishery management at The Fishery Management Assessment Project.

Fishery collapses follow a similar pattern. Using evidence available, marine biologists forecast doom. Affected fishermen, from big factory-boat players to one-boat villagers, question both data and logic. They see no sign of collapse. They have boats to maintain; crews to pay; families to support; villagers to feed. After the catch peaks, drastic collapse– 90% or more fall off — is impossible to time exactly, but it’s apt to be as sudden as the financial collapse of 2008. Bluefin tuna appears to be a typical pre-collapse scenario playing now. (You can Google it.)

Reviving a collapsed fishery takes improved fishing methods and new fishing “business models.” Instead of go-for-it during season, fishers are paid by allocated share of total catch. They can trade share-of-catch permits. If cheating or poaching is minimized, these permits motivate fishing enterprises to restore the fishery so that permits rise in value. A few fisheries are re-building on share-of-catch plans.

Commercial fishing is laden with process improvement opportunities. Moving fish from sea to consumer mouths leaves waste in its wake. Data are iffy, but by-catch is a big waste, roughly 40-60% of each target species catch. Besides wasting time and energy, huge by-catches disrupt fishery ecological balance, the habitat of the target species, and may affect more than one fishery. For example, one factor in the collapse of the Alaskan king salmon in rivers is by-catch of salmon at sea by boats fishing for pollock. In addition, destructive fishing, like scraping bottom, disrupts spawning beds.

A cause-and-effect fishbone for harvesting one species in one fishery would be intricate. Splinters point to environmental effects in all directions, while at every stage of the supply chain, only the people doing the work observe in detail how fish processing works. But opportunities lie in the details as well as in major shifts in “business models.” Some of this is already happening, but not fast enough.

After wild catch leveled off, aquaculture grew rapidly to satisfy increasing world demand, but it too has problems. Scientific problem solving and imaginative improvement can cultivate both fisheries and fish farms, but first stakeholders must resolve “political” disputes that prevent them working in a common direction.

Can someone else identify a Compression scenario like this, perhaps one with which you are more closely familiar than the author is with fisheries?

Doc Hall

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