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June 08, 2013

World Oceans Day

Posted by: Dave Ryman

For World Oceans Day, here's a Q & A with Saving Global Fisheries authors Samuel Barkin and Elizabeth DeSombre.

Your book, Saving Global Fisheries, concerns the present depletion of the world’s fish population.  What types of consequences does such a decline in fish have for humans and the world’s oceans?

There are two key consequences of such a decline.  The first is that depletion leaves fewer fish to catch.  From a broad societal perspective, fewer fish means less food.  Fish contribute six percent of humanity’s protein, and fifteen percent of its animal protein.  But many societies depend on the sea for a much greater proportion of their food.  A significant drop in the ocean’s fecundity would have a nasty effect on the food supply of those societies, many of which cannot afford to replace it.

The second consequence is that it threatens ocean biodiversity.  Industrial fishing over the past half century has already had a major impact on ocean ecosystems.  As we fish out species, their ecological niches get filled by less biodiverse systems.  So if we care about biodiversity, either for its own sake, or for the potential advantages it has for people, adding to the already steep decline in biodiversity should be concerning.  This loss of biodiversity also makes marine ecosystems more sensitive to the wide variety of human-generated threats that they face, from habitat loss, to marine pollution, to climate change. 

What has caused such a vast depletion of fish throughout the globe?  Is it an economic issue?

A European Union Fisheries Commissioner put it best when he pointed out that there are “too many boats chasing too few fish.”  In a way it’s an economic issue, because fish are an economic resource.  They are a particular kind of economic resource, called a common pool resource (CPR).  The difference between CPRs and most economic goods is that CPRs are not owned until they are captured.  Individual fishers therefore have an incentive to capture fish as quickly as possible, even if they realize that if every fisher does so the stock will be overfished.  In other words, the simple laws of supply and demand don’t work with CPRs.  Without regulation to limit the amount, and the ways, individuals fish in industrial-scale fisheries, it is likely that they will overfish.

The problem is even worse with international fisheries, which are those involving fish that live in the high seas or cross national marine boundaries.  With domestic fisheries, responsible governments can protect fisheries effectively, although in practice few governments are doing a good job of it (some, including the United States, have been improving recently).  International regulation can only happen through voluntary cooperation by governments.  Even worse, those governments that refuse to participate (or those individuals who disobey the rules) can undermine the effectiveness of cooperation by those willing to take it on.

This characteristic of CPRs is exacerbated in the case of fisheries by widespread government subsidies.  By some estimates more than a quarter of the total value of the global fishing industry consists of subsidies.  Subsidies mean more fishers, and more vessels, in the industry than either the market for fish or the marine ecosystem can support.  Governments are at the same time paying people to get into or stay in the fishing industry when the market won’t support them there, and telling them to fish less because the oceans can’t support all of the fishing capacity that has been created.

What types of solutions do you propose to help combat the problem?

Our book focuses on the international aspect of the problem.  Currently, when governments do manage to cooperate to manage international fisheries, they do so through what are called Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs).  As their name suggests, RFMOs are regional, not global, in scope.  There are a variety of problems with RFMO management, foremost among them the fact that quotas are often set higher than scientific advice suggests, because the governments who vote on them do not want to restrict the catches of their fishers too much.

But the regional nature of RFMOs causes additional problems. Industrial fishing is a global industry. Even when an RFMO works as designed it is effective only in helping particular fish stocks. Often the fishers who are displaced from those stocks simply start fishing elsewhere, causing pressure on other stocks.  RFMOs, in other words, can help with specific problems of depletion of particular stocks but, in the absence of a global reduction in fishing effort, not with the general problem of global depletion of fish stocks. 

We propose the creation of a Global Fisheries Organization.  This organization would be global in scope, and would be tasked with dealing with the problem of too much fishing capacity, not just regulating specific catches.  This new organization could make management of international fisheries more efficient, by coordinating among RFMOs, improving the sharing of information and best practices, and making it harder for fishers to arbitrage RFMO rules.  But while these efforts would improve a flawed system, they would not fix it, because the problem of too much fishing capacity would remain.  We therefore propose two additional things that the new organization could do to directly address the capacity problem.

The first is overseeing negotiations to collectively reduce subsidies to fishers.  These subsidies, as noted above, make no economic sense, and actively undermine attempts to manage fisheries sustainably.  The subject of fishing subsidies has been touched upon by a number of international organizations, including the World Trade Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity, but has not been a key priority for any of them.  A global fisheries organization that made it a central priority would have greater odds of success.

The second is the creation of an international system of individually transferable quotas (ITQs).  These ITQs give individual fishers a long-term right to a share of a total allowed catch of a particular species, which can then be bought and sold.  ITQs give fishers stronger incentives to care about the long-term health of a fishery, and help to overcome the CPR problem in fisheries.  ITQ systems have had impressive success at improving fisheries governance at the domestic level, but it would take some major institutional innovations to implement them internationally.  A global fisheries organization is necessary to generate those innovations.

Is there anything that normal individuals can do to help, or is this something that can only really be fixed by international regulators?

Global fisheries decline is something that can only really be fixed by international regulators.  Individuals can help particular species through purchasing decisions, but only to a limited extent, and in the absence of structural changes reduced fishing pressure on one species will lead to increased fishing pressure on another one.  The biggest single obstacle facing effective global fisheries governance at this point is the absence of sufficient political will.  So the best thing you as an individual can do is to let legislators know that you care about this issue.  The more people who make clear that they care about slowing the depletion of the world’s oceans, the more likely governments are to step up their level of cooperation on the issue.

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