Fishing for Truth

This topic submitted by Zeva Levine ( levinez@stu.beloit.edu) at 5:33 AM on 6/10/05.

Getting ready for the flight to Bocas, Panama!

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University


*Note: Paper was written (and emailed to Hays) with footnotes, so quotes and paraphrasing is cited, it just doesn't appear to be here.*

If one were to type in “fishery problems” to any popular internet search engine (Google, pub med, JSTOR, etc.) one would expect to find the most popular results dealing with the known problems caused by fisheries (such as bycatch, depleted fishing stocks, and/or damaged habitats and ecosystems ). Oddly enough, the most popular results one will actually find all deal with problems that confront fisheries. The other peculiar addition to this fact is that none of these results contains coherent, viable solutions to these issues, despite the fact that fishery regulation has been a governmental issue since the 17th century . Thus, in order to analyze what information is given, one must understand how this problem as developed and how the more current issues are being defined and addressed. It is only after assessing these factors that one can see how fisheries are a tragically exemplify that a project poorly organized from the get-go can continue that same lack of order throughout centuries.

A “fishery” is defined as “the industry or occupation devoted to the catching, processing, or selling of fish, shellfish, or other aquatic animals .” Its economic and political history starts from the 17th to 19th century, when politics and law reserved the ocean as an open space. This best served the “open-access” interest of the military, and there was little or no concern about environmental problems because sailing ship construction and fishing methods were evolving relatively slowly. By the 1930s, however, despite the early recognition of the need to conserve fish stocks, improvements in the technology of fishing created the first long-distance fishing fleets. Since the end of WWII, there has been a dramatic shift away from resource abundance to resource scarcity because of both the pressure of an increased population with correspondingly increasing national economic development, and the rapidly increasing ability to exploit the ocean with more efficiency (furthering the original mindset of fisheries).

It is currently recognized that fisheries have the highest economic value and longest history of exploitation. Along with the advancements of the fishing industry were quick changes to the way fisheries were evaluated and managed. A 1968 article discussing the role of biologists in the fishing industry declared, “A generation ago the biologist was dominant in fishery science [but today we live] in a country where commercial fishermen fish for profit rather than for protein .” This reflects the dramatic shift from focus on simply assessing the environmental ramifications of fisheries to more general assessments of the economics of fisheries, which in turn leads into Anthony T. Charles’ realm “fishery socioeconomics .” The shift was understandable, however, since even in the 1968 article it was known “that unregulated fishing can have profound effects upon ecological communities .”

The focus then turns to policy-making as a means of correcting previous and current mistakes. After all, even the 1968 article stated “the United States, in common with many other countries, lacks effective institutional arrangements for scientific fishery management .” The previous sentence is an understatement at best. The entire history of economic regulation of the oceans has been characterized by incorrect management goals, improper regulations, inadequate information, and neglect of the research that must support the proper regulation . This sadly resulted (and currently results) in many utopian-type policies and goals that have no prayer of being implemented. Even though the original theory of fishing stated (as described by the 1968 article) that “each species or stock of fish has an innate capacity to grow in numbers, and that, provided certain precautions are taken, each fishery resource can sustain certain rates of fishing forever ” and that proved not to be entirely incorrect, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 contained sections equally as idealistic: “(1)Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery. (2) Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available .” Along the same lines, a 1984 study stated

The most effective method of control exists where it is possible geographically and physically to delineate a territory in a way in which all fishing which takes place within it can be monitored and controlled, and which can, if possible, be supervised by the fishing community itself or by its elected leaders .

All these policies have sound goals, but their practical application has failed time and time again, prompting economists to rant “why have many traditional fishery regulatory techniques survived the onslaught of theory and data that demonstrate their suboptimality ?” or even more bitterly “man is essentially optimistic about his ability to achieve miracles .”

This is not to discredit any of the research that has been done on or for fisheries, whether from a biological or economic standpoint. Fishery science has been described as “ecology in the broadest sense .” It was fishery biologists who discovered or described major ocean currents such as the sub-surface Cromwell Current in the tropical Pacific Ocean. They also “mapped seasonal and annual variations in ocean temperature, salinity, and sea levels, noting the ways in which these properties are affected by changes in atmospheric circulation, and observed the effects of these changes upon the distribution and migrations of life in the sea .” While the economists (and sociologists doing case studies) have reported relevant information as well, including the fact that most fishermen in the U.S. are independent operators with limited capital required by law to build their vessels in U.S. shipyards where costs are the highest in the world , they run into more problems assessing how to attack the broad problems fisheries face.

This is understandable as well, considering that the problems are extensive and self-perpetuating. Not only do the fisheries ignore what little information is available, what information they are lacking is often deemed too costly to acquire, and thus many fisheries feel better consigned to “benign neglect” in regulating multi-species fishing. The problem stemming from that, other than the obvious ignorance, is that property and jurisdiction debates over ocean space make it increasingly difficult for the laws to be enforced consistently, if at all. Though all participants in the Sea Law debates have denied the possibility of restrictions on trade and commerce, there has been an extension on the jurisdiction of coastal states’ rights over ocean space. There is also debate on how ocean properties are defined, auctioned/bought, and taxed and the common property characteristic of fisheries results in an inefficient allocation of resources if exploitation is taken with a competitive market organization. Finally, both economists and biologists are faced with the fact that few models today reflect a true, useful picture of the oceanic biomass, do not allow for fluctuations in the ever-changing biomass, and most have not been tested with actual data or even reliable estimates. Thus there is a massive shortage of empirical research even including supply and cost functions for individual fisheries .

Yet, the economist soldiers on, compiling what data from different academic fields there is; analyzing, comparing, contrasting, and quantifying it. All of that works towards figuring out a way to even approach possible solutions to the many problems facing fisheries. The upshot is their ideas appear to be heading in the right direction, if for no other reason than they seem innovative. One suggestion includes recognizing that solutions to these problems must come from a tri-fold biology, economics, and sociology standpoint; highlighting the fact that biologists will point out the conflicting objectives of fish stock conservation and harvest maximization, economists will study the economic efficiency of the fishery, and sociologists are concerned with employment and the role of the fishery in the community . Another idea is to separate out industrial and inshore fisheries and to approach each from the appropriate objective analysis, either single or multiple . Still another idea advocates moving away from limited entry regulations to cooperatives that are “seen as vehicles for encouraging self-regulation and/or cooperative management in which fishermen and government regulators jointly develop fishery management goals .” Finally, an interesting study quotes evidence that “women are often more knowledgeable than men on fisheries and ecological matters in [their] region, noting that ‘consultation of women as fishing experts would be a complete reversal in policy for most modern fisheries development officers .’”

Despite these new concepts, the fact remains that until more information is gathered, there is little that can be accomplished by anyone through policy. If one returns back to those popular internet search engines mentioned at the beginning of the paper, one will find that there are several organizations dedicated to addressing this problem, each in their own way, yet few of them possess any real legal power, and those that do appear to have incredible difficulties enforcing their policies. Indeed, it is apparent that the entire organization, structure, and political effectiveness of the fishing industry need to be examined and changed accordingly, because though the problems will not just die on their own, the fish and their habitat’s other occupants will.


Works Cited

Charles, Anthony. “Fishery Socioeconomics: A Survey.” Land Economics, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Aug., 1988), 276-295.

Dictionary.com © 2005

Fluharty, David. “Habitat Protection, Ecological Issues, and Implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Act.” Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), 325-337.

Karpoff, Jonathon M. “Suboptimal Controls in Resource Management: The Case of the Fishery.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Feb., 1987). 179-194.

McHugh, J. L. “The Biologist’s Place in the Fishing Industry.” BioScience, Vol. 18, No. 10 (Oct., 1968), 935-939.

Wilkinson, Maurice. “The Economics of the Oceans: Environment, Issues, and Economic Analysis.” The American Economic Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (May, 1979), 251-255.


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