Rights, responsibility and the management of our fisheries

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By Andrew Frederick Johnson, Bangor University, andrewjohnson540 [at] hotmail.com

It is now well understood that our global fisheries are in trouble. With huge advances in marine technologies in the last 50 years we now fish deeper, longer, further and harder than ever before to feed the mouths of our growing global population. We also however know that current levels of exploitation are not sustainable and the number of fish in our oceans is declining. But what are our options in fisheries management? What could we do to halt current trends and perhaps even reverse them?

The decline, and in some cases collapse, of many marine fisheries have been blamed on ineffective, centralized management of the common resource. In layman’s terms, what governments have implemented so far to manage a shared resource (in general over vast areas) has not worked and the “race for fish” is still prevalent.

“Rights” is now a key word which is cropping up time and time again and one that could well hold some of the answers in helping us correct our previous mistakes. Who has the “right” to fish these fish? Who has the “right” to stop others fishing? And who has the “right” to make management decisions affecting our fishes and our fishers?

These questions have in some cases been answered historically in small fishing communities but such answers are not so easy in mixed species fisheries that are fished by numerous communities, regions or even nations, over huge spatial scales. Answering these questions succinctly and managing fisheries within real biological limits (below Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSY)) may put us back on track.

There are three main “rights-based” approaches:

  • Cooperatives – rights to manage a resource stock collaboratively through a group with well-defined membership
  • ITQs – individual transferable quotas – rights to harvest a certain fraction of the allowable catch
  • TURFs – territorial use rights fisheries – rights to exclusive harvest within a given geographic region.

Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses and will be best suited on a case-by-case basis determined by: the number of species fished, the number of fishers, where these fishers are based, the size of the fished area, the “safe” threshold and current “state” of the fish stocks at the time of implementation and the ability of the government to subsidize activities. The “hot” question towering over all these however is who has the rights to pass judgment on any of the above? The answer should be a collaborative team of fishers, scientists, managers and other marine stakeholders who are part of, or affected by the fishery. Unfortunately what we often see is a lack of communication, especially between the fishers and government and final decisions being made by people who have never fished in their lives.

Let’s not forget though that with rights comes responsibility.

In theory, some of these systems may work in improving current management systems. Is there perhaps certain lethargy in fisheries management to introduce them to fishing fraternities or to attempt to use these ideas (particularly over smaller spatial scales)? And if so, why? It is promising that we can now see the use of Marine Protected Areas gathering speed and the general consensus in science that each MPA implemented should be treated as a scientific experiment which can inform future strategies. It is, however, time to add more ideas to the mix and start testing other strategies globally.

It’s all very well looking forward at new ways to manage our fisheries, but what about looking backwards and implementing old (even ancient) concepts within our new frameworks? At present there are a few, isolated examples of well managed and sustainable fisheries. We have not yet succeeded in slowing down the race to fish and the subsequent decline in our stocks. If we endeavor to test more approaches that are not based on our currently unsuccessful strategies, perhaps we can start honing in on methods that will work to rectify the situation. It will take some gumption but it will certainly be worth the effort even if the outcome is the realization that a new approach is not wholly appropriate. The removal of dead wood and stale ideas is essential if we are to move forward.

I welcome ideas / opinions / critiques of this blog (hopefully from the public, scientists, fishers and managers) and will whole heartedly attempt to write objectively on this subject incorporating the different ideas introduced in subsequent posts. I look forward to hearing from you.

Andrew Johnson has a Ph.D. in marine fish ecology and MPA design from the University of Bangor, UK. He also works as a commercial diver and has a keen interest in photography and videography. Andrew is currently working on a project in Chile evaluating the TURF management system used there and will be presenting the interviews with fishers, managers and scientists in video diary documentaries over the next six months - available to preview at http://afjimage.wordpress.com/ from December 2012.

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