A chain of fools: or, why it is so hard to stop overfishing
We fish too much, and by doing so, we threaten marine ecosystems and people’s livelihoods. But the curious thing is: we have known this for a long time. Nonetheless, we continue to overfish. How is that possible? Why can we not stop? This paper recounts our search for an answer. We start by giving an overview of how scientists explain overfishing, and suggest that the riddle of its obduracy has not been addressed systematically. We conceptualize overfishing as an unplanned and unintended outcome of a chain of interrelated social and ecological events. We then analyze the chain of events leading to overfishing for two typical cases – the groundfish fishery in the Gulf of Maine and the South African abalone (Haliotis midae, Haliotidae) fishery – and two atypical cases where overfishing has stopped or been substantially reduced – the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides, Nototheniidae and Dissostichus mawsoni, Nototheniidae) fishery in the Southern Ocean, and the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua, Gadidae) fishery in the Barents Sea. Studying and comparing these cases reveals no sufficient set of factors to explain the persistence of overfishing. Rather, distinct pathways emerge from a concatenation of proximate and remote factors, leading to and sustaining overfishing. Understanding these pathways and their mechanisms can assist in locating leverage points for intervention aimed to stop overfishing.