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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 10: Fisheries

The ocean is vast, full of deeply-intertwined ecosystems, dramatically under-studied, and a common area for enjoyment and exploitation. This makes monitoring and regulating it incredibly challenging—seen most recently that it took two decades to write an initial draft of an international high seas treaty. Even when we know our most vital resources are in danger, convincing each other to tackle the problem proceeds slowly.

In New England fisheries, centuries of fishing, and the development of hulking, industrial-scale fish-extraction systems have led to near-complete extinction of various species of groundfish. Scientists have played a critical role in understanding the dynamics of groundfish communities and in developing sustainable management strategies, but have worked with inadequate information and a disaffected community of fishermen with opposed incentives, and therefore struggled to maintain the fisheries.

One key approach used by scientists in the management of New England fisheries has been developing mathematical models that simulate the dynamics of fish populations. These models can take into account factors such as fishing pressure, environmental conditions, and the observed reproductive behavior of different species, and predict the likely impact of different management strategies on fish populations. These models are only as good as data inputted, so regular monitoring boat trips to fish hotspots help scientists collect direct data for population estimates. In 2002, these vessels were accused of “Trawlgate,” where fishermen accused the scientists of undercounting fish, which would lead to lower catch quotas. (The scientists countered that the overall population numbers were so bleak, the precision of the surveys did little to change the recommended policies.)

Fishermen, straddled with enormous upfront financial commitments like bank loans for boat rentals and fish processing facility setup, are incentivized to maximize short-term yields and minimize time spent fishing, regardless of the long-term consequences. Everyone understands how fishing conceptually works (though most lack understanding of concepts like bycatch), and the direct, immediate correlations between catch and livelihood. Science, meanwhile, is a slower process that can be a black box to those outside the field, and fishermen felt a disconnect between their lives on the water and the scientists working in far-away labs making mathematical models. Science informs policymaking, including an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the late 1990s, and catch quota recommendations, but the livelihoods of scientists are not harmed in these moments, whereas fishermen’s were. This tension came to the forefront with verbal (and at one point a near-violent) confrontations at the Multispecies Monitoring Committee, which formed local legislation for fishermen on catch quotas.

Science has been critical for sounding the alarm on overfishing to an ignorant public and policymakers before the populations reached zero, and helped ease fishing levels for longer-term sustainability in New England fisheries. Despite ongoing uncertainty of the populations and dynamics of groundfish, scientists have been able to use a combination of direct monitoring and modeling to make policy recommendations to help ensure longer-term health and productivity of fisheries. As scientific understandings and techniques improve, science can help ensure sustainability of natural resources with greater certainty and precision.