Matter of Scale: A Plan for Sustainable Fisheries

So often the ocean problems we address are matters of scale. As the world population has grown, as the demand for food has increased, and as science and technology has evolved new and more efficient ways to harvest, our natural ocean systems have been exploited at every increasing scale through industrial agriculture, resource extraction, and fishing. No place is protected -- the coastal zone, the coral reef, the deep ocean -- from the relentless independent and unregulated consumption of such resources to a point in time and in many spaces where we can know that soon there will be no more.

The statistics for fishing have been often cited here -- the pursuit of individual species almost to extinction, the concomitant collapse of vast stocks, the mechanized efficiency of boats and gear that can sweep an ocean floor and water column of all marine life, discarding the least valuable, and moving on leaving an area devoid of anything but some improbable hope for regeneration. The taking is so simple, direct, and complete, and the aftermath seems so devastating to understand and redress. If only the solutions were as simple, as direct, as complete.

Dr. Daniel Pauly heads the Sea Around Us Project, based at the Fisheries Centre, at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Pauly has been a leader in conceptualizing and co-developing software that's used by ocean experts throughout the world. At the Sea Around Us and in his other work, he's developing new ways to view complex ocean data, work that includes the Ecopath ecological/ecosystem modeling software suite; the massive FishBase, the online encyclopedia of fishes; and, increasingly, the quantitative results of the Sea Around Us Project. Dr. Pauly has not been the only serious scientific voice sounding the alarm about the future of fishing as a global source of protein, but he has been one of the most effective. I heard him present recently and suggest what might be a very simple management plan that would solve the problem through a economically compelling adjustment of scale.

The statistical distinction drawn was between large and small scale fishing as follows: 1) governments subsidize large scale fishing at $25-30 billion, while small scale subsidies at 5-7 billion; 2) large scale represents about 500,000 jobs, small scale 12 million; 3) large scale fuel used per tone of fish for human consumption is 20 tons, small scale 5 tons; 4) large scale annual catch for industrial reduction to fish meal and oil is 25 million tons, small scale almost none; 5) annual large scale catch discarded at sea 25 million tons, small scale 500,000 pounds; and 6) annual large scale landing for human consumption 40 million tons, small scale 30 million tons.

What these statistics show is that small scale fishing harvests an amount equal to three quarters of the large scale catch, employs more than ten times the fishers, consumes about 25% the fuel, and throws back less than 3% as discarded waste. Only in the use of a majority of its catch for industrial use does the large scale fishery make any sense, but it makes no sense at all if that use depletes the existing supply and destroys the regenerative power of the species taken ultimately to no future supply available at all.

Studies have indicated the remarkable power of marine species to renew if they are left alone for relatively short periods of time. Other factors pertain here of course, the impact of chemical pollution or ocean acidification on the overall health of the marine food chain, but the suggestion remains that if we were to declare a moratorium on industrial scale fishing for a term of five years say, we would maintain most of today's fishing related employment, produce most of the catch that today reaches market for human consumption, reduce fuel costs dramatically, reduce subsidies even more dramatically, and otherwise invest in the future of the industry through its return to health, diversity, and sustainable future supply.

Who loses? The fish meal interests lose, but can adapt through aquaculture, a faster growing, more practical source of supply. The fertilizer interests lose, but they can pursue alternative organic supply. The industrial fishing corporations lose, but only for the short term, with the prospect of more consistent return once the stocks recover and stabilize in the future.

But who wins? We all do. By limiting scale, we increase the efficiency and value of the global fishing enterprise, a reverse investment that generates greater return through savings, pricing, removal of public subsidy, continuity of work for a large majority of fishers, guaranteed supply over time, and the health of the communities where both fishers and consumers live.