National Fisherman

No end of fish

Say what you want about Daniel Pauly; he knows how to get your attention.

Pauly is a professor at the Fisheries Center of the University of British Columbia and the principal investigator of university's Sea Around Us Project.

He is also a vocal critic of commercial fishing who made his bones articulating the practice of fishing down marine food webs, in his words, the "gradual transition in landings from long-lived, high trophic level, piscivorous bottom fish toward short-lived, low trophic level invertebrates and planktivorous pelagic fish."

We catch the big ones, his point was, and when we clean them up, we work our way down through the littler ones, presumably until nothing is left.

He also is credited with coining the term "shifting baselines," which speaks to his belief that too often notions of historic abundance are tied to our memories as fishermen and researchers, not to fish stocks in their untouched state.

I get it. I get it because I am wistful when I recall draggers loading up on cod and haddock four or five miles off the Maine coast in my youth. I feel as though we let something slip through our fingers and wonder why it can't be that way again.

Pauly's point is that it very well may have slipped through our grandfathers' fingers, or maybe our great-grandfathers', and that by fixating on more recent recollections of abundance, modern rebuilding plans tend to sell fish stocks short.

My problem with Pauly is not his insight, but his judgment. His belief is that the shortcomings of fishery management aren't inadvertent, but the inevitable result of a global conspiracy among nations and fishermen.

"Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme," he writes in the cover story for the Oct. 7 edition of The New Republic, "waged with Bernie Madoff-like callousness by the world's fisheries."

The article is titled "The End of Fish," and the blood-spattered cover depicts a fish with a nail driven through it.

I once covered a corporate bankruptcy for a mainstream newspaper. It was a routine case, so in an effort to jazz things up a writer for a national magazine threw the term "Ponzi scheme" into the lead of his story.

For this creative enterprise he was hit with a libel suit.

In other words, "Ponzi scheme" has a very specific meaning: It describes an effort to defraud investors by returning a portion of their money, not from profits, but from their own funds or the funds of succeeding generations of dupes.

While we may look back regretfully at certain past fishing practices, you would be hard pressed to draw a parallel between overfishing and the actions of Charles Ponzi, or for that matter Madoff, who we presume Pauly threw into the mix for good measure.

Such trivial considerations don't slow the great man down. "The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial complex," Pauly writes, "an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists, parliamentary representatives and fisheries economists. By hiding behind the romantic image of the small-scale, independent fishermen, they secured political influence and government subsidies far in excess of what would be expected, given their miniscule contributions to the GDP of advanced economies — in the United States, even less than that of the hair salon industry."

Even setting aside the productivity of the U.S. hair salon industry, it's hard to know where to begin our rebuttal. Clearly, by lumping all fishing nations together Pauly has undermined his argument.

Few scientists or economists would compare U.S. or Canadian fishing practices to those, say, of Spain, Taiwan, or a host of other nations.

In the United States, scientists determine the allowable catch without respect to economics. Quotas are set by means of a deliberative process, and they grow more conservative by the year.

Yet as accountable as we are in our own territorial waters, the United States is essentially powerless on the high seas.

We insist, for example, that our fishermen respect strict bluefin tuna quotas in the western Atlantic, even though the International Commission for the Conservation for Atlantic Tunas sets Europe's quota higher than it ought to be and stands aside when it's exceeded.

There is no dearth of fisheries malpractice on this planet, but responsible nations are confronting it. In the United States, and elsewhere, growing awareness of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing has prompted response not only from the government but from seafood buyers and distributors.

And whatever their fishery, U.S. fishermen are obliged to use whatever gear convention requires, accommodate strict rules on bycatch, report their landings and abide by quotas. If they do not, no one in fishery management looks the other way.

Pauly would respond that fishery management need not look the other way at landings because it extends its largess up front, at the behest of lobbyists, lawmakers and slipshod economists.

That may be the case in Japan, as Pauly suggests, but it is hardly so here. First of all, no company of the stature of a Mitsubishi is a fixture among U.S. harvesters. Second, wariness of big business — to say nothing of commercial fishing — is hard-wired into the American psyche. As a result, our corporate fleets are not only regulated, they are watched, by NGOs as well as government, by fellow fishermen as well as fellow citizens. Last, we have the example of the Alaska pollock fishery. Our pollock fleet is as corporate — and affluent — as you're likely to find in U.S. waters, yet pollock is among our most conservatively managed resources.

Pauly doesn't limit his criticism to fishing fleets and their regulators. He will not be wooed by aquaculture (whose adherents he calls Pollyannas), is skeptical about seafood labeling, and regards menu cards as confusing and ineffective.

What, then, are we supposed to do?

"The truth," he writes, "is that governments are the only entities that can prevent the end of fish."

I can't argue with that.

Unfortunately, his view of how governments prevent the end of fish is predicated not on how we harvest but how we allocate. Pauly says all of our problems will go away if we auction off fishing privileges. "The highest bidder would secure rights to a certain percentage of the quota," as he lays it out.

However, while such a process would hasten consolidation of the fleet — to say the least — it does not assure us of ecosystem-based fisheries management, which, as Ray Hilborn and Boris Worm demonstrated last summer in Science, is the key to the health of global fisheries. Nor does it assure the health of traditional fishing communities. In fact, dramatic consolidation would assure quite the opposite.

In addition, auctioning fishing privileges does not comport with the realities of global commerce, which is that for some fishing nations, tomorrow is an abstraction. How much would you be prepared to pay for access to a set tonnage of bluefin tuna when you know that the fleet in the eastern Atlantic is going to land every bluefin it comes to. Bycatch? What bycatch?

Finally, auctioning fishing privileges does not comport with political reality. Catch shares — IFQs, ITQs, access privileges, whatever you want to call them — are proving a tough sell in the United States, where we're essentially handing them out.

I can't imagine telling career fishermen, to say nothing of second- or third-generation fishermen, that if they plan on fishing next year they better bring a big checkbook to an auction. Politics aside, only the largest vertically integrated operators capable of delivering seafood directly to supermarket shelves could offer a winning bid on fish without regard to the likely ex-vessel price.

No doubt someone could come up with an elaborate buyout scheme for fishermen exiting the industry, but why bother? What do you gain by wiping out entire fleets and the communities they support? You can't sell us on the idea of consolidating our way to economic stability for fishermen if there aren't any fishermen left.

And does Pauly really believe we can address the challenges confronting West Coast salmon, or New England's dynamic groundfish complex, by means of an auction of fishing privileges?

Pauly is a very smart guy (smarter than me, to save him the trouble of pointing it out), but his primary concern is fish, and in his heart I believe he disdains fishermen for the mess they have gotten themselves — and fish — into over the years.

But at least in places under the rule of law like the United States and Canada, rebuilding stocks is the easy part of fishery management. Assuring survival of the non-swimming components of a fishery — fishermen and the infrastructure that is the economic lifeblood of coastal communities — is the hard part.

But from a socioeconomic standpoint, it's the part that makes the sacrifices in the meantime possible, to say nothing of worthwhile. We can get there, and the fish will get there with us. Indeed, in many fisheries, we are there or on our way there, so it's far too soon to give up.

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