Fisheries management: Science vs. personal interests (Ep. 67)

We’re taking a break from our Tree of Life climb to talk about fishery management. Managing the ocean isn't easy, so how do we decide who can fish where, with what methods, and especially how much?

There are a few big issues when it comes to managing our ocean: First of all, the ocean is a damn big place. More than 70% of this wonderful planet is covered in water, much of it far from human-inhabited land. Another challenge is that the ocean doesn’t get divided into countries the same way land mass does. Much of the ocean doesn’t belong to anyone. And finally, marine life moves, sometimes following migration patterns, sometimes more or less randomly. It’s like when the US dams the Colorado River and too little water reaches Mexico. Mexico can’t do shit about it because they are further down the river.

Today, we'll get into fisheries management and environmental policy, but there is a lot more connected to this topic. Don't worry, we'll talk about the way fishers get around their quotas, fishing methods, and things like wind parks in the ocean in other episodes.

There have been attempts to set comprehensive goals together, like the UN Conference on the Human Environment—crap, even the title pisses me off. Why is it the Human environment? Are we gods or the center of the universe or something? Anyway, that conference was held in 1972 in Stockholm, so quite a while ago. All kinds of principles about environment, social welfare, and economic development were set. In 1992 during a similar conference in Rio, they actually defined what sustainable development is supposed to mean, and first introduced the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle is one of those things that’s actually really good in theory: if we aren’t sure if something will be detrimental for the environment, we should err on the side of caution. I’m a big fan of that principle when it comes to nature. I wish that principle was applied more.

In 2002, this time in Johannesburg, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, created actual binding deadlines for achieving the goals. So instead of just vaguely saying “we should do that,” they actually sat down and figured out what needed to be done by when. A significant reduction of biodiversity impairment, an ecosystem approach to fisheries, both by 2010, establishing marine protected areas by 2012, and achieving MSY where possible by 2015. We’ll talk more about what that means in a bit. Not the worst goals, though words like “where possible” and “significant” always make me a little skeptical. They even reaffirmed this shit during a 2012 conference in Rio.

However, very unfortunately, setting goals doesn’t get you anywhere. You probably know this from your own to-do list that somehow never gets done, or that stack of dishes next to the sink you said you’d take care of yesterday. Yeah, right?

And implementation of these lovely principles has varied a lot. The EU created the Common Fisheries Policy, which somehow always just gets revised when the goals don’t get met. I’ve mentioned that shitshow before, but we’ll talk about it again today. The US, for example, has very different approaches, because of the different decision-making structures. This might be pretty obvious when you consider that the EU is many countries working together, while the US is one country. Sure, the US has numerous states, but the US government still governs the entire US, while the EU has a lot less power over the member countries.

I really want to talk about how all the different places in the world deal with this—especially places like New Zealand or California—but for the sake of keeping this comprehensible, we’ll mostly talk about how fisheries management works everywhere, and look at some specifics for the EU. Considering the EU is a major player when it comes to overfishing, and the CFP is just such a lovely shitshow, it just makes sense. I promise, we’ll talk about the Marine Protected Areas of California and New Zealand again later—after all, I’m going to write an entire bachelor’s thesis on MPA using one of those as a case study. I’m excited!

But, let’s return to fisheries management. It’s not as boring as it sounds, and there is plenty to make fun of—though that’s probably not a good thing. But don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom, either. Some things are actually working, and the fact that there even is a Common Fisheries Policy or any kind of international agreement on how to not fuck up the oceans is progress.

I’m not allowed to crack my knuckles—I’ll explain that one soon—so just imagine one of those movie scenes where the person cracks their knuckles, stretches their neck, and rolls their shoulders, before they dive into a topic. Ready? Okay.

You know how much I like to get the boring shit out of the way first, so let’s very, very, very briefly cover how the EU works. I’m sure most of you have little clue about that. I lived in the EU for the majority of my life, and I still don’t get how this mess even works. I got an inkling of how ineffective the EU is when the farmers were protesting all over Europe about some carbon dioxide restriction law—and they got their way! But yeah, anyway. The EU:

In the EU, the EU is the main level where environmental protection stuff and fisheries stuff gets decided. So, like in the US, where some things are federal and some are state-based, the EU decides some things and leaves others to the countries. But, unlike the US, the EU doesn’t really govern the countries, so it’s a bit messy.

The EU has three main components: the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council.

The European Parliament is elected directly by the citizens of the member countries. That happens every 5 years. Each county has some elected members in the Parliament, representing their country’s citizens. So, in theory, the Parliament is the voice of the EU citizens. It’s their responsibility to modify and decide on laws that were suggested by the European Commission. They also approve the EU budget. A bunch of approving stuff.

After the former president died in January, a woman became president of the European Parliament: Roberta Metsola from Malta. While the last few rounds of elections might make it seem that way—what a lovely bunch of old white men—she’s actually the third woman in that position. A French lady, Nicole Fontaine, was president from 1999 to 2002, and another French lady, Simone Veil, from 1979 to 1982.

Not what I wanted to tell you. I just thought it’s cool that she’s not the first woman, and how long ago the first woman was voted in as president of the European Parliament.

Okay, so the European Parliament is the voice of the citizens, decides on policy that the commission suggests, and is in charge of approving the budget. They are also in charge of international treaties and extensions of the EU.

Next up, the Council. This thing is a bit like the People Front of Judea in Life of Brian with the People's Front of Judea, the Judean People's Front and the Judean Popular People's Front. And then they can’t get their own names straight. I hate that movie because my dad loved it a bit too much, but it has its moments. Anyway, there’s the Council of Europe, the European Council, and the Council of the European Union. And yes, all of those still exist. It’s fucking infuriation. But, the one we are talking about is the Council of the European Union. The presidency of this Council thing changes every six months. Currently, France is in charge there. It changes again in June, though, so not for much longer.

The Council of the EU is made up of ministers of all EU member countries, as well as the president of the EU commission. Thus, it represents the government of the EU countries.

So, what does this Council of the European Union do? Well, their main role is to pass laws together with the commission.

Just to have them mentioned: the European Council is where the leaders of the countries sit together four times a year to talk about what the EU should look like. It’s kind of like an idealism thing. They say what the direction should be. And the Council of Europe has nothing to do with the European Union at all. It’s about Europe, the continent, and another place for old white men to drink tea or coffee or whatever together.

And finally, there’s the EU Commission. It is supposed to represent the EU’s common interests. They propose new laws and manage EU policy and the budget. They are the ones that try to make sure EU law is followed. They also represent the EU in international organizations. They are elected every five years by the Parliament, so indirectly by the citizens. The current president of this mess is another woman, a German, Ursula von der Leyen. I’m not really a fan of her, so let’s move on, before I go down that rabbit hole.

So, in short, the European Commission makes proposals to the European Parliament, the voice of the EU citizens, and the Council of the European Union, the voice of the member states.

Those three branches of the EU are involved in everything, essentially, but when it comes to the ocean, there’s two more important players: the DG MARE and the Commission for the Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries. Am I the only one who thinks it’s telling that the fisheries, the environment, and the ocean are all separate here? I’ve been to a so-called fireside chat with the commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, during a seminar last year. Well, a digital one with a fake fire on Zoom. I really didn’t like this dude. He kept saying nothing in a lot of words. The perfect politician.

The DG MARE is a Directorate-General, so essentially a specialist department, for maritime affairs and fisheries. The Virginijus person is the commissioner, and then there’s also the director-general, Charlina Vitcheva. I’ve given up on figuring out how they all connect and who reports to whom. Honestly, it’s fucking confusing.

Anyway, the job of the DG/commission is to ensure sustainable resource use in the oceans around Europe. This Virginijus person seemed way too keen on “balancing” the interests of the environment with those of commercial fishers, though. Moving on, moving on.

No matter where in the world we are, the actual marine strategies usually follow the same general pattern:

There’s some policy as the basis, goals for the management are set, indicators for those goals chosen along with reference target and maximum values. Those values are monitored, and actual measures taken, so the actual actions to implement the policy.

Let’s take that apart to see how we get from the current state of a fishery to the total allowable catch in the EU under that lovely CFP:

Image copyright: maribus (after Quaas)

First, things are assessed. Organizations like ICES do surveys to explore the current state of affairs. Surveys and science as an excuse to do harm are topics we’ll get into another day, so I will again not follow that rabbit hole. Okay, surveys are done. They review stock trends and make a recommendation for the Total Allowable Catch, the TAC.

This recommendation is sent to the European Commission, especially to that DG MARE with the Virginijus commissioner. They use the scientific advice to create the TAC proposal for the Council of the EU. The Council then fixes the TAC and allocates portions of it to the member states.

The member states then implement the policy, allocate quotas on a national level to the individual fishermen. So they take the TAC they were assigned and further divide that up between those that want to catch fish.

The fisheries then fish, duh, and report their catch to the control agencies. The control agencies are responsible for monitoring the catch and making sure that everyone is compliant. They also carry out inspections to make sure there isn’t too much faking of quota data or illegal dumping of discards and such.

They then report back to the scientific advisors, and the circle begins all over again. Though, as I said, the science people usually rely on their own surveys and not on the supposed numbers from the control boards.

But, as the World Ocean Review put it so nicely: this doesn’t work. They see one primary reason for this: The European Commission recommends a TAC to the Council, which then disregards the advice to protect their jobs in the short term. The annual catch is, on average, 48% above the scientific recommendation. Another factor they cite is that the minimum sizes are often set too low, so about half of the landed fish never get to spawn before they are caught.

But, while I love taking apart the CFP, there were some good things about it. Sure, not everything was implemented, and commercial interests trumped a lot of the good intentions. Nonetheless, there were some parts of the CFP that were actually good.

First of all, the CFP set the MSY as a target for quotas. When I talked about sustainable fishing, I explained surplus production to you. The idea is essentially the same: Take a fish population. The growth of the population is not linear. It follows the bell curve, so first there’s a rapid growth, then things slow down, until they rapidly decline in growth. Keep in mind, that it’s the growth that declines and not the population. So, things grow less quickly. The idea of MSY is to only fish the fish that don’t contribute to population growth. Even if you don’t fish, populations don’t grow indefinitely. At some point, the ecosystem is just “full” and things like competition and pests take care to keep the population at its size. In theory, eating only the fish above that line would not reduce the fish stock.

MSY, so the maximum sustainable yield, is all about keeping the amount of fish constant. To me, it’s the wrong side of this, as it cares too much about output, so what humans get out of the equation, but at least it takes sustainability into account. There are big issues with MSY that lead to overestimation. I’ve touched on some of those in the ethical fishing episode, so I won’t go into it in detail again. It’s essentially all about nature being unpredictable, measuring nature being hard, and stuff like that. The main issue, though, is looking at stock in isolation. Fish interact with each other, other fishes, and the rest of their ecosystem. But hey, sustainability was considered, and that’s something.

Another big factor was regionalization. So instead of using the same assumptions everywhere, the CFP does take into account that things are different in the Baltic compared to the Mediterranean.

But the biggest factor was probably the discard ban. So, even when fishers catch the wrong fish, fish that is too small, or exceed their quota by accident, they can’t just dump the rest into the ocean, except for in “certain exceptional, strictly defined cases.”

While this doesn’t help the fish, it at least makes sure that we can properly track by-catch and catch. Again, we’ll get into the issues with this particular nightmare another time.

And finally, they added technical measures into the CFP. There are ways to reduce by-catch, to limit the size of the fishes caught (in both directions), and to reduce habitat destruction. Bottom-trawling is still frequently done, and almost all kinds of fishing have huge issues with plastic pollution, and habitat destruction, endangering wildlife, and catching what you didn’t intend to catch, but technological advances have slightly reduced some of these issues. The solution isn’t perfect—far from it—but talking about the way we fish is part of the CFP.

Okay, so, as I said, a big issue with MSY is that it looks at fish in isolation. The solution to this is something called Ecosystem-based Management. In theory, EBM considers the entire ecosystem and ensures the ecosystem stays healthy, productive, and resilient.

Essentially, there are four levels:

Single-Species (SS) approaches look at one single species in isolation. That’s not working, as we’ve established.

Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) is one step up. It adds the climate, the habitat, and the predators into the equation, but still only looks at one fish species, and not the entire ecosystem. It’s a flawed version of ecosystem management, still pretty isolated.

The next level up is an Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management. This takes all the fishes in an ecosystem into account, plus everything from the level before, so climate, habitat, and predators.

But the top-level of this hierarchy is the Ecosystem-Based Management, where fish aren’t seen as the only relevant species anymore and everything from fisheries to ecotourism, from oil and gas to sanctuaries, and so on is taken into account. While I, personally, would kick out some of the interests in these approaches, they are the most comprehensive approach. They still prioritize humans over nature, but at least they look at the big picture.‌‌

In very general, the idea of ecosystem-based management is to look at the ecosystem, to identify what players are important in the ecosystem, and how everyone connects. In the EU, this idea was implemented as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the MFSD.

The MFSD includes five basic steps: assessing the current status, determining what a good status would be, setting targets alongside indicators for measuring them, establishing a monitoring program to keep track of what’s happening, and to set up the actual actionable measures.

The MSFD was first created in 2008. In 2017, they revised things to add the wording “good environmental status” and what it means.

‌‌But what is good environmental status? Much like with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), there are quite a few factors here, eleven to be precise. Here are the descriptors they use to measure the status of an ecosystem:
The first factor is biological diversity, which is a great indicator for the status of an ecosystem. Next is the management of invasive species. Commercial fish populations, so fish eaten by humanity, are a separate factor because somehow producing human food is an indicator for how well an ecosystem is doing. Shouldn't that just be part of the whole ecosystem's biodiversity, or the next descriptor of good status: maintaining the integrity of marine food webs? But, yeah, apparently, feeding humans is on the scorecard. Other factors are eutrophication and contamination, maintaining the integrity of the sea floor, and not fucking up regional water conditions—all good ideas. Also good ideas are limiting marine litter and the energy input into the ocean, so things like underwater noise.

But, because humans are so important, contaminants in seafood consumed by humans, is a separate point again. So, who cares if there is mercury building up in top predators—unless we eat them, of course. I agree with a lot of these factors, but I just don't know why we keep taking ourselves as gods or the center of the universe or whatever.

I mean, the whole thing of caring for the ocean—at least for a majority of the population—is just self-preservation. The actual wonders of nature and how incredible sea creatures are, are secondary, unfortunately. But, even with the wrong driver behind the care, I prefer people giving a shit, even if they do it for the wrong reasons.

Okay, back to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive—what a mouthful!

Part of this whole thing was to review every six years. The first cycle was 2012 through 2017. To quote the European Commission, “the results showed that more efforts were urgently needed if the EU is to reach its 2020 goal.” On a different page of the European Commission, they summarize some of the 2020 report on the state of things. They say it paints “a mixed picture” where some areas show progress and others “steep deterioration.” They say that fishing effort, so how much fishing was done, had decreased, but a lot of the coastal seabed is physically disturbed, that there is still intense eutrophication, so nutrient addition through humans upsetting the ecosystem, and contamination, plastic pollution, and such. Yeah, we definitely urgently need to put in more effort.

My main question remains: how will we stop personal profit from trumping science?

As always, I think the main thing for us normal humans is to vote with our actions, and on the actual voting days, to speak up for what we think is right, and to educate others. In my case, this means giving up seafood, as I just can’t rely on sustainability labels, as much as I like the taste of tuna. It also means spending a good portion of my time researching, summarizing, and normal-speeching information like this, so I can tell you about these things.

If you liked this episode and want to help me make more of these research-intensive episodes, consider supporting me. A special thank you to my loyal patrons, Paul and Robert, who donate to me every month, and to the lovely people who have sent one-time donations. You rock! As always, like, subscribe, rate, and all that fun stuff. Thank you all for your support. I literally would not be able to do this without you!

Until next time!

Weirdly yours‌‌
Kate Hildenbrand

Sources:

I study Marine Ecology at the University of Hamburg, so a lot of this knowledge comes from hours of research and sitting through lecture after lecture.

Going through the lecture slides from school is a process that involves a shit-ton of fact-checking, as a lot of what we learn is pretty outdated. So, all semester, I google things to death, read papers and essays, ask a million questions, and discuss things with friends and classmates.

Where the source isn’t our lecture slides or unidentifiable sources from hours of late-night knowledge hunts, I have linked them in the text.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.
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