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Why The Economist has it wrong on overfishing

Seafood is unfortunately a global commodity voraciously consumed. For The Economist to the point the finger at fishermen is a lost moment of leadership.

This past week, The Economist hosted the World Oceans Summit in Singapore with a progressive mandate to “examine how the increasing activity in and around the oceans can be managed sustainably and what this means for business and other key stakeholders.”

But in this week’s edition of The Economist, an extremely simplistic essay on overfishing, entitled How to stop fishermen fishing, misses the boat badly, and begs a broader re-examination of the issue from the perspective of markets – something the newspaper is always concerned with.

The analysis fails to understand and describe the complex incentives that fishermen are subjected to by the seafood market chain. That supply chain creates incentives to overfish at each level, including unrealistic consumer expectations — people want all seafood constantly available — that drive illegal fishing, fish mislabeling, quota busting, overcapitalization of fishing fleets spurred by bloated government subsidies.

The essay promotes rights-based fisheries or “catch shares” assigned to individual fishermen as the simple and easy solution to the problem of overfishing. An academic article referenced by the Economist suggests that catch shares can prevent the collapse of fish stocks, but at least an Economist companion piece correctly states that “fisheries where such rights are in force are only half as likely to collapse as the average fishery.”

The World Bank also dove in during the Oceans Summit, announcing the Global Partnership for the Oceans, which also promotes catch shares, highlighting their use in the management of the Alaskan halibut fishery.

The Alaska halibut fishery has had commercial catch shares since 1995. They have relieved pressure on stocks by reducing fishing capacity by 25%, but they also have had large negative impacts on small rural fishing communities. And this approach has not stopped a severe decline in the status of stocks: they’ve dropped 50% in 5 years.

While the stock assessments of the International Pacific Halibut Commission were thought to be ironclad, recent revelations of “retrospective mis-estimations” in the amount of harvestable, mature fish show that we have been overfishing for quite some time despite a catch share system regarded as successful. And fishermen were following the rules dictated to them.

Even with set quotas, there is additional overfishing of halibut – in the form of unintended harvest known as bycatch — by the groundfish trawl sector in Alaska. This is a consequence of the global whitefish demand for fishsticks and surimi (imitation “krab”) that motivates one of the most lucrative and politically powerful fisheries in the world.

Much seafood is unfortunately a global commodity which the world voraciously consumes, and for The Economist to the point the finger at fishermen only is a lost moment of leadership, especially after the investment in the Summit.

So what should we be doing? The Future of Fish project has delved deeply into the connections between markets, fishermen and responsible stock management and seeks to drive entrepreneurial innovation to solve fish stock declines everywhere. The Nature Conservancy’s Central California community groundfish project provides fishermen with incentives to address overfishing, protect habitat, and earn better revenues while in the context of a catch share program.

The Bon Appétit Management Co.’s Fish to Fork program shows how a big food business addresses the problems of the supply chain by being a responsible buyer.

We need to build on the good work of these initiatives and others to understand the complex chain of incentives that drive ocean fisheries, and use that knowledge of ecological, economic and social issues to be strategic in solving overfishing. We will never solve the problem by being simplistic.