Thinking Outside the Box on Fisheries Management? Think Again.

Photo: school of yellow-tailed goatfish
Scientists disagree about the best ways to ensure there are plenty of fish in the ocean. Photographer: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR. Licensed under CC by 2.0.

This week, thanks to OpenChannels, I came across an interesting scientific article critiquing a new concept in fisheries management called “balanced harvesting”. Co-authors of the article include prominent fisheries scientists such as Rainer Froese, Daniel Pauly and Sidney Holt. (For those interested, the article is open access.) Until now, I had not heard of “balanced harvesting”, which describes a new approach to management and fishing practices that some scientists say can increase yields while minimizing damage to ecosystems and fish populations. In other words, the holy grail of fisheries management. It’s an appealing idea, but Froese and his coauthors argue that this instance of thinking outside the box is misguided, and likely to worsen the health of ocean ecosystems and fish populations.

Over the past few decades, we have gotten a lot of bad news about the sorry state of global fish stocks and the marine environment, a situation to which fishing contributed significantly. For the most part, scientists, government managers, conservationists and even fishers themselves agree that we need to change global fishing practices if we want to keep fish populations from collapsing and restore them to health. The sticking point is how to do that. Some argue for marine reserves and protected areas, reduced fishing, and ecosystem-based fisheries management. The scientists supporting balanced harvesting (BH), on the other hand, essentially claim we can have our fish in the ocean, and eat it too.

Balanced harvesting in practical terms would mean fishing more species (not merely following consumer preference for a few familiar fish), at more ages (juveniles included), but at lower levels. The expected outcome should be less ecosystem disturbance, —> Read More