Community-based fishery management and Somali pirates

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
A commercial fishing boat heads out of Portland Harbor in Portland, Maine. Under new rules passed by fishery regulators, New England fishermen would have the option of being regulated by how much fish they catch, not how many days they spend at sea.

A question: What do Somali pirates have to do with community-based fishery management?

Before I answer that, the news:

Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council approved 19 fishermen-run, community-based sectors –  a fishing cooperative-based catch share system, explains Julie Wormser of the Environmental Defense Fund – that will take effect in May 2010.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of sustainable fishery management. Basically, catch shares give fishermen a kind of ownership share in the fish stock – a percentage of a year's harvest. If the fish do well, they get more fish. If not, they get fewer. That theoretically is an incentive for stewardship.

What about community-based management? Communities living next to and using a resource will best manage it, the thinking goes. They have the most to lose from bad management, and the most to gain from good management.

There are some holes in this argument, of course. Local interests have, in fact, had a voice at the New England Fishery Management Council for a long time, and it didn't seem to stop overfishing.

What went wrong? Scientists count a number of factors – government subsidies increased the number of fishing boats far beyond what the stock could sustain, a "days at sea" approach led to extensive by-catch, a "race to fish" destroyed habitat, and so on.

Catch shares are supposed to stop some of this, but even catch shares don't always work. To illustrate this point, Seth Macinko at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, once illustrated their potential failures with the example of a pod of blue whales points to a famous paper on blue whales by economist Colin Clark:

Say a community of whalers "owns" owns rights, or privileges, to harvest blue whales in a certain area. According to catch-share theory, they should manage the cetaceans for their long-term health. Except that blue whales, the largest animal to have ever existed, can easily live more than 80 years. They reproduce so slowly that, from a purely economic point of view, the fishermen would do better to kill all the blue whales, sell the meat and blubber, and put their earnings in a bank to earn interest. They'd earn more that way than by waiting around to harvest "sustainably" harvest one whale per human lifetime.

That's an extreme example, but you get the point: Ownership doesn't solve all problems. And if you remember Jared Diamond's case studies of societal collapse in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," neither, necessarily, does community-based management. People sometimes make the wrong management choices about the environment that sustains them, although the right approach seems to be staring them in the face.

But if local management isn't foolproof, mining of resources by nonlocal interests is often disastrous. Historically, foreign fishing fleets have epitomized this truism. They take all they can get and, when the fish grow scarce, move somewhere else to begin the fish mining anew.

In the northeastern United States, in fact, foreign fleets severely overfished stocks beginning in the 1960s before the US's established its 200-mile-wide exclusive economic zone.

A study published last week in the journal PLoS Biology found that, in one-third of low-income countries, the principal fishers were fleets from the European Union, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, or the United States.

This "roving banditry," as the University of Maine's Robert Steneck calls it, continues today in much of the developing world – with dire and far-reaching consequences.

A 2008 New York Times story reports:

A vast flotilla of industrial trawlers from the European Union, China, Russia and elsewhere, together with an abundance of local boats, have so thoroughly scoured northwest Africa’s ocean floor that major fish populations are collapsing.
That has crippled coastal economies and added to the surge of illegal migrants who brave the high seas in wooden pirogues hoping to reach Europe. While reasons for immigration are as varied as fish species, Europe’s lure has clearly intensified as northwest Africa’s fish population has dwindled.

To recap: Huge factory trawlers come in and clean up. Local fishermen suffer. The consequences are felt as far as Spain and Italy.

And it gets worse.

When Somali pirates tell their stories, they often mention fishery depletion as a reason why they became pirates . From another Times story last year:

Several fishermen along the Gulf of Aden talked about seeing barrels of toxic waste bobbing in the middle of the ocean. They spoke of clouds of dead fish floating nearby and rogue fishing trawlers sucking up not just fish and lobsters but also the coral and the plants that sustain them. It was abuses like these, several men said, that turned them from fishermen into pirates.

"Roving banditry" by fishing fleets is, it seems, creating bandits of a different kind.

Back to community-based fishery management. Would the Gulf of Aden be a safer place if the Somalis managed their own seas? Who knows? But, as it turns out, traditional cultures determined that community-based fishery management was the best approach long ago.

One of the best known, but by no means the only, examples of community based fishery management comes from Polynesian societies of the South Pacific. Islands are – well, islands. They have very obviously finite resources. (So do planets, by the way, although perhaps a little less obviously.) If they're mismanaged, there's little recourse. As a result, Polynesians have developed strict fishery policies.

Communities along the shore have exclusive rights to fish directly offshore. These rights are jealously protected. (One scientist recently working in Fiji told me about fishermen spearing, but not killing, an interloper.) We might call this a limited-access fishery. The point is, a fixed – and known – number of people fish it, and they're answerable to a local authority.

Then, when fishermen note that fish stocks are falling in a given area, a village chief might issue an edict prohibiting fishing there for a time.

Elsewhere nowadays, scientists take stock assessments. Depending on what they find, they might recommend a closure. A patch of sea is set off-limits. We call that a no-take marine protected area (MPA). MPAs are fast becoming a cornerstone of fishery management.

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