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Some notes on fish

Even official agencies are getting impatient about collapsing fish stocks. But it needs policy intervention to change behaviour.

I’ve written here before (a couple of times) about the accelerating disaster befalling the world’s fish, as a combination of market-driven greed, vastly improved technology, short-termism and weak governance combine to allow a vast amount of over-fishing.

Earlier this month (via an article in the Financial Times) I picked up on the latest annual State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The argument is summarised by the FT in one line: “too many countries have too many boats doing too good a job”. And while this is pretty much what it has said each year since 1994, this year the tone has changed. They’ve moved from palliative concern to something a little more strident, at least by the standards of international organisations.

Imminent danger of collapse
At the end of a several hundred page report, as they turn to the challenges facing the sector, they observe:

Through a combination of inadequate regulatory and monitoring capacity, misguided or misapplied policy aims and interventions, overcapitalization, and short term profit-seeking by fishing fleets, the global imbalance between stock levels and fishing capacity and effort has grown steadily, and the pressures on key stocks have become increasingly unsupportable.

The outcome, they say, is likely not to be good:

These analyses are troubling from a resource exploitation perspective and suggest a global system that is overstressed, reducing in biodiversity and in imminent danger of collapse.

A problem of economics
There are always dangers of reducing biodiversity issues to a set of assumptions about their underlying economics, but a large part of the fishing problem is a problem of economics: a combination of misguided policies, poor regulation, and unaligned incentives that both permit over-capture of fish and damage the world’s poorest who depend disproportionately on fish for a decenbt quality of diet. (Looked at close up, the fish crisis looks oddly like the financial crisis, where a similar set of issues play out to similar effect).

The FAO report, therefore, quotes some estimates from a joint study carried out by the the FAO and the World Bank:

It estimated global losses of net economic benefit of the order of US$50 billion, compared with first sale values of US$80 billion, resulting from a combination of excess capacity and effort, linked with capital and operating-cost subsidies. For 2003, “harmful” subsidies, acting primarily to perpetuate overfishing, were estimated at US$16.2 billion out of a total of US$27 billion a year globally.

At risk species triple in a decade
Some of the data is increasingly stark, to the point where – according to the respected International Union for Nature Conservation – the number of fish species on its ‘Red List’ as being at risk has climbed almost three-fold in a decade, from 742 (out of 10,359 species it evaluates) in 2002 to 2,041 in 2012. The IUNC also believes that we have already seen the extinction of one fish species – the Galapagos Damsel – through climate change effects. Marine protection areas do help sea fish, but we need far more of the ocean to be covered by them, but it’s harder to create such protection for freshwater fish. And of course, scarcity produces its own economic effects, as the FT article noted:

Some species, such as the bluefin tuna prized by sushi lovers, face a vicious circle: over-fishing makes them rarer, which forces up prices (one fish sold for a reported record $736,000 in Tokyo this year), which in turn spurs more fishing and the illegal catches that plague many fish stocks.

Meanwhile a simulation of the economics of North Sea fishing found that that less fishing would both increase profitability and sustainability:

A simulation of subsidy impacts in North Sea fisheries showed that, while removing subsidies might reduce total catch and revenue, overall profitability would increase, as would the total biomass of commercially important species.

Stronger language
The FT article quoted Richard Grainger, chief of the statistics and information service in the FAO’s fisheries and aquaculture department, as saying, “I think probably we’re using stronger language now because we have been saying a lot of the same things very gently for quite a while, and maybe having less impact than is required.”

But since economic arguments have little effect on economic actors (I’ll explain in a moment) it seems likely that the FAO’s change in language is intended more to influence policy makers. From the perspective of organisational change, we know from the literature (e.g. the work of John Kotter) that organisations wishing to act on change need to combine a vision of an alternative with a sense of urgency about why change needs to happen now. This sense of the urgency of change is what business leaders and strategists mean when they talk about a “burning platform“, something the business needs to make it jump as quickly as possible.

Changing the incentives
But the fleets of deep sea trawlers that are unsustainably fishing away our future fish stocks have no such platform. They are in a sector that is suffering from over-capacity, certainly, and profit is probably declining. But with the huge capital costs locked in the trawling fleet, it’s strategically better (from the narrow perspective of each individual fleet owner and manager – to hang in and try to outlast your competition. As in the old joke about the grizzly bear and the two hunters, they don’t have to outrun the grizzly bear; they just have to outrun each other. There’s a commercial and strategic value in being last person standing.

So it’s down to policy makers to create the burning platform for them, by imposing tougher fishing limits and enforcing them – and accepting (even making the case) that the jobs which are lost in the process are unsustainable, in most senses of the word. Smart policy makers could make the game more stretching by applying some game theory to change the incentives, such as higher rewards to those owners that quit the trawling business first. (Where does the money come from? From the public funds that are currently spent on “harmful” subsidies.) Otherwise, we have only more official hand-wringing to look forward to – and fewer and fewer species of fish.

The image at the top of this post, of the endangered bluefin tuna, is from earthrangers.com. It is used with thanks.

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