Monday, October 10, 2011

Fisheries and the "Illusion of Plenty"

Fisheries

In my Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy class we have been discussing fisheries management. Fisheries are natural resources that perhaps best demonstrate the complexities and difficulties of resource management. In addition to U.S. congressional mandates to maximize economic productivity while also maximizing environmental protection, all of the variables that we use to manage fisheries are moving. We are unsure of how many fish are in the ocean, due to the difficulties in collecting data in such a foreign space. So we make our best guess in establishing the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for the fishery - a moving target. We are also uncertain of what natural climatic conditions might impact the resource from year to year (red tides, dead zones, La Nina, El Nino, etc.) - another moving target. So the MSY may or may not end up being appropriate depending on such conditions.  We are uncertain of our monitoring and reporting efforts, as it is exceedingly difficult both economically and administratively to ensure compliance with the moving target that we've set - thus enforcement is a moving target in its own right. So it is no surprise that we continue to struggle to sustainably manage fishery resources.

Then comes the "illusion of plenty," further complicating fisheries management. Two of the most important recreational fisheries off the coast of California have collapsed largely due to this phenomenon. The research, published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences details how catch rates of two species of bass have remained stable while the biomass of the species has crashed by 90% since 1980. The phenomenon is known as "hyperstability," which occurs when "fishermen target spawning areas where large numbers of fish congregate, producing a so-called 'illusion of plenty' that can hide an overall collapse in fish stocks." One researcher described that “[t]he problem is when fish are aggregating in these huge masses, fishermen can still catch a lot each trip, so everything looks fine . . . But in reality the true population is declining.” As with cod in the North Atlantic, it is the quintessential example of "fisheries data masking an impending collapse" - yet another moving target to consider when attempting to manage one of the world's important natural resources.

- Blake Hudson

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