In news that will come as no surprise to most Alaskans, an international team of researchers led by the University of Washingon’s Ray Hilborn has concluded that well-managed fisheries pose no threat to marine fish stocks and actually improve them.
For the half of global stocks scientifically managed, “on average, abundance is increasing and is at proposed target levels,” says the peer-reviewed study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Hilborn’s name is well known in Alaska. He has long been one of the principal investigators for UW’s Alaska Salmon Program and a key player in offering advice to the state of Alaska on the management of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon now enjoying record returns.
Bay salmon management is considered world-class, but the fishery is also relatively easy to run. There is only one stock to worry about – sockeye salmon – and all managers have to do is shift the nets of a limited number of commercial fishermen around so enough of the tens of millions of returning sockeye escape harvest to seed the wild and undeveloped spawning grounds in Southwest Alaska.
Elsewhere in the world – especially in the Third World – fishing is often focused on mixed stocks involving many species of fish; more fishermen are involved; fewer fish are available; and the governments lack the funds to afford sophisticated, scientific fisheries management.
The results are not good.
“…Regions with less-developed fisheries management have, on average, threefold greater harvest rates and half the abundance as assessed stocks,” the study concluded.
High harvest rates on small fish stocks inevitably cause a steady decline in fish abundance. Hilborn is among a group of scientists arguing for years that the way to save these embattled fish stocks is to manage them more intensely.
The latest study follows on a 2016 paper in which he and other researchers from the universities of California and Washington and the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that intensive management would do more to rebuild depleted global fish stocks than creating marine sanctuaries.
That study looked at data from 4,713 fisheries worldwide representing 78 percent of the reported global catch and found only 32 percent in biologically good condition. It reported “the median fishery is in poor health (overfished, with further overfishing occurring).”
Not only was that bad for the fish, the study said; it was also bad business to the tune of billions of dollars.
“Applying sound management reforms to global fisheries in our dataset could generate annual increases exceeding 16 million metric tons (MMT) in catch, $53 billion in profit, and 619 MMT in biomass relative to business as usual,” it said. “We also find that, with appropriate reforms, recovery can happen quickly, with the median fishery taking under 10 years to reach recovery targets. Our results show that commonsense reforms to fishery management would dramatically improve overall fish abundance while increasing food security and profits.”
The latest study tracks what has happened since then and notes a key and to some degree still evolving shift in the philosophy of fisheries management.
“The classic theory of fishing holds that the biomass of fish stocks primarily depends on fishing pressure; for stocks to be at or above the abundance that would produce maximum sustained yield (MSY),” the study says. “Although there is no denying that harvest affects abundance, recent work has shown that (the number of young fish entering) the fishery often depends very little on the abundance of the fish stock, and may be largely determined by periodic environmental regimes.”
The recognition of the importance of these regimes has led to an increased emphasis on minimizing harvests on stocks in decline because of environmental changes so as to avoid overfishing them. The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) is in the process of recommending reductions in North American West Coast halibut harvests for pretty much this reason.
In the latest study, the coast from Mexico north to Alaska gets generally good marks for management practices.
“Regions that have average biomass near or above MSY are Australia, Atlantic Ocean tunas, Canada West Coast, European Union non-Mediterranean, Indian Ocean tunas, Norway/Iceland/Faroes, New Zealand, Pacific Ocean tunas, Alaska, the US Southeast and Gulf, and the US West Coast,” the study says. “Although these regions have not avoided the overfishing of all stocks, conservative management has kept most stocks at high biomass. Many areas where biomass was below MSY in 2000 have seen reductions in fishing pressure and stock increases, including the Atlantic Ocean tunas; the East, Southeast, and Gulf coasts of the United States; the Canada East Coast; and the Northwest Pacific Ocean (Japan and Russia).”
It wasn’t always this way. With the Japanese fishing within miles of the Alaska coast in the 1960s, cold ocean waters depressing salmon survival, and Alaska fisherman competing to catch most of the salmon that did make it back to the state, salmon runs took a beating.
The state’s salmon harvest dropped below 22 million in 1974, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. Fishery managers subsequently imposed onerous restrictions on commercial fishermen in many areas and closed streams to sport fishing.
Those restrictions and a warming North Pacific Ocean combined to turn things around. Alaska ended the 1970s with an annual average harvest of approximately 48.4 million, and harvests have skyrocketed since then:
- 122.4 million per year on average in the ’80s.
- 157.5 million per year on average in the ’90s.
- 167.4 million per year on average in the 2000s.
Much if not most of these increases can be attributed to cooperation from those “periodic environmental regimes,” but without sound management harvests could have cropped off so many fish that stocks would have grown only minimally.
Alaska fisheries biologists fought some bitter battles with commercial fishermen to put more fish in the state’s streams and rivers in the 1970s, but as those efforts began to bear fruit, fishermen became much more receptive to periodic escapement reviews aimed at determining just how many spawning salmon the state’s streams and rivers can support.
Escapement goals – the number of salmon allowed to escape the nets of fishermen to gain the opportunity to reproduce – have steadily crept upward across the state over the years, which has helped seed a food-rich North Pacific with enough young salmon to fuel the decade-by-decade increase in commercial harvests.
With Alaska and Russian production both high thanks to warmer water and more sophisticated management, there are now a record number of Pacific salmon in the ocean despite declines in Pacific Northwest runs.
The study does note the West Coast of North America has features that make scientific management easier than in other countries. For one thing, there are very few subsistence fisheries.
“Fisheries in data-limited (and minimally managed) regions are an important part of food security for many of the poorest people in the world and constitute something of an enigma,” the studies authors write. Where people are vitally dependent on catching fish to avoid starving to death, it becomes hard to restrict harvests.
These are the world’s trouble areas with the evidence clear that in cash-economy “regions where fisheries are intensively managed, stock abundance is generally improving or remaining near fisheries management target levels, and the common narrative that fish stocks are declining worldwide” is bunk.
In those areas where fish stocks are declining, the study adds, there are often no easy answers as to how to develop management systems that will allow stocks to rebuild.
“The critical question is what methods will best help improve the status of stocks in places where stocks are currently in poor condition,” they write. “To do this, we need to understand what methods of management have worked in what social, economic, political, and biological contexts; understand why some stocks have improved much faster than others after a reduction in fishing pressure; and learn how to identify and implement the most appropriate forms of fisheries assessment, management, and enforcement in countries and regions where they are currently limited.
“As most unassessed (and largely unmanaged) fisheries are in tropical and subtropical regions dominated by highly diverse mixed fisheries, the single-stock assessment and management practices used in temperate countries are impractical. Regulating the overall fishing pressure so that the ecosystem-wide benefits are optimized and moving to cooperative rather than competitive fisheries seem most likely to provide for biological, social, and economic sustainability.”
Unfortunately, those things are easier to say than to do, especially where people are highly dependent on the fish for food. Alaska has some experience with this. When the state in 2012 closed the Kuskokwim River to fishing for Chinook salmon to try to protect a weak run of the fish, rural residents ignored the ban and staged a revolt.