Fisheries vs. Scientists

Though they are perhaps far removed from our daily lives, fishing and fisheries are important parts of a move towards sustainability, and are of concern to more than just dedicated scientists and practical fishers. But in building the institutions and applying practices necessary to keep our use of fisheries sustainable, it is interestingly the interactions of these two groups, the fishers and the scientists, that are a key concern. Whether in carrying out research, drafting rules and regulations, or enforcing such, strict cooperation between the two sides is vital to success. It’s worrying, then, that this isn’t the norm, even in the best cases.

The European Union’s fisheries, i.e. zones where concentrated populations of fish spawn, are governed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which determines things like access to fisheries, the maximum amount of fish that can be caught in one year (called the Total Allowable Catch, or TAC), and the kinds of gear fishers can use at sea. In part due to CFP regulations, cod fisheries in the North Sea recovered after a precipitous fall in the latter half of the 20th century, and was even certified as sustainable in 2017, meaning they can be fished without worry over permanent damage done.

Yet this success hides deep tensions within the CFP, tensions which are echoed in fishery management worldwide, between fishers and fishery scientists. A study of CFP meetings and committees in the early 2000s found that despite the universality of scientific language, much of the policymaking activity was marred with conflict over different “scales of knowledge.”  This phrase refers to the differences in worldviews between the two parties, with scientists believing in the importance of broad, ecosystem-wide, long-term analysis and decision-making, and the fishers insistent on the importance of their local and practical knowledge, and their ability to “smell” the real state of fisheries. It was these tensions over CFP policy which led to regionalization efforts in 2002/2003, bringing fishers and  industry voices into policy discussions. These changes were followed up by even bigger reforms in 2013, when the CFP decentralized and ceded its policymaking power to the regional level, bringing in even more powerbrokers.

But the impact of these tensions between local fishers and industry on one hand, and scientists working for broad, ecosystem-level reforms and governance on the other, has not stopped with just reforms – it was one of the factors leading to the famous 2016 referendum on the UK’s EU membership, triggering Brexit. This is most clearly seen in the case of Scotland, which makes up a majority of fishing activity in the UK: whereas 62% of the total Scottish population voted to remain in the EU, among Scottish fishers this same number was only 7%, meaning 93% of Scottish fishers were in favor of leaving the EU. A study interviewing fishers in two of Scotland’s biggest fishing towns found that there was widespread distrust of the CFP and of scientists’ warnings and policy suggestions, which the fishers saw as too “broad and generalizing”.

The impact of this enmity on the sustainability of fisheries is not yet entirely clear, but precedent should give cause for concern. This same disconnect between fishers and the scientific community isn’t new, and was even present during the advent of industrialized fishing. The roles were initially reversed then, with UK fishermen calling for the international community to establish rules to ensure the sustainability of fisheries, while the uncertainty of the fairly young science of fisheries acted as a damping force on these efforts. Yet when further scientific study found the sustainability concern to be a valid one, the rift was already established, and the change of heart among fishers meant that no regulations were enacted until half a century after the initial attempt.

There is reason to believe that the outcome of this tension might lead to similar inertia on issues of sustainability. One study characterized the regulation which kicked off the CFP reforms of 2013 as strangely ambiguous, devolving decision-making power to the local level but not setting up guarantees of accountability, participation or transparency. The resultant institutions governing regional fishery management are extremely opaque, with many of them lacking public websites, phone numbers or even physical headquarters. Their interactions with public institutions is also worrying – according to the same study, during planning sessions the Scheveningen group, involved with policymaking in the North Atlantic, allowed an official CFP body only 15 minutes to present its suggestions, after which it was barred from attending any further deliberations.

With economic disruptions like Brexit and opaque institutions like the Scheveningen Group and Baltfish, it’s clear that if left unchecked, the rift between the scientific community and the industry can lead to outcomes that make large-scale management of fishery use very difficult. This should be concerning, since such unity is vital in a time where climate change is generating patterns that are global, not regional. It’s equally vital, then, both to bridge the gap between the local and the central in existing institutions, and to fight against their cannibalization by opaque groups captured by local interests. As true as this is for fisheries in the Atlantic, it is equally true for a whole range of industries that have an impact on our environment, from poaching endangered species to policymaking in the energy sector. This is a lesson that must be heeded wherever sustainability is a concern.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 15, 2020.

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