It’s complicated

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If you take away one thing from this issue’s story on fisheries, it’s that most of what you hear about fishing is an oversimplification. Claims by lobby groups, industry bodies and non-profits abound, but there are a few voices missing from the conversation: those of the people on the water catching the fish, and the people studying what’s happening beneath the waves.

It’s incredibly difficult to count fish—like trying to count trees, except the trees are invisible and keep moving around, as British scientist John Shepherd once said—so anyone who sounds pretty sure about how many fish there are is automatically suspect.

Scientists measure what they can—the number of juveniles, for instance, or the abundance of fish in one area—and then they add fishing data, the technology used to find fish, how many fish may have been discarded. (My explanation, too, is an oversimplication). They create a sophisticated model that guesses at the number of fish.

Is the model right? You’d have to catch all the fish in the sea to find out.

“That’s basically the only way to figure these things out for sure,” fisheries scientist Darcy Webber told journalist Kate Evans. “There have been lakes in North America, where they were doing stock assessments of freshwater fish, and then they dried up the entire lake and counted all the fish, and that’s the only way they actually ever validated a stock assessment model.”

Science is expensive, so we only study the species that are important to us—important because there are a lot of them (snapper), or because we make a lot of money from them (crayfish), or both (hoki). That means we don’t know much about some fish at all, especially the ones we don’t want to eat.

“I think when people think about the quota management system they assume that quotas are actually acting as a cap on the amount of fishing, and for many species that’s just not the case,” says Evans. “The levels at which those catches are set are based on how much fish people were able to get in the early 1980s, not based on what we actually know about the sustainability of that species.

“The fact that we do not know whether fishing is sustainable for a considerable number of species—that doesn’t seem right to me.”

In fact, we know less about our seas and coastlines than any other domain, write the authors of the government’s 2019 marine environment report. That’s despite the fact that we govern one of the largest areas of ocean in the world.

There are criticisms to be made of the quota management system, and one of the most important is how it transformed the right to catch and sell fish into a form of property. This means that the commercial exploitation of our fish resources doesn’t return a profit to the government, like a mining license would. Instead, the government gave away all the fishing licenses, for good, in 1986.

Fisheries debates involve arguments about values as much as arguments over whose model is right. If we want to eat fish, we have to decide which of the impacts of fishing we’re happy with—bycatch of seabirds (90 per cent of which are threatened) and marine mammals (22 per cent)? The destruction caused by bottom-trawling? The price of fish increasing? More government spending in innovation or research? Or, perhaps, the fate of fish?

“There are trade-offs to be made and there’s no perfect solution that would suit all people and all fish,” says Evans. “It’s just one of those things that’s really hard. It’s something that we do have to decide what we as a country value most. Different people value things differently, so it’s inevitably going to be a compromise of some kind.”

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