The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Can the Developed World Have its Fish and Eat it too?

A recent paper by Helvey et al. 2017 brings up an interesting issue: fishery leakage. “Leakage” is used to describe the unintended displacement of ecosystem impacts, usually due to environmental policies in one place. The classic example of leakage is in forest conservation: For example, cleared space is needed for farming and food; when forests in developed countries are protected, others in less developed countries are logged. Helvey et al. 2017 use case studies to argue that the United States is causing distant fishery damage due to its management policies and seafood consumption habits. The paper offers six recommendations for broadening the discussion on marine conservation and seafood consumption to address leakage induced by U.S. policy:

  1. Increase awareness of the high environmental standards by which U.S. federal marine fisheries – and many state fisheries – are managed, in compliance with multiple state and federal laws;
  2. Further develop U.S. domestic aquaculture to complement capture fisheries;
  3. Continue to support sustainable fishing practices in other nations;
  4. Seek multilateral cooperation on conservation policy as well as domestic cooperation/collaboration among fishermen, managers and scientists to identify and minimize negative environmental impacts of fishing, guided by principles of adaptive management;
  5. Recognize the externalities of management decisions such that policy makers consider the full range of impacts, including those beyond their jurisdiction, as part of the decision-making process; and
  6. Treat wild capture and aquaculture fisheries as part of the food production system.

Comment by Michel J. Kaiser, Bangor University @MichelJKaiser

The recent paper by Helvey et al. 2017 highlights an important issue, namely, are we tidying up our own front yard at the expense of our neighbours? Developed countries have been through a cycle of over-exploitation, over-capitalisation, effort re-alignment and then the imposition of more sophisticated management, monitoring and in the inclusion of ecosystem targets in our management. Finally in the last decade we are dragging (or have dragged) ourselves out of the a situation of unsustainable exploitation to one where fleets are more closely aligned with the resource. This has resulted in reduced local production as would fit with the re-alignment of quotas and effort. Nevertheless, the demand for fish increases and much of the excess demand for fish is supplied through imports into developed countries from developing nations. However the state of scientific knowledge about many fisheries in developing countries is rudimentary at best. Other issues such as slavery are rife in some parts of the world. Hence the publication by Helvey et al. (2017) is timely in that it draws attention to the potential for ‘smug’ self-congratulation to pervade developed countries, whereas the reality is that we are driving much of the demand for product from areas of the world where the over-exploitation of fisheries is most prevalent. They suggest a ‘relaxation’ of overly draconian management regimes together with investment in aquaculture as a means to alleviate the effects of ‘leakage’ in less well developed countries. It is true that these are important areas to examine critically, but a more compelling case is to focus greater effort on capacity building for science, monitoring and enforcement in countries where over-exploitation is endemic. Addressing the key issues of poverty in these countries would do much to reduce the effects of ‘leakage’ in a practical manner that has a longer lasting and beneficial effect compared with investing in aquaculture schemes for inevitably luxury (and hence low output) products demanded by the wages and costs associated with developed nation economies.

Michel J. Kaiser is a Professor of Marine Conservation Ecology at Bangor University. He has previously written for CFood on Brexit & Fishing. Find him on twitter here.

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