The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Carl Walters

carl walters

Carl Walters is a Professor Emeritus at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. His area of expertise includes fisheries assessment and sustainable management and has used that expertise to advise public agencies and industrial groups on fisheries assessment and management. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and received the Volvo Environmental Prize in 2005. He has been a member of a number of NSERC grant committees since 1970, and received the AIFRB Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in 2011. Walters is considered the ‘father’ of adaptive management.

Misuse of the precautionary approach in fisheries management

We spoke with Carl Walters of the University of British Columbia about the misuse of the precautionary approach by risk-averse scientists and conservation advocates. His concern arises from the application of the precautionary approach to Western Canadian salmon fisheries, which he believes has negatively impacted Canadian salmon fishermen and resulted in “virtually, an economic collapse.”

He began by first differentiating between the precautionary principle and the precautionary approach, the former he claimed to be “a perfectly sensible statement that I think almost everyone would subscribe to about the need to avoid irreversible harm when possible…in the management of any system. There’s a different creature that has arisen in fisheries policy…called the precautionary approach to management” – this is the one that upsets him (00:35).

According to Walters, there are two problems with the precautionary approach (PA). First, it was concocted intuitively by highly risk-averse biologists and managers. “Those people are not the ones who bear the costs of having such a policy. It’s really easy for a highly risk-averse manager to recommend a very conservative policy because it’s not his income and economic future that’s at stake” (03:18). In fact, fishermen are seldom consulted about what harvest control rule they would prefer. Fishermen are often perceived to be relentless natural resource extractors that demand to keep fishing until it can be proven that the stock is collapsing. “That’s not the way fishermen behave” Walters says. “It turns out that most fishermen are risk-averse. They’re not pillagers, they’re not gamblers willing to take any risk at all in order to just keep fishing. They are concerned about the future and they are generally willing to follow some kind of risk-averse harvesting policy” (04:40). “Fishing is a risky business, and fishermen in general are far less risk averse than the people who end up in government and academic jobs.  But that does not mean fishermen are willing to take high risks with the productive future of the stocks that support them.”

So if both fishermen and managers are risk-averse, what’s the problem? The issue is that the interests of only one of these stakeholders is truly accounted for when designing precautionary harvest policies. In Canadian fisheries, there has been “a deliberate exclusion of fishermen in the development of these critical harvest control rules. They have no say in it. The decision rule should be based, at least to some degree, on patterns of risk-aversion that fishermen have since it’s the fishermen who bear the burden of the regulation” (09:48).

Walters recommends that we do away with the precautionary approach, and instead focus on developing and implementing ‘utility maximizing policies’ (10:35), which includes identifying harvest control rules that maximize expected utility for a risk-averse community of fishermen (17:20). Walters believes the extreme rules proposed by biologists are not the answer. “In fact, the optimal harvest control rules actually involve continuing to fish down to stock sizes that would terrify many biologists. When you shut things down you’re putting people out of business and for many of them that’s an irreversible loss of their livelihood” (06:30).

There are balanced policies that deal more sensibly with risk-aversion, represent the interests of fishermen rather than the interests of really risk-averse biologists, and are ecologically just as sustainable as more extreme policies. “Ultimately, fisheries management is about the fishermen – it’s not about a government agency staff feeling comfortable, it’s about trying to maintain the livelihoods of fishermen” (18:07).

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9 Responses

  1. fraser river sockeye are a good example of this! bilogists say stop fishing them ! fishing them is only a small part of the problem; refusing to belive salmon farming is killing them off is far worse than harvesting a few of them!!

  2. Keep It Simple … let the biologist/scientist do the risk assessment, and let the decision makers and industry to do the risk management. Thanks Carl!

  3. To be fair, I have only read the article, not listened to Carl’s talk. But if the article fairly represents Carl’s position; it is a questionable one. Marine mixed stock fishermen are only one of many stakeholder groups involved in the fishery, and legally, not the one with first priority. First Nations have priority after conservation. And the concept of conservation can be expanded to include ecosystem services and preserving geographic and cultural diversity. Then there is the general public who place a value on abundant and diverse salmon populations. All encompass values that are quantifiable, but not necessarily measured in dollars.

    And, in comparing relative values, Carl likely places too much emphasis on the economic importance of the fishery. I remember returning home after a season managing fleets in the north many years ago. I went into a sushi joint and bumped into a crew of people employed in making a Sylvester Stallone movie in Whistler. When they told me the budget for the movie, I was stunned. It was greater than the revenues for the entire northern salmon fleet that year. And this was for one of Sylvester’s bombs.

    There are still a few places on the BC coast where the mixed stock marine salmon fishery may be an important contributor to the local economy. But to the economy as a whole, it is relatively insignificant.

    The concept of relative values of the salmon resource is much more complex than reducing it to revenues earned by mixed stock marine salmon fishermen.

    This is not a defense of the status quo. I think we could be much more creative in how, and where, salmon are harvested. But reducing it to providing maximimum revenues to one user is an unhelpful contribution to the conversation.

  4. One of the first books I bought when I started at the Insititutte in 1969 was Mood & Graybill, Introduction to the Theory of
    statistics – recommended by Robin Allen. It has a section on Decision Theory (8.1) that for me has provided a great base for handling risk aversion in a fisheries context ever since – concise, elegant and complete. This was long before the emergence of the ‘Approach’ – always approaching never arriving. Since then we have had The Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management, The FAO Approach, The Incentives Approach; The Large Marine Ecosystem Approach, The Prigoginan Approach and The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach – quite a growth indsutry. This list is probably not exhaustive. As with any approach, it is the arrival that is most important. I often thought that if we were truly precautionary we would never get out of bed in the morning – and I then chanced upon a newspaper article that noted that thousands injure themselves every morning doing exactly that.

  5. The book title I have been hunting for that might of of interest is Cass R. Sunstein, “Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. Cambridge 2005. Worth a read and available cheaply through Amazon.

  6. I wish we could keep it simple – Sigh! In my uniform experience many ‘decision makers’ simply do what their advisors tell them you delude yourself to think otherwise. They have no idea what ‘risk’ is or what is involved in managing it. Not least is that there is a range of propensities to accept risk aomg the various stakeholders. Some decisions with uncertain outcomes are acceptable for some people but not to others. Whose risk propensityprofile should you go with? Then there is the issue of ‘time frame’ or ‘time horizon’. If the bank is about to disclose on your boat, you will have a different attititude to decisions on whether to harvest now and risk recruitment failure, or defer that harvest to next year. Or, if someone in your family needs medical treatment and you need the money to pay for it.
    Normatively (love that word!), risk is the product of expected probability of the event and loss associated with the event. This is then the challenge – to parameterize the distribution of the probability of the event and calculate the associated costs. If one is dealing with an event that has never happened – the NW Atlantic Cod collapse or that of the SE Pacific jck mackerel, this might be a considerable challenge. Who saw the cod collpase coming? Here, degrees of beief (yes being discussed at UBC in the early 1970s – when the place was still a credible fisheries centre) are important along with our good friend the Reverent Bayes.
    There are good managers, who because of their ample experience, have lots of intuition to go on, but don’t describe this as formal decision theory in the application. At the international level decisions are frequently determined by lawyers at the Ministries of External Affairs who are responding to politicians panicked by myopic monoscopic environmental lobbyists and scientists looking for funding to support their career aspirations. But, I am sure none of them are reading this blog.

  7. Great explanation of some parts of modern fisheries management.
    Scientists and managers need to realize the difference between the risk that you might overfish and the risk of what happens if you overfish.
    US fisheries management can take action year to year if overfishing takes place.
    The system often set quotas far enough under the OFL that the risk of overfishing is low, very low.
    Greg DiDomenico
    Garden State Seafood Association

  8. As a retiree living on Cape Cod, Ma. who used to work at the Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, I don’t know much about salmon management in British Columbia and how to operationally define the “precautionary approach”. We do face analogous problems here on Cape Cod with the collapse of the Gulf of Maine Cod population as result of direct/indirect climate change impacts; natural variability; fisheries harvesting; etc. One of the consequences is loss of our working water fronts to other non-water dependent uses which provide better economic returns to the local economy. I recently visited Haines, Ak and they are trying to increase ecotourism and diversify their job base.

    The CFOOD dialog exemplifies some of the problems in the interaction between fisheries scientists who provide advice on sustainable fisheries and the managers/political decision makers in charge of fisheries management. Most fisheries constituents: environmentalists; general public; fishermen/women; etc. have no idea what “utility maximizing policies” or “ecosystems approach to fisheries management” mean or the implications of these policies to their lives. Some type of science translation is required to bring these constituents into the dialog on how to develop PA in a fashion that optimizes diverse constituent interests

    A key missing element in reaching a compromise is the frequent use of lawsuits and political lobbying to determine fishery management measures. I certainly don’t have the answer to this inability to compromise amongst constituent groups, but I feel that maintaining our working water fronts on Cape Cod is in keeping with our history and provides direct; indirect and induced economic benefits (multiplier effect) to our local tourist-based economy. Having recently visited Vancouver, BC where the cost of living is rising faster than the incomes of young families with children, traditional occupations (like fishing) face stiff socioeconomic constraints. Saltwater angling may benefit from a more robust, diversified economy, while commercial fishing suffers.

  9. Interesting article! I am a fisherman who has sat on industry boards for over 30 years. During that time I have become much more patient as I have aged. The thing I see in any fishery is there is only one pot of resource and you need to set and adhere to short and long term goals. So you need benchmarks to measure the fishery … and industry and political insurgence can destroy your gains.

    The PA that we presently use to mange fishery resources helps in maintaining resource stability and perhaps will allow us to explore opportunities to find maximum yield of a resource, whether that be totally by Mother Nature alone coupled with harvest strategies, or with agriculture enhancement techniques, which I expect we are headed towards in the future. Right now I find DFO is too hung up on counting everything and not able to step back and see if it makes sense. Also, they don’t quite trust industry’s experience towards the trends we see. But we are gaining.!

    I have been involved in two fisheries that were placed in an ITQ system. Yes monitarily I was awarded, but a competitive derby style fishery cannot unlock max yield or achieve long term stability. You have a different mindset in managing and prosecuting that style fishery. As an industry person you just do, you are more aggressive even at the table.

    We are 1 generation into the Ground Fish and Inshore Scallop ITQ’s in Nova Scotia I’m associated with. As these fisheries are further rationalized and bought out by larger players and then eventually multinationals it will be interesting to see how Government Policy and politics of the day deals with this issue.

    I think fishery policy is ever evolving.

    Keith Amero. Scallop fisherman

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