A recent policy perspective paper in Conservation Letters, Lewison et al. 2019 (open access), summarized several examples of environmental impact ‘displacement,’ an important policy concept with implications for fisheries and food.
Examples of environmental impact displacement
Environmental impact displacement is when a conservation policy designed to reduce impact in one area, displaces it to another area, sometimes making the overall problem worse. Researchers cite sea turtle bycatch in swordfish fisheries as an example of displacement in fisheries: U.S. Pacific swordfish fishing was curtailed to protect sea turtles caught as bycatch. However, lower U.S. catch increased foreign swordfish demand which ended up killing more sea turtles as foreign swordfish fisheries had higher rates of bycatch.
ProPublica and the New York Times recently published a long exposé about how a U.S. policy meant to reduce carbon emissions (by increasing biofuel use) raised demand for palm oil in Southeast Asia, which actually increased emissions and jumpstarted the palm oil/biodiversity crisis (this example is also cited in Lewison et al.).
The viral Ocean Cleanup Project is another example of environmental displacement; the crowdfunded campaign was trying to remove marine debris from the great Pacific garbage patch by sweeping a giant net-like object across the ocean. However, if it had worked as intended (it broke), it would have killed many more organisms than the trash it was trying to remove from the ocean.
Environmental displacement in fisheries & food
The concept of environmental impact displacement is important to consider in fisheries management and marine conservation. The swordfish case above is a good example of displacement in individual fisheries, but there are other areas of fishery management that should consider environmental impact displacement. For example, no-take marine protected areas often increase fishing pressure outside the area being protected, nullifying the protection. In some cases, displacing fishing pressure benefits the ecosystem, but often it does not.
Zooming out in scale raises larger systemic questions about food: Consider fisheries and marine conservation as part of a broader, global system of food and ecological preservation. A legitimate argument can be made that fulfilling fishery potential and consuming more seafood is good for the planet—it provides low-carbon, low-impact protein.
As the developing world continues to acquire wealth, global demand for animal-protein will continue to rise. The more seafood that is eaten in place of cow, the better, since bovine farming is the largest driver of rainforest and biodiversity loss on the planet. Not only is seafood the lowest-impact animal protein, several kinds of seafood (e.g. farmed bivalves and wild-caught pelagics) are among the lowest impact foods of any kind.
Solutions to environmental displacement
Lewison et al. 2019 outline ways to reduce environmental impact displacement that can be applied to fisheries management and global food systems. The first step, researchers state, is explicitly considering displacement in policy design, scoping, and evaluation. Fishery managers should evaluate and understand the biological, economic, and social outcomes of proposed policies to avoid issues like accidentally increasing turtle bycatch across the world or raising fishing pressure in an area surrounding an MPA.
Other ways to avoid displacement include:
- Think large-scale to consider all economic/biological/social relationships
- Enact both demand-side and supply-side policies
- International trade agreements and cooperation as a holistic approach to global conservation
Conservation groups should consider the global food system and environmental impact displacement in their advocacy; policy makers and natural resource managers should consider environmental impact displacement in their decision-making processes. Conservation will be more effective with a larger, broad approach—particularly with fisheries and food. Lewison et al. 2019 is open access and available here.