The science of sustainable seafood, explained

What are the implicit values we’re using in fisheries management?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Griffin Carpenter. If you’d like to guest post for us, reach out here.

Working in fisheries management, we like to think of ourselves as objective thinkers stirred to action by facts alone. But no matter our role – be that as a biologist, an economist, or a policymaker – there are always values that underpin our work. If these values are left as unspoken influences, we may end up unknowingly supporting policies or approaches that are based on values that don’t align with those we hold ourselves.

I realise that discussing values can be a bit uncomfortable and personal, but fear not, I’ll be making the case in this blog that the only thing we have to fear is the fear of values itself. Hidden from view, values can guide policy without being critiqued.

What are these values? I think the history of fisheries management is important here. Fisheries management, like many ideas and institutions that developed in the decades following the second world war, had a ‘productionist’ view, believing that marine life should be harvested to the maximum sustainable extent possible and in the most efficient manner possible.

This may be the approach, after all, there are few things more important than nourishment. With population projections exceeding 9 billion, all means of production need to be considered. However, all forms of production have environmental impacts, and compared to other animal proteins fishing tends to have lower climate, biodiversity, and land-use impacts. It would be strange to concentrate all our dietary impacts on the 30% of the Earth’s surface that is land and none on the 70% that is water.

Or, it may be the wrong approach. Accepting that wild fish populations provide some food production is something quite different from maximising food production. Life is full of trade-offs so maximising any one thing is an extreme position. Even proponents struggle to see this position through, for example by advocating for whaling so that more fish is available for human consumption. Maximising food production also raises the burden of proof that *all* forms of fishing have lower climate and biodiversity impacts than alternative food sources. It is also important not to confuse food production with food security – any analysis of food waste, fish conversion in aquaculture, or the export of fish from poor countries to rich makes this point rather obvious.

I see this underlying value of food production so entrenched in our minds that we’d sooner believe the rest of the world is confused and ‘just doesn’t get’ how fisheries management works, rather than consider whether the implicit values we’re using are shared by the public we work with or even if we believe them ourselves. The only way to determine if these are the ‘right’ values is to make them explicit. So, let’s draw them out, analyse them, and understand the foundations on which our policies are built. I honestly don’t know where I sit, but I do think it’s important to have an open discussion. I’ll start.

Values shape, and are shaped by, our language

It’s through language that we generate and exchange ideas, so the language we use matters greatly.

Starting with the basics, and as fish nerds know, the term ‘fish’ is a strange one as there is no such thing as fish. This species classification point may seem flippant, but it’s a sign of the disregard toward marine life that follows.

Within a species, one fish is a ‘fish’ and a thousand are also ‘fish’. There is no distinct between individual and group. (Multiple species are ‘fishes’, but many people working in fisheries get that wrong anyway.)

Fish are managed as ‘stocks’, not ‘populations’ (and certainly not ‘wildlife’). Both are equally correct, the former emphasises the time dimension (a stock is measured at a single point in time), the latter its nature as a distinct, interbreeding group.

Stocks are measured in tonnes, not individuals. To my knowledge, only one attempt to measure individual fish at a macro level has ever been made, producing an estimate of 1-3 trillion fish commercially harvested each year.

From classification through to measurement, this language entrenches the perception of fish as an amorphous mass of commodity. It’s no surprise that almost without exception marine life is exempted from a country’s animal welfare and cruelty laws. Creating high-welfare fisheries is not easy, but the first step is acceptance. We should at least be comfortable with – and be able to explain why – we manage fisheries with no regard for the experience of marine life despite how we approach animal use on land (and increasing in aquaculture too).

Definitions, and objectives that extent from them, are value-laden

Language shapes how we think, but it is also shaped by how we think, so what (or who) has shaped the language of production? I think the answer to this question goes to the very foundation of fisheries management as first and foremost about food production. That central focus may be right or wrong, but behind most fisheries policy is the same implicit value: we should catch as much fish as possible.

Consider how we assess sustainability. The most important assessment is the biennial FAO State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report. According to the latest report, 33% of stocks are overfished, 60% maximally sustainably fished, and 7% underfished. This division of categories is frequently misunderstood and tirelessly corrected on this very website. Sometimes it can seem like the media is simply unable to understand that fishing a stock down to the lowest level that can still maximise yields is a good thing. The FAO has tried to clarify by giving two thumbs-up to the maximally sustainably fished category, a single thumbs up to underfishing, and a thumbs down to overfishing.

Alternatively, maybe it’s this concept of sustainability that is confusing, rarely in life is the maximum also the ‘optimum’. If some fish are not tasty, too far away, or otherwise not commercially viable to harvest, do we really want to describe them as underfished? If a species isn’t commercially viable, maybe it’s okay not to harvest it.

There are also technical reasons why the maximum is not always the optimum, as with mixed fisheries where species that are caught together implies that some species need to be fished below the maximum to avoid the risk of catching others that are already at or above their maximum. There are also ecological reasons to underfish: for example forage fish play an outsized role in the food chain to say nothing of fishing less to avoid damage to marine habitats. Put another way, I’m sure there are many green areas of the world that are ‘overforested’, but that view strikes most of us as, well, seeing the forest for the trees.

This view of maximising production has become entrenched even within marine conservation organisations, many which support the drive for fish stocks that are maximally sustainably fished even though maximum production is not a conservation policy. Their support makes sense in the context that overfishing is self-defeating so reducing fishing pressure to a maximally sustainably level is an ‘easy win’ that every single stakeholder should support, but who is defining the equivalent of ‘two thumbs up’ from a conservation perspective? What is the ideal level of fishing that also supports marine (and land) biodiversity?

Our policies answer the fundamental question: who gets to fish?

If you scratch the surface of fisheries policy a bit, many of these implicit values begin to emerge – some directly linked to the food production mindset, others less so. What worries me most is when policy decisions are understood as value-free but are in fact value-laden.

Consider a big question like ‘who should receive limited fishing opportunities?’ Distributing fishing opportunities based on a historical baseline is often chosen as the default approach, but this approach rewards those who were fishing the most (or perhaps overfishing the most). What I hear from recreational fishers, small-scale fishers, countries still developing their fishing fleets, and new generations trying to enter the fishing industry, this supposedly ‘neutral’ baseline is far from value-free.

These initial allocations are often repeated year after year for the same reasons. Again, not making any changes to initial allocations or at least specifying a duration under which the allocation shares would apply was not value-free. In the eyes of the law, this passive approach has accidentally privatised fishing opportunities, removing the public nature of marine ecosystems and, strangely, often without user payments typical in other resource extraction industries. Legal researchers here in the UK concluded that this privatisation had a monetary value of £1.1 billion – the largest ‘squatting claim’ in UK history.

Who gets to benefit?

This monetary value is high because there is money to be made off the resource. In the UK and indeed the EU as a whole, profits are rising year on year with profit margins now at 30% and 26% respectively. This stands in marked contrast to a decade ago and is strongly prioritised in the European Commission’s economic reporting on the successes of EU fisheries management.

Like considering fish welfare or an alternative to maximising the tonnage of fisheries production, here’s another heresy: what if fleet profits are too high? Certainly it’s important that businesses aren’t losing money, but there is a question here about who matters. Should our sphere of consideration extend beyond those holding fishing opportunities? How about the number of fishers employed or the wages they receive? Or what about the price that consumers pay for fish? Can we claim equivalent success on those issues?

And what benefits matter?

Fisheries economics, like much of the economics discipline, struggles with these issues of implicit values, believing that a scientific approach means being value-free. This is a dangerous error. It has meant a focus on efficiency of production with several glaring problems.

While overfishing and the need to set appropriate limits is a universally agreed problem, less so is ‘overcapacity’ and the concern that there is more capital in fisheries than is optimal (in the same way there may be an excess of chairs and plates in the world than strictly needed).

The very definition of efficiency also needs to be questioned as there are countless externalities in fishing. A market that concentrates fishing opportunities in the hands of the most profitable is efficient, but it is far from what we should be aiming for if those profits are the result from transferring costs to the marine environment. When this happens, a win for economic efficiency is a loss for the marine environment. While there are many systems of tradeable fishing opportunities that shift fishing towards the most profitable operations, I have yet to come across any marine damage taxes for different fishing methods or any other means of correcting for externalities.

Like efficiency, standard economic concepts like ‘net present value’ are useful for analysing fisheries but also dangerous without a recognition of what lies beneath. Livelihoods in coastal communities is hugely important in many areas of the world, but net present value hides the importance of employment, as it is calculated on profits which can be increased by reducing coastal employment.

Without a recognition of implicit values, policies can be promoted that work in the exact opposite direction of what is intended.

How should we determine the ‘right’ values?

Ultimately, it is up to each population involved in fisheries management to determine their objectives and the policies that extend from these objectives. Just as there are problems with looking at the overall picture of global stock status and inferring a policy prescription for harvesting one particular stock, there are problems with a global view of any socio-economic development and inferring what the values of a specific population area should be.

It’s true that by making values explicit there will be tensions, trade-offs, and even irreconcilable conflicts. But avoiding the messiness of political discourse is not a neutral position. All positions, even a ‘status quo’ position, are value-laden and will benefit particular groups. Conflicts over explicit values merely draw out those values that were previously there but glossed over. The first step before discussing and resolving these conflicts is to accept that they exist.

Learning to love again

In our heart, we are all led by values. All of us working on fisheries have some personal story of how we ended up doing what we do. There is something that gets us out of bed and keeps us working on fisheries and not other societal issues. It should be an uplifting experience to talk in an open way and celebrate these values.

I’m reminded of playing with Lego as a child. Every spare moment I had went into building and reconstructing my miniature city. It was such a wonderful combination of creativity and practical design. But sprawling Lego across the carpet also taught me an unforgettable (and at times painful) lesson that something can be fun to play with but dangerous if hidden from view.

In this blog, I’ve attempted to make some of the implicit values we use in fisheries management explicit, so that we can consider if they’re the values we wish to subscribe to. My worry is that hidden from view, implicit values can guide policy without being critiqued. Of course this blog is only what I myself have uncovered from scratching the surface of fisheries policy in the contexts I’ve worked in. The thing about implicit values is that they can be difficult to spot because we use them unknowingly. I hope that this blog can be the start of a conversation about what others have discovered about the values they find themselves using. Your turn.

Picture of Griffin Carpenter

Griffin Carpenter

Griffin Carpenter is an economic modeller specialising in environmental policy and natural resource management at the New Economics Foundation. His current work focuses on the socio-economics of European fishing fleets.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent blog. Value divergences behind many fisheries and biodiversity conservation perspectives, i.e. between utilitarian & ecocentric/preservationist priorities, are indeed often reflected in language used (e.g. ‘stocks’ or ‘populations’) and part of the diverging storylines between some fisheries scientists and marine ecologists, also discussed in this open access paper https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11160-006-9016-8

    Whether a value is ‘right’ or not is very much in the eye of the beholder: we all think our value priorities are ‘right’, often based on some underlying ethical priorities, but we can also recognise other values (as we often also hold them ourselves, perhaps even prioritising and valourising them in some contexts), including those held by other people. If we find ourselves disagreeing with somebody or even in conflict and/or argument with them, it can help to go behind the argument and explore underlying value and ethical priorities. If we can, at least, recognise and hopefully respect these, this provides a way forward for compromise, if not agreement.

    The challenge is to understand other ethical priorities, rather than trying to identify the ‘right’ value, to seek key areas of agreement, to identify priorities on which all agree, food security and ecosystem resilience being potentially important common ground on which to build agreements and to provide for the different storylines to converge, recognising but respecting other value priorities?

  2. Hi,

    What about values with regard to management of non-native or invasive species?

    I’m in the US. There are a broad variety of “takes” here on managing non-native fishes. People hold inconsistent views. Asian carp in the Mississippi River are a disaster, in part because they threaten non-native Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes, which we must protect at all costs!

    I come from a background of environmental advocacy. Any fish that wasn’t native, was bad. Over the years, I’ve softened up on non-native fishes. They’re here to stay, and often are better adapted to an environment we’ve irreparably damaged than the fish they replace.

    Common carp in the US were once considered an unmitigated disaster. Fishing magazines said they were brutes that shoved aside spawning, native fish to eat their eggs. Probably true, but now, decades later, we’re learning to appreciate carp as sport fish. They have some good qualities.

    Am I allowed to like carp? The discussion needs to happen, because to some who make decisions, the only acceptable outcome is the exact assemblage of fishes that once inhabited a body of water, and since fish assemblages aren’t static, but dynamic, the way they figure out what belongs is by consulting a study some poor PhD student did one summer 45 years ago, the snapshot, as I call it, and adhering to that goal ruthlessly. Never mind that the river now runs five degrees warmer than it used to, silts in, and can no longer support brook trout. The carp must go! But the carp won’t go, and so even if the goal is laudable, it sets up fisheries managers for failure.

    Another aspect of species control, especially if we’re considering cruelty, is that fish aren’t bad. If a carp knew people didn’t like it, it might frown and wonder what it did wrong. “I’m just living my life, picking up organic matter from the bottom. What’s the issue? I’m not in the wrong spot. I was born here.” We don’t need to discuss values with regards to catching and eating fish, except with regard to over-fishing. But intentional extermination of fish is something else altogether.

    Fisheries management is a subset of environmental issues as a whole. As long as I’ve been alive, the tendency has been to insist that the environment be restored to what it once was, based on a snapshot, or not touched, in the case of Amazon rain-forest and comparable places. I subscribe to that view, in general, while seeing it as deeply flawed. Here in Phoenix, Arizona, a hot desert, people dig up mammoth bones from 9,000 years ago. The environment, and distribution of species, changes dramatically over time, even absent human intervention. A color-coded map of fish distribution over a million years would whirl and change like a Kaleidoscope. I oppose intentional introductions of fish, and would turn in anybody I caught dumping fish. But I’ve learned to freak out less about new fish once they’re here, and even appreciate them. That’s just my approach to life, not an answer or a solution to the problem. But we at least need to have a discussion.

    Thanks for the article. Best, Bob

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