Shifting Baseline Syndrome

What went wrong? Many things, from factory fishing to inadequate oversight, but much of it was aided and abetted by treating each step toward disaster as normal. The entire path, from plenitude to collapse, was taken as the status quo, right up until the fishery was essentially wiped out.

More from John Brockman's Edge question “What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?” by Paul Kedrosky, Editor, Infectious Greed; Senior Fellow, Kauffman Foundation

When John Cabot came to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in 1497 he was astonished at what he saw. Fish, so many fish — fish in numbers he could hardly comprehend. According to Farley Mowat, Cabot wrote that the waters were so “swarming with fish [that they] could be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down and [weighted] with a stone.”

The fisheries boomed for five hundred years, but by 1992 it was all over. The Grand Banks cod fishery was destroyed, and the Canadian government was forced to close it entirely, putting 30,000 fishers out of work. It has never recovered.

What went wrong? Many things, from factory fishing to inadequate oversight, but much of it was aided and abetted by treating each step toward disaster as normal. The entire path, from plenitude to collapse, was taken as the status quo, right up until the fishery was essentially wiped out.

In 1995 fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined a phrase for this troubling ecological obliviousness — he called it “shifting baseline syndrome”. Here is how Pauly first described the syndrome: “Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species…”

It is blindness, stupidity, intergeneration data obliviousness. Most scientific disciplines have long timelines of data, but many ecological disciplines don't. We are forced to rely on second-hand and anecdotal information — we don't have enough data to know what is normal, so we convince ourselves that this is normal.

But it often isn't normal. Instead, it is a steadily and insidiously shifting baseline, (…snip…)

When you understand shifting baseline syndrome it forces you to continually ask what is normal. Is this? Was that? And, at least as importantly, it asks how we “know” that it's normal. Because, if it isn't, we need to stop shifting the baselines and do something about it before it's too late.




Farmed tuna thrive further from shore

This looks to be an important finding by University of Tasmania researchers (lead Nicole Kirchhoff).



Tasmanian researchers have found tuna are bigger and healthier when they are farmed further away from the shore.

Researchers from the University of Tasmania looked at southern bluefin tuna farmed at Port Lincoln in South Australia.

It found the tuna thrive when they are raised in deep water 50 kilometres out to sea, about twice as far offshore as standard aquaculture practice.

The tuna had lower mortality and fewer parasites commonly found in traditionally farmed fish.

Lead researcher Nicole Kirchhoff says four Port Lincoln companies have already moved their cages further out to sea based on the findings and companies around the world are likely to follow suit.

“They grew twice as fast and they barely had any mortality at all,” she said.

We will look for the original research – to see how much the feeding input increased to achieve the larger fish. Meanwhile read the whole thing

Stop fishing in the Atlantic and reap the rewards

New Scientist:

STOP fishing in the Atlantic for a decade and you will boost profits for a lifetime. At least, that’s the conclusion reached by a UK-based think tank, which says that paying the fishing industry to keep its boats on dry land while stocks recover makes good economic sense.

The New Economics Foundation examined 49 overfished fish stocks in the north-east Atlantic. NEF concluded that if all fishing were stopped, stocks would recover within 10 years, depending on how fast the species reproduce. Equivalent salaries for this period would cost €10.56 billion ($13.81 billion).

However, larger catches from recovered fish stocks when the moratorium ended would recoup those costs within 4.6 years. Assuming the stocks were then fished sustainably, the larger yields would generate €139 billion of extra revenue within 40 years of the start of the ban, according to the NEF report.

In reality the costs would be higher, because the report doesn’t consider job losses in the fish-processing sector, says Callum Roberts at the University of York, UK. But he says temporarily stopping fishing would probably still work out financially in the long run.

Property Rights and Fishery Conservation

This is the second post of a guest-series for Megan McArdle by Jonathan Adler on property rights and the tragedy of the commons. I have been very impressed with prof. Adler’s work. This essay touches on one of our focus areas – solutions to fisheries management that actually work. Property rights is the only solution that we know of – in particular, ITQ or Individual Transferable Quotas, as discussed here:

Guest post by Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and regular contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy.

Fisheries continue to be among the best examples of the tragedy of the commons in action. As Garrett Hardin himself noted in his 1968 essay, “the oceans of the world continue to suffer” from the dynamic of the commons. Alas, little has changed. Ocean fisheries remain in trouble, as study after study reveals. Most fisheries around the globe are fully or over-exploited, and a substantial number have already faced collapse. The problem with fisheries management runs deep.

(…) It does not have to be this way. Even before Hardin wrote his essay fishery economists had diagnosed the problem and explained how property rights in fisheries could solve the problem. Specifically by recognizing property rights in a percentage of the catch for a given species (or, in some cases, by recognizing rights in fishing territories), the “race to catch” could be eliminated and fishing crews could be given an incentive to husband the resource. The creation of property rights in the underlying resource aligns the incentives of those who work in the fishery with the health of the fishery. As owners of a share in the catch year-after-year, the fishers have a stake in ensuring there are more fish tomorrow than there are today.

The benefits of such a system are not merely theoretical. They have now been confirmed through extensive empirical research. A recent study in Science that looked at over 11,000 fisheries over a fifty year period found clear evidence that the adoption of property-based management regimes, often called “catch shares” or ITQs, prevents fishery collapse. (More here.) This is only the latest piece of evidence supporting the use of property institutions for fishery conservation. As Hardin predicted, the institution of property rights averts the tragedy of the commons.

There are many reasons for this. The creation of property rights in an ecological resource not only creates incentives for greater resource stewardship, to conserve the underlying value of the resource today and into the future. It also gives those who rely upon the resource a stake in the broader set of institutions that govern the resource.

Please do read the whole thing, and follow up on prof. Adler’s links.

Can marine fisheries and aquaculture meet fish demand from a growing human population in a changing climate?

These researchers conclude “Yes” to the captioned query:

Gorka Merinoa, Manuel Barangea, Julia L. Blanchardb, James Harlec, Robert Holmesa, Icarus Allena, Edward H. Allisond, Marie Caroline Badjeckd, Nicholas K. Dulvye, Jason Holtc, Simon Jenningsf, g, Christian Mullonh, Lynda D. Rodwelli

Essential fisheries management changes include switching feed from wild fish meal. Abstract:

Expansion in the world’s human population and economic development will increase future demand for fish products. As global fisheries yield is constrained by ecosystems productivity and management effectiveness, per capita fish consumption can only be maintained or increased if aquaculture makes an increasing contribution to the volume and stability of global fish supplies. Here, we use predictions of changes in global and regional climate (according to IPCC emissions scenario A1B), marine ecosystem and fisheries production estimates from high resolution regional models, human population size estimates from United Nations prospects, fishmeal and oil price estimations, and projections of the technological development in aquaculture feed technology, to investigate the feasibility of sustaining current and increased per capita fish consumption rates in 2050. We conclude that meeting current and larger consumption rates is feasible, despite a growing population and the impacts of climate change on potential fisheries production, but only if fish resources are managed sustainably and the animal feeds industry reduces its reliance on wild fish. Ineffective fisheries management and rising fishmeal prices driven by greater demand could, however, compromise future aquaculture production and the availability of fish products.

The article is unfortunately behind the bloody Elsevier paywall.

Incentive-Based Approaches to Sustainable Fisheries

(…) Evidence from more than a dozen ‘natural experiments’ of commercial, developed fisheries supports our conclusion — incentive-based approaches that better specify individual and group harvesting rights, and/or territorial rights and also price ecosystem services promote both economic and ecological sustainability.

Recently we found a very valuable fisheries paper on the demonstrated benefits of property rights. This is an excellent reference on the failures of input-based management schemes and the successes of incentives-based schemes. If you wish to know more, using the extensive references and the citing papers, you can go about as deep as you wish into case studies covering most commercial fisheries.

The paper was written by a team affiliated with the Australian National University, and published in Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 2006, 63:(3) 699-710, 10.1139/f05-247. Here are some excerpts specific to property rights that are relevant to our experience in Australia, Canada and New Zealand:

(…) Evidence exists that individual harvesting rights can promote collective action in shellfish, demersal and pelagic fisheries (Shotton 2001). In the New Zealand east-coast rock lobster fishery, for example, the introduction of individual harvesting rights prompted commercial stakeholders to initiate a locally focused fishing strategy. The industry successfully requested the regulator to lower the commercial catch and to restrict harvesting to a shorter winter period to make widespread illegal fishing easier to detect (Breen and Kendrick 1997). These and other fisher-initiated management measures have resulted in a dramatic stock recovery and substantially higher quota values (Leal et al. 2005).

(…) In the Tasmanian abalone fishery, individual quota-holders with direct involvement in advising the regulator successfully lobbied for large reductions in the total catch in the late 1980s. This allowed the stock to rebuild and the quota-holders were the principal beneficiaries of subsequent increases in the total harvest (Tasmanian Abalone Council 2003). The successful rebuilding of the Icelandic herring stocks, through cuts in the TAC, were also strongly supported by industry because fishers wanted to protect the asset value of their harvesting rights (Hannesson 1996).

(…) it is not surprising that holders of such rights will be prepared to invest their time and effort to protect their flow of benefits from fishing. This may take the form of funding for more on-board and dockside surveillance, increased research to improve the quality of scientific advice, and greater participation in management decision-making. For example, in the BC sablefish fishery — managed by individual harvesting rights since 1990 — fishers initiated and funded research on trap escape rings that dramatically reduced juvenile capture and mortality. After individual harvesting rights were introduced in BC’s halibut fishery, harvesters (through their industry association) have set up and pay for dockside monitoring that tags every fish (Grafton et al. 2000). Similarly in the BC groundfish trawl fishery, also managed by individual harvesting rights, fishers are strong supporters of science and have contributed millions of dollars to research (Rice 2003). Elsewhere, such as in New Zealand’s fisheries — managed by individual harvesting rights since 1986 — fishers, through their associations, are important financial contributors to management and are also active participants in some fisheries research (Lydon and Langley 2003).

Fisheries: is bycatch an unintended consequence…

…of US regulations? This article by Tom Gogola makes that case. The thesis is plausible, but Gogola’s evidence is anecdotal, including personal observation on some NE commercial boats. As I was reading, I kept thinking “could property rights fix this problem?”.

Gogola’s experience is in one of the zones still regulated by “derby fishing” (it’s remarkable that the US is so far behind in fisheries regulation). I think that switching to ITQ (Individual Tradeable Quotas) would reduce this bycatch problem significantly. In the article Gogola brings up this point – in the NE fisherman refer to ITQ as “catch-shares”:

(…)Derby fishing means that fishermen will “hit it hard, often in bad weather,” says Benaka, in order to get their share of the overall quota. Under catch-shares, “each boat has a right to catch a certain amount of fish in the season; they can fish when they want to, they can base their schedule on the weather, how safe it is, the markets—when the market might peak, when they can get a better price,” he says. “If they are fishing in that manner rather than under a tight deadline, they’ll be more careful and will try to reduce the bycatch”; i.e., they will fish in a way designed to maximize their yield and minimize the time spent sorting through the catch to get at the fish for market.

Read the whole thing — a good article. And please, tell your elected reps to eliminate “derby fishing” in favor of ITQ (it works).

Fisheries: how I learned to love farmed Salmon

Food writer Josh Ozersky gets the story of the genetically-modified Atlantic salmon about right. He doesn’t discuss the Alaskan wild salmon fishery, which is AFAIK still doing fine. But that fishery cannot come close to satisfying the global demand for salmon. What we need is sustainable aquaculture that doesn’t deplete the fish protein stock with fish meal production, and the waters with excrement and other by-products of the current predator fish farming methods.

(…) But the fact is that, whether through DNA modification, artificial insemination, antibiotics or any other technique, high-tech aquaculture is the only way to save the planet’s marine life. The genetically modified salmon aren’t going to jump into the rivers and take over native ecosystems; they’re bred inland, in tanks; even if one engineered a Finding Nemo-style escape to the open ocean, it couldn’t do anything, since they’re all bred to be sterile. A lot of experts see no other way. “I think the wave of the future is land-based, recirculating self-cleaning systems,” says Martin Schreibman, a City University of New York biologist who studies aquaculture. “We still have issues, we still have problems, and they should be looked at very closely. The FDA is right to do that. But [aquaculture] is the only way to go,” he says. “We don’t have a choice anymore.”

(…) There’s nothing wrong with modifying food to make it easier for us to grow. There are no black Angus cows grazing in the wild; they’re the product of breeding for size, marbling and fast growth, not unlike the genetically modified salmon. If a farmed fish is bad for people, it needs to be banned until the problem is solved; but farming fish, in and of itself, is something that needs to be worked out — and soon. Eating the so-called “Frankenfish,” however scary it may sound, is a small price to pay for saving the world. And who knows? Some day it might even taste as good as its wild cousins.

Corals in Crisis

This recent article in The Scientist is sub-titled Marine protected areas reduce coral loss, but they are not enough.

I highly recommend this article for those who want to understand why coral reefs are declining. A common factor in most reef declines is loss of reef herbivores, leading to reef takeover by seaweed. This produces a negative feedback reinforcement process — a coral “death spiral” from which recovery is difficult. Evidently most of the global stresses produce this effect:

Reefs need to be managed for resilience to a host of interacting local and global stresses: The rapid losses, slow recoveries, and host of accelerating stresses make it urgent that we develop efficient strategies for intervention, based on an understanding of the ecology of coral reefs. While marine protected areas are critical to success, they alone are unlikely to allow reef survival because most are too isolated, too small, and cannot adequately leverage recovery of adjacent areas. We need to find effective ways to make damaged reefs more receptive to larval corals and thus better able to stop the death spiral that is occurring on today’s reefs. This will involve limiting the harvest of a critical mix of reef herbivores that prevent seaweeds from blooming on coral reefs. Because almost all major stresses shift reefs from corals to seaweeds, a better understanding of the processes and mechanisms underlying this shift, and its reversal, will be critical for preventing and reversing losses of coral reefs. To optimize our management efforts, we need information on the mechanisms involved in seaweed-coral interactions at all stages of the life cycle, the seaweeds that are most damaging to corals, and the mix of herbivorous fishes that consume the most damaging seaweeds. In short, we need proactive management that goes beyond establishing marine protected areas and hoping for the best.

World nations reject ban on bluefin tuna

Will Howard has been updating us on fisheries management resources. Included was the bad news on the initiative to ban trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The amendment introduced by the EU and Monaco was defeated, with 20 votes in favour, 68 against and 30 abstentions “in the middle of much confusion about the voting procedures and mixed feelings of satisfaction and frustration from participants,” CITES said in a statement.

I admit to puzzlement as to which participants would have “feelings of satisfaction”.