A new debate in fisheries science; hoping to practice what I preach

Fisheries science is known for having several high-profile controversies; and there is a new one these days: ‘balanced harvesting’.

At issue is whether or not we should shift towards a fisheries management philosophy that tries to spread fishing pressure across all sizes and species of fish in an ecosystem – harvesting each size and species in proportion to its productivity (a.k.a. ‘balanced harvesting’). This would be a big change in how we manage fisheries. Currently, we only target a relatively small number of species, and we try to avoid catching the young ones (and sometimes also the very oldest ones) to protect the fish populations’ growth potential.

On the pro side, several prominent scientists have argued (e.g., see here, here, here, and here) that balanced harvesting gives us a way to significantly increase the fish supply while maintaining the structure of ecosystems. On the con side, a group of my colleagues and I (see here and here) recently argued that balanced harvesting is probably not technologically possible, and, even if it is, it is probably a very inefficient way to protect ecosystems and meet food demands, because it is expensive and produces a lot of new types of fish that people may not want to buy or eat. This past weekend, another group of very prominent scientists joined us on the con side – arguing that evidence for the ecological benefits of balanced harvesting is weak, and examples of balanced harvesting from African fisheries presented previously by the pro side actually show fisheries in crisis, not examples to be emulated (see also here).

Fisheries controversies have sometimes been heated in the past, probably in large part because the stakes of fisheries management – including livelihoods, food security, and the health of some of our most valuable marine ecosystems – are so high. But there have also been examples of productive, consensus-driven resolutions of fisheries debates. Some debates have had both of these qualities – the Hilborn-Worm debate being a great example (so much so that we featured it as a Case Study here at The Tête-à-Tête).

So far, the balanced harvesting debate (at least publicly, and so far as I know) has been fairly civil and reasoned. One can only hope it stays that way. But since I am a participant in the debate myself this time, and I also claim to be a preacher of civil, reasoned, constructive, solution-oriented discourse, I hope to be able to hold myself to a high standard. And if I fail to do so, I hope that you, our readers, will hold my feet to the fire. As much as I strive for balance, fairness and rigor, I also certainly have opinions and a particular perspective on many issues. Divorcing my analysis from this perspective is a constant struggle, as I’m sure it is for everyone who is passionate about issues and the principles of vigorous and rigorous debate.

In fact, the same goes for all of the content on The Tête-à-Tête. If any of you feel that we have not presented an issue in a fair, constructive, and rigorous manner, or treated opposing viewpoints in the comments fairly, we want to know (and please be as specific as possible in your critique, the more so the better).

As truckers often ask on their bumper stickers: How’s my driving (blogging)?

5 thoughts on “A new debate in fisheries science; hoping to practice what I preach

  1. Matt, in regards to your opinions on balanced harvesting, I would argue that your arguments on this topic are credible and at a very high standard. Especially if your research and findings were published in a peer-reviewed journal (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/faf.12123/abstract). From what I understand as a non-expert, the debate on switching current fishery practices to balanced harvesting seems to be a difficult one. There are infinite factors to consider (e.g. livelihoods, ecosystem health, food security, politics, consumer food preferences, etc.), therefore, making a consensus hard to find. So don’t underestimate your capabilities to find solutions to this problem. It might take many more research articles and societal debates to figure out a ‘win-win’ solution, that is, a solution that benefits all parties involved.

    I would strongly admit, from the past debates we’ve had on Tête-a-Tête, and from knowing you since high school, that you are a preacher of civil, reasoned, constructive and solution-oriented discourse. Although we disagree on certain points (e.g. electoral reform, Clarity Act, Sherbrooke Declaration, Bill 101), I strongly believe you are very respectful of my viewpoints. You are an open-minded and empathetic individual. I really like that you take the time to understand my viewpoints and I enjoy reading your posts. You know a lot about global issues and I have learned a lot from reading your posts and participating in debates with you and the other participants of the Tête-a-Tête forum.

    I also agree with you on the importance of rigor and honesty when making an argument. Just so you know, I make sure to take the time I need to write a well-structured response to any posts I find interesting (sometimes as much as 3 hours for an 2-3 paragraph argument). If ever I am stating a fact, I always turn to credible evidence. Like you, I feel debating this way makes for fair debating and effective discourse.

    My response to your question (how’s your blogging): EXCELLENT!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mark! I agree that the discussions we have had over the years (including, but not limited to, this blog) have been extremely fun, reasoned, and productive! You’re a very insightful and thoughtful person and I (and Ian and Niya too, I’m sure) really appreciate your engagement!:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Matt,
    I found your paper on BH very reasonable, using many right arguments, and on such an uncertain issue, keeping restraint where it was due. And I would also be glad if that style would prevail in that debate.

    Referring to your thoughts (on July 13th), I would make only one comment which applies to many discussions I have heard on BH: the real point of departure is missed. You start your message by writing: “At issue is whether or not we should shift towards a fisheries management philosophy that tries to spread fishing pressure across all sizes and species of fish in an ecosystem”. People often focus on this point (which is a proposed solution) and not on the reason which this solution is proposed… which is the real issue.

    The issue for me is: can use ecosystems to extract human food while maintaining their structure and function? The latter is a formal, legal, requirement of the CBD under the Ecosystem and Sustainable use approaches (Malawi and Addis Ababa Principles). The CBD requirement is to “keep the balance”. UNCLOS requires not to fish single stocks beyond MSY. CBD requires, in addition, to maintain the structureof the whole. The issue is: Is this ecologically feasible? If yes, Is it practically feasible?

    BH is a proposal that some scientists made, basically proposing a norm for management that reflects the CBD requirement directly. The two prerequisites remain: (1) is the proposal scientifically sound? (2) is it practically feasible? Can the same result be achieved in other ways? How can this be specifically demonstrated (somethning I have not seen yet)? Onne could add: would it work better then just pursuing MSY alone as we (pretend to ) do know?

    In any case, I find the debate and the fishery science attempt to bootstrap itself out of the Y/R hollow quite fascinating. I just hope that broader approaches to ecosystem processes will not fall, like economics in the pit on parallel unfalsifiable theories.

    Best regards

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dr. Garcia,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and sorry for the delayed response. I was on vacation last week with limited email.

      I agree that the question is whether we can extract human food while maintaining the ecosystem function (I personally think function is more important than structure but I know some would disagree). However, I would add that the objective is to meet people’s needs, not necessarily to get as much food out of ecosystems as we can.

      I too hope that the EBFM discourse remains more concrete and pragmatic than some economic discourses have. Look forward to that discussion continuing!



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