By Mary Gardner
Images Rowena Mynott
The word ‘fisheries’ has, associated with it, a history of trouble. It is suggested that ‘fisheries’ be defined as part theory and part observation, blended together over time. As overfishing is a controversial topic globally, it’s timely to look into a few moments of history about our idea of “fisheries”.
“Fisheries” took on a new meaning during the Industrial Revolution. The words of Thomas Huxley, a famous UK biologist at the time, echo with observations and theories that startle us today. In 1883, he delivered an inaugural address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London. He said sea fisheries were “in relation to our present modes of fishing…inexhaustible”.
Huxley went on to describe “shoals of fish 120 to 180 feet in vertical thickness” known as “cod mountains”. Based on the latest fishery information at the time, he assessed that fishing effort removes not more than five percent of that cod and the herring that they eat. He believed the fishermen of the era did not affect the fish stocks as much as did natural predators, so concluding that regulation was useless. He felt politicians setting fishing restrictions were “making a criminal of a simple man of the people” more than they were saving any fishery.
Now Huxley was the man who coined the word “scientist” and was one of the first to make a living as a paid professional of natural history. He lived in a period when industrialization was shifting people and changing the nature of labour not only in the UK but in Canada, Australia and other places around the world. The legal practice in the UK routinely deported people for offences, minor and major.
Industrialization was seen to improve on nature. New technology such as refrigeration helped make a processing plant of a fishing boat. Steam and diesel were powering methods like bottom trawling with strengths and to depths not known before. This was seen as progress. When the Royal Commission of 1863 heard that the now heavy duty process was as benign as ploughing a field and even helped certain fish stocks, they were inclined to agree. Parliament then repealed fifty fishing laws and allowed unregulated fishing.
By the late 1940s, after two world wars, “fisheries” were already appearing depleted in areas of the UK and the US. The next generation of fishery scientists, in both countries, was struggling with the biology and the economic pressure to make fishing a profitable enterprise.
One leading UK scientist, Mark Graham, said “unregulated fishing is unprofitable”. He pushed for monitoring the types of gear and the sizes of nets used in any fishery. He said that a fishery should be harvested slowly, hand in hand with scientific assessment.
The marine historian Carmel Finley has a fascinating account of world events at the time. Fish factories from the US, UK, Japan and Soviet Union began to travel to fish off the coasts of Iceland, Norway and Latin American countries such as Peru and Ecuador. By the 1950s, these and other developing countries set their territorial zones at sea to extend six, twelve and finally two hundred miles. They called for a new UN-based international body, with a binding authority to regulate fishing.
The US and the UK announced they supported “freedom of the seas” and the right to fish wherever they desired. They said they would enter into bilateral or multilateral fishing treaties as they saw fit. In 1955, the US appealed to the International Law Commission. They suggested a conference, set well away from Latin America. The conference would first deal with the “technicalities” and conservation of fishing. These recommendations would then inform the 11th session of the UN in 1956 and guide any decisions about fishing regulation.
The Conference was held in Rome and Mark Graham was the keynote speaker. Forty-five nations sent delegates. The Cold War set the tone. When the Soviets supported the Latin American position, the US took this as a security threat. But in the end, with the vote 18 to 17, the rest abstaining, the USSR voted with the US and the UK in support of a motion about the “conservation of fisheries”.
In Finley’s account are the original three recommendations from that meeting. First, that conservation measures should be applied when science shows fishing “adversely affects…the resource” while also considering “special interests of the coastal state”. Second, the immediate aim of conservation is to increase and improve fish stocks. Finally, the principle objective of conservation is to obtain the optimum sustainable yield of a fishery.
Political power was behind the US’ idea of “fisheries” with specific characteristics. Each “fishery” has a natural surplus, which is wasted if fishermen don’t harvest it freely. A “fishery” did better being harvested right up to its maximum. Natural predators have more effect on a “fishery” than any human fishing effort. Meanwhile, scientists can easily monitor “fisheries” species by species and managers can accurately allocate the maximum fishing effort. All this is possible because every “fishery” has an inbuilt quota. This is called the Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY).
In this way, international politics used science to add weight to policy. By today’s standards, the application was crude but powerful. Worldwide, managers and politicians could now say they had no scientific basis to regulate fishing effort as long as everyone watched for the MSY. That this new theory had little data and no testing behind it was ignored. “Freedom of the seas” prevailed.
By 1977, MSY was the managerial standard worldwide. But leading scientists such as the Canadian P. A. Larkin were already explaining that the idea should be abandoned. Try as scientists might, this “maxima” was hard to find and proved unreliable. Year after year, although a number could be set to guide fishing effort, the “fisheries” turned up contrary results.
When harvested again and again at this theoretical “maxima”, a “fishery” is changed. The population becomes younger and the spawning event is not as plentiful or of as good a quality as that of one with older fish. Therefore the numbers in subsequent generations decrease and often quite rapidly. If any fishing continues and the stock plummets, it tends to remain at that low level, not showing recovery for years.
The “maxima” and the very idea of “fisheries” are complicated by another old fact, which has slowly gained momentum: Fish live in communities within ecosystems. But even as we get savvy with systems thinking (which is another article altogether) we must acknowledge that the ecosystems of fish are heavily influenced by humans.
Links to selected bibliography
Thomas Huxley (1884) Inaugural Address http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/SM5/fish.html
Carmel Finley (2010) A political history of Maximum Sustained Yield 1945-55 http://www.hmapcoml.org/oceanspast/Scientific/Program.pdf
P.A. Larkin (1977) An Epitaph for the Concept of Maximum Sustained Yield
Ludwik Fleck (1935) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact