It's not about the actual fish themselves. Fish are not important in this context. It's about fish-ing. The act of fishing itself
It's not about the actual fish themselves. Fish are not important in this context. It's about fish-ing. The act of fishing itself (Colonel Jonathan (Jack) O'Neill: in the movie "Stargate SG-1" (1997)
Last month we tried to define the term overfishing in a more precise manner while drawing a clear distinction between biological and economic overfishing. We even dared to claim that despite common perceptions, the economic consequences of overfishing are usually more serious and destructive than the biological consequences. What we tried to demonstrate was not that overfishing is not a very worrying issue for many fish resources, but rather that this is mostly an economic issue and that it should therefore be dealt with in economic terms. In the following article we aim to address some of the socio-economic aspects associated with fishing with particular emphasis on overfishing.
Social considerations: trade-offs between employment and economic efficiency
Commercial fishing is normally a high cost, high effort and labour intensive operation. However production in many fisheries is the result of quota allocation rather than market demand. When the total catch mass is limited by a Total Allowable Catch (TAC), increased revenue can only be achieved by reducing harvesting costs (and other operating and processing costs), or by increasing the price of the final product. There is therefore apparently a clear conflict between the economic drives for efficiency, and the need for employment, which will be reduced as efficiency increases. The critical point about a fishery which has a maximum allowable production (TAC) and experiences an increase in efficiency, is that the consequent reduction in the labour requirements per ton of landed fish and the ensuing losses in employment cannot be offset by increases in production.
However, one should note that the cost of efficient fisheries in terms of lost labour could be offset by other employment opportunities generated both by the investment made to improve efficiency. For example, the increased use of onboard electronic equipment (e.g. global positioning systems (GPS), video plotters, charting software and net sensors) may improve fishing efficiency by improved targeting of preferred fishing sites, leading to a reduction in fishing days which likely leads to a loss of employment in the fishing industry. However this process generates employment in the hi-tech manufacturing industry which may offset or even exceed the loss of jobs amongst fishers. This will, of course, be of little comfort to fishers who see fishing as a way of life or who are unskilled and have little prospect of alternative employment. This does not however change the fact that the overall rational of maintaining a labour intensive fishing industry may not stand up to detailed social and economic scrutiny.
Furthermore, one should not lose sight of the opportunity for maintaining jobs in the fishing industry by simply growing the resource, which will lead to a larger catch and catch rate, implying an increase in employment in the processing sector, though not necessarily in the fishing sector.
Unfortunately many labour intensive fisheries are badly depleted and the only source of income of the majority of its users. Any attempt to rebuild these resources can only be achieved by implementing a significant reduction in allowable catch levels and in the number of fishers. Rich countries (Western and Northern Europe, North America) can engage in stock rebuilding exercises with relatively little socio-economic cost, by simply compensating fishers financially for their loss of income (though not for their loss of way of life.). In poorer countries (North and West Africa, Philippines, India) such options are simply not viable. The immediate socio- economic implications of cutting the TAC or reducing the allowable access to fish resources would be to great to bear. In such cases, fishers are trapped in low income, low production, labour intensive fisheries.
Another option for increasing productivity in the fishing sector is to use technical innovations to develop previously inaccessible fishing grounds (deep water, rough ground) and/or to develop new fisheries (orange roughy, toothfish). We know, as we write, that in the eyes of the public, extending the reach of fishing operations to naturally “protected” grounds is a very unpopular and unwelcome development for fish resources which is generally regarded as a form of gross overexploited. In reality extending our ability to exploit new fishing grounds may, if managed responsibly, be the necessary buffer which will enable management authorities to reduce fishing pressure from traditional, heavily exploited stocks. This process of shifting fishing pressure to new grounds would reduce the social and economic costs associated with the large reduction in the allowable catch of traditional resources required to rebuild these resources.
This of course should not be a license for the free-for-all decimation of new resources (which, unfortunately seems to be the case in a number of highly publicised high seas resources). Fishers and managers should be clever enough now to know that the initial boom associated with the development of new fisheries is short lived and not sustainable at initial levels. In our opinion, a permit for the development of new fisheries or new grounds should be linked to an overall socio-economic management plan which will aim at trading-off new catch options against catch reductions in overfished grounds. What one should avoid at all costs is the development of additional fishing capacity. If this happens then there will be no long term benefit to fish resources and greater risk since the additional fishing capacity will be redirected at traditional stocks when the new resources become less productive as is bound to happen (see our 2nd article – assuming that you the reader have kept our articles as you should).
The relationship between remuneration for fishermen, and their status in the management of the fishery
The basic principle of remuneration for most employed fishers around the world is a commission per kilogram of fish caught. The actual income may differ by fish resource, fisher status and company policy. In principle, commission is a form of profit distribution - the basic intention here is to motivate fishermen to increase their productivity and to have a keen interest in resource management. In practice, in TAC controlled fisheries, increased fishing efficiency does not translate to greater kg caught. As such there is no derived benefit to fishers from better catch rates. Better catch rates can however save company or vessel owners fuel and bait consumption, provide better marketing opportunities, and reduce onboard crew requirements. This profit does not devolve to employed fishers who are numerated by commission. As such there is very little incentive for fishermen to support long term management objectives and technical developments, since these do not immediately increase, but rather reduce, their income base of kg of fish caught.
The pressure on fishers to make large catches in order to maintain a stable income base and the inability to distribute profits derived from increases in fishing efficiency (catch rate) is often translated into pressure on management authorities not to reduce the TAC and/or on company managers not to introduce a more efficient means of fishing. In South Africa and Namibia where, in general, a very conservative management regime has allowed fishing companies to obtain their allowable catch with relative ease, a remuneration method based on fish quality and size mix has been introduced in recent years.
This payment method has clear positive effects since it allows fishers to enjoy greater returns without necessarily increasing catches. However, as is the case with many other “solutions”, this payment system has it own flaws since it encourages fishers to discard low quality catches, to target particular size mixes or in some countries to create a “black market” based on excess catches. A more subtle but nevertheless profound consequence of this is that it may lead to negative bias in CPUE trends which would give the wrong signal to stock assessment scientists (we will discuss this particular issue in greater detail in the future).
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