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June 24, 2004

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Fishery needs better communicators

Overfishing is a problem that is intricately linked to human wants and needs, politics, poverty, and economics.
BY STACY WEBB

Fisheries and marine ecosystem problems aren't just about catching too many fish and the solution is not as simple as getting the science right.

Overfishing is a problem that is intricately linked to human wants and needs, politics, poverty, and economics. This is one of the main themes that surfaced during the first annual Fisheries and Marine Ecosystems (FAME) graduate conference hosted this spring by students from the fisheries science and management research group in the school of resource and environmental management.

Forty-five students, representing eight different nations, came together at Crescent Beach from April 30 to May 2 to listen to and discuss fisheries management issues under the theme of integrating science and management.

The factors contributing to worldwide overfishing are overwhelming. As upcoming fisheries scientists and managers, how do we deal with both the biological science and social problems related to fishing?

It is apparent that we won't be able to single handedly restore fish stocks and ecosystem health, reform political systems and fix world poverty. During the FAME conference, we had many discussions about the past failings of fisheries management and what we can do differently.

The key point that came out of these discussions is the need to become better communicators and better listeners. As scientists and members of society, we must collaborate with industry, recreational fishers, indigenous people, managers, politicians, consumers, and public interest groups to collectively determine effective and efficient management plans for fisheries and marine ecosystems. Fisheries problems are often systemic and must be addressed at multiple levels.

One of the first steps to better communication and management is to define quantifiable objectives. Much of the past conflict between conservation and exploitation was due to undefined objectives.

If you don't have clearly defined objectives for fish stocks or marine ecosystems, how can you tell whether or not you have reached the management target? The need to define objectives came up during several group discussions, especially around marine protected areas (MPAs). The creation of MPAs can create a shift in effort, as fishing boats concentrate along the outer boundary of the protected area to catch the increase in spillover fish.

This shift may be considered good or bad, depending on the objective of the MPA. If the objective of the MPA is to increase fishing, this shift in effort is perceived as good (as long as it is sustainable), but if the objective is for conservation, measures may be needed to move the effort further away.

The best objectives come out of a collaborative approach. They are not imposed. To get at these objectives, we need to start talking and listening, and stop assuming. We need to ask scientists, industry, recreational fishers, indigenous fishers, managers, politicians, consumers, NGOs, and society what they want.

In the end, our differences may not be all that big. A simple example of the need for improved communication was shown in one student's research on recreational fishing in Germany. Results from his study demonstrated a marked difference between what managers thought fishermen wanted and what fishermen were looking for in a recreational fishery.

He found that catch is not a good indicator of recreational anglers' satisfaction with a fishing trip - much of the satisfaction was based on prior expectations. Fisheries managers who are trying to offer recreational anglers a variety of fishing experiences may be missing the mark if their objective is to manage for catch alone.

The economics of fishing and the difference between real and perceived costs was a popular topic of discussion throughout the FAME conference. One student's research showed that in 2002, Canada imported more seafood biomass than it exported, largely as a result of importing cheap fishmeal to feed farmed salmon.

This cannot be economically or environmentally sustainable in the long term. A couple of students gave presentations on shrimp farming. Sustainable rice-shrimp mangrove farms are being abandoned in developing Asian countries for high density, quick profit shrimp farms that destroy the ecosystem in 15 years or less. Guess who is buying the shrimp?

There was a lively discussion over whether the solution was to just stop buying shrimp. Boycotting farmed shrimp may be a short-term solution to save the mangroves, but what will replace it? What about the people who are making a livelihood out of shrimp farming? Again, it is apparent that overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems is not just about getting the science right. We may be able to make good scientific recommendations, but there also has to be the political and social will to save our aquatic ecosystems.

Many of the issues that were discussed at the FAME conference were also presented the following week at the Fourth World Fisheries Congress (WFC), held in Vancouver from May 2 to 6.

More than 1,500 delegates and most of the world's leading fisheries researchers were present at the WFC to showcase their work. As graduate students, it was exciting to hear talks from world renowned fisheries scientists. While many speakers at the WFC lived up to our expectations, other talks were disappointing.

After a weekend of high quality presentations at the FAME conference, the large number of poor quality presentations at the WFC was glaringly obvious.

As an interesting note, unlike many presenters at the WFC, graduate students at the FAME conference all adhered to the time limit for their talks.

It was also discouraging to see that at the WFC, many prominent researchers were more interested in promoting their own views and hypotheses than listening to new or cross-disciplinary views.

During the final plenary discussion at the WFC, old grudges became glaringly evident, blocking the way to more meaningful and insightful discussions across disciplines. Based on the questions and discussions, it is apparent that graduate students at the FAME conference were better listeners (the key to communication) than those presenting novel research or research not directly related to their discipline.

Fisheries management is suffering from an identity crisis as it tries to find a balance between the quantitative and social sciences.

The efficiency of the fishing industry has accelerated at an alarming rate, yet the efficiency of the political systems, management and science has not kept pace. The sea has long provided people with food and livelihoods - yet many fisheries are at a crisis level.

In order to save our ecosystems we need to change our expectations and our attitudes. There is little room for egos if we are to have open and frank communication. As future managers and scientists, we must remember to remain humble, to listen, and be willing to adapt - our ecosystems may depend on it.

Go to the FAME website at FAME soon for highlights of the session discussions and information on the FAME network. The fisheries science and management research group at SFU focuses on applied fisheries research, and is addressing some of the key issues in fisheries science and management, using leading edge techniques. Check out our website at fisheries science and management.

Stacy Webb is a master's candidate in the school of resource and environmental management and was on the organizing team for the FAME conference.















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