What causes overfishing?: Moving beyond the Malthusian narrative to create equitable and effective solutions

In a paper recently published in Fish & Fisheries, we question whether the “Malthusian overpopulation narrative” alone is an adequate explanation for overfishing and for designing responses. Our review, led by Dr Elena Finkbeiner of the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, suggests that there is a need to better engage with the factors that mediate the relationship between population and overfishing. These mediating drivers include technology and innovation, demand and distribution, marginalization and equity, and governance and management. Accurate diagnosis of the causes of the overfishing will lead to the design of more effective and more equitable management responses.

Reference: Finkbeiner, E., N. Bennett, T. Frawley, C. Brooks, J. Mason, Ng, C., Ourens, R., Seto, K., Swanson, S., Urteaga, J., Wingfield, D. & Crowder, L.B. (2017). Reconstructing overfishing: Moving beyond Malthus for equitable and effective solutions. Fish & Fisheries. Online. DOI: 10.1111/faf.12245 (Link)

Examples of drivers mediating the relationship between population growth and fishing effort

Examples of drivers mediating the relationship between population growth and fishing effort. (Source: Finkbeiner et al (2017). Reconstructing overfishing: Moving beyond Malthus for effective and effective solutions, Fish & Fisheries, DOI: 10.1111/faf.12245)

Abstract: Inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis of the root causes of overfishing can lead to misguided and ineffective fisheries policies and programmes. The “Malthusian overfishing narrative” suggests that overfishing is driven by too many fishers chasing too few fish and that fishing effort grows proportionately to human population growth, requiring policy interventions that reduce fisher access, the number of fishers, or the human population. By neglecting other drivers of overfishing that may be more directly related to fishing pressure and provide more tangible policy levers for achieving fisheries sustainability, Malthusian overfishing relegates blame to regions of the world with high population growth rates, while consumers, corporations and political systems responsible for these other mediating drivers remain unexamined. While social–ecological systems literature has provided alternatives to the Malthusian paradigm, its focus on institutions and organized social units often fails to address fundamental issues of power and politics that have inhibited the design and implementation of effective fisheries policy. Here, we apply a political ecology lens to unpack Malthusian overfishing and, relying upon insights derived from the social sciences, reconstruct the narrative incorporating four exemplar mediating drivers: technology and innovation, resource demand and distribution, marginalization and equity, and governance and management. We argue that a more nuanced understanding of such factors will lead to effective and equitable fisheries policies and programmes, by identifying a suite of policy levers designed to address the root causes of overfishing in diverse contexts.


Committing to socially responsible seafood

Migrant workers on a fishing boat on the Andaman coast of Thailand (Photo: Nathan Bennett)

Migrant workers on a fishing boat on the Andaman coast of Thailand (Photo: Nathan Bennett)

Five years ago when working on several projects with the UN FAO’s Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project in Southeast Asia, I became aware of how the global seafood industry was rife with social issues (report). These issues included slavery, welfare and safety issues, child labor, inequitable access to resources for coastal communities, lack of consideration of small-scale fishers in decision-making and ocean grabbing.

Over the past year, I was part of a working group that examined how the global seafood industry might commit to sourcing more socially responsible seafood. This initiative led to a first paper published in Science titled “Committing to socially responsible seafood“. This is just the first step in a much longer initiative.

Summary: Seafood is the world’s most internationally traded food commodity. Approximately three out of every seven people globally rely on seafood as a primary source of animal protein (1). Revelations about slavery and labor rights abuses in fisheries have sparked outrage and shifted the conversation (23), placing social issues at the forefront of a sector that has spent decades working to improve environmental sustainability. In response, businesses are seeking to reduce unethical practices and reputational risks in their supply chains. Governments are formulating policy responses, and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations are deploying resources and expertise to address critical social issues. Yet the scientific community has not kept pace with concerns for social issues in the sector. As the United Nations Ocean Conference convenes in New York (5 to 9 June), we propose a framework for social responsibility and identify key steps the scientific community must take to inform policy and practice for this global challenge. More…

Link to paper: Committing to socially responsible seafood

Eureka Alert News Release: Scientists launch global agenda to curb social, human rights abuses in seafood sector



Marine Protected Areas and Fisheries: Bridging the Divide

A new open access article titled “Marine Protected Areas and Fisheries: Bridging the Divide” has just been published online here. In this article, my co-authors and I explore lessons for effectively bridging the divide between biodiversity conservation and fisheries sustainability goals using marine protected areas through drawing on 8 case studies from around the world.Map of MPA sites

Abstract: Long-term and well-managed marine protected areas (MPAs) can, under the right circumstances, contribute to biodiversity conservation and fisheries management, thus contributing to food security and sustainable livelihoods. This article emphasizes (1) the potential utility of MPAs as a fisheries management tool, (2) the costs and benefits of MPAs for fishing communities, and (3) the foundations of good governance and management processes for creating effective MPAs with a dual fisheries and conservation mandate. This article highlights case studies from numerous regions of the world that demonstrate practical and often successful solutions in bridging the divide between MPA management and fisheries sustainability, with a focus on small-scale coastal fisheries in order to emphasize lessons learned. To be an effective fisheries management tool, MPAs should be embedded in broader fisheries management and conservation plans. MPAs are unlikely to generate benefits if implemented in isolation. The spatial and temporal distribution of benefits and costs needs to be taken into account since proximal fishery-dependent communities may experience higher fishing costs over the short and long-term while the fisheries benefits from MPAs may only accrue over the long-term. Key lessons for effectively bridging the divide between biodiversity conservation and fisheries sustainability goals in the context of MPAs include: creating spaces and processes for engagement, incorporating fisheries in MPA design and MPAs into fisheries management, engaging fishers in management, recognizing rights and tenure, coordinating between agencies and clarifying roles, combining no-take-areas with other fisheries management actions, addressing the balance of costs and benefits to fishers, making a long-term commitment, creating a collaborative network of stakeholders, taking multiple pressures into account, managing adaptively, recognizing and addressing trade-offs, and matching good governance with effective management and enforcement.

The article can also be downloaded from here.

Weigel, J.Y., Mannle, K.O., Bennett, N.J., Carter, E., Westlund, L., Burgener, V., Hoffman, Z., Da Silva, A.S., Kane, E.A., Sanders, J., Piante, C., Wagiman, S. & Hellman, A. (2014). Marine protected areas and fisheries: Bridging the divide. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 24(S2), 199-215.