Saturday, December 8, 2012

If fish could scream

Does anyone care about overfishing?

As a preview of global biosphere destruction, (the big show, so to speak), the wanton destruction of fisheries around the world is a fair example, though many others can be cited. A common resource is plundered by commercial interests with a focus on efficiency, but little thought to tomorrow.

A recent paper summarized the sorry state of global fisheries, which they divide into two groups: "assessed", which were the subject of previous work by the authors (and the UN food and agriculture organization) in well-known fisheries such as the Bering sea, and "unassessed", comprising everything else around the world, of which there are thousands, large and small. The bottom line, surprise surprise, is that most fisheries around the world are depleted and, even in economic terms let alone ecological terms, are abused and declining.

Figure from the prior work, showing each of the "assessed" fisheries. Estimates of actual catch (u, blue circles); ratio of actual population to the population at maximum  sustainable yield (B/Bmsy, green triangles). Bands are also provided for catch levels consistent with msy (upper light blue), and levels consistent with rebuilding a depleted fishery (lower dark blue). The California current fishery seems to be the only one being managed back to some semblance of health, with New Zealand evidently undertaking a similar course. In contrast, the Newfoundland region has collapsed.

There are a few terms of art used here. One is biomass (B), the total quantity of fish in the sea, of the species of interest. Then there is maximum sustainable yield (msy), the yield available yearly in an optimally (from the managers and industry's perspective) managed fishery. How much pain and suffering are being inflicted.. how much ecological damage is being done in collateral damage to countless non-"fishery" species ... I think no one really wants to know. Also, fisheries managers tend to use a baseline of maximal yield from personal experience or other recent memory, not from the often enormously higher baseline of natural abundance predating human exploitation entirely. This is a general problem in appreciating losses in our standard of living, with respect to the natural world.

Status of various fisheries around the world, where "assessed" are relatively well-studied and -managed.

Even among assessed fisheries, "63% have a biomass below what would produce maximum sustainable yields". The main finding is that the unassessed fisheries are in much worse shape, which is a bit surprising, since they are not the prime economic hunting areas. But they are also less regulated and less organized. There is open season, more or less, on sharks in the open ocean.

Status estimates for a few "unassessed" fisheries.

It is a testament both to the failure of classical markets & the free market ideology that this is happening, and a call to international government with global purpose and teeth. Classical economists might make the point that this simply makes the case for "fencing-in" these commons and investing them with property rights that lead to sustainable resource extraction. But our experience with tree farms and other kinds of farming (see the Dust bowl) says clearly that environmental values always get short shrift in such systems. Not to mention that fish are mobile resources, making such fencing problematic even conceptually.

Needless to say, everyone would be better off in the long run if we could control our corporate ideologies and greed in the short run. Sadly, perhaps the best mechanism is put large regions of the ocean entirely off limits to commercial fishing. Simple, but a reflection of how more intricate rules by which we try to manage and regulate "free" markets are simply not up to the task of preserving what is obviously the common good.


  • Can a fish even be seen? Death and fish in the movies.
  • The scientific consensus on global heating has been too ... modest.
  • Bob Costas, on guns.
  • "The wealth of the Walton family – which still owns the lion’s share of Walmart stock — now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined."
  • Gambling pays ... those in the house.
  • Forget the dollar coin- how about if we phase out all coins? Indeed, all cash?
  • Class war, continued.
  • A soap opera, filmed from Middle Earth.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week..
I told an SBS Radio journalist today who was asking why the Government refused to lift the unemployment benefit despite admitting themselves that it is below the poverty line that the Government was deliberately impoverishing the unemployment but at the same time refused to create the macroeconomic policy settings necessary to generate sufficient jobs.
The way they defend that irresponsible and unethical policy stance is to claim the current unemployment rate is full employment. The dirty way out that governments of both political persuasions have employed since they became infested with the lies of neo-liberalism.
and...
The rise in acceptance of Monetarism and its new classical counterpart was not based on an empirical rejection of the Keynesian orthodoxy, but was according to Alan Blinder in 1988 “instead a triumph of a priori theorising over empiricism, of intellectual aesthetics over observation and, in some measure, of conservative ideology over liberalism. It was not, in a word, a Kuhnian scientific revolution”.

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