There is no question that fisheries management is “An enormously, immensely complicated intervention,” as Spencer Apollonio and Jacob Dykstra write in their new book about the New England Fishery Management Council. Both authors have long experience with the council: Dykstra was involved in creating the council and a member for seven years, while Apollonio is a marine biologist who has worked for a state management organization and the first director of the New England council. Their backgrounds are different but they are in agreement that the management system doesn’t work and they have written a book that explores why.
Their catchy title phrase comes from one of the best books about fishery management, Industry in Trouble, written by Margaret Dewar in 1983 about the New England fisheries.
They are critical of Maximum Sustained Yield, or MSY, which is at the scientific heart of American fisheries management. They write that it systematically removes large, old, slow-growing fish from a population, leaving a preponderance of young, fast-growing fish. This will allow the population to reach its greatest natural rate of increase, thus providing the maximum sustainable harvest. The difficulty is that such an attenuated population can attain the largest growth rate, but it is not sustainable. The younger fish population may begin to oscillate, shifting the population into “a lower hierarchical level with inherently faster dynamics and greater instability and unpredictability,” (200). Multiple year classes lend stability to fish populations, allowing them to withstand disturbances, such as shifts in currents, temperatures, and food supply. Species that are long lived, with delayed maturity, naturally select for a population structure with multiple age classes. MSY, by reducing the number of year classes, works against evolutionary adaptation to the environment.
One of the consequences of this increased instability in species is that stock assessments are markedly expensive, as the authors point out. They do not add that stock assessments can be notoriously inaccurate, especially when dealing with low stock sizes. Management, they write, “becomes ever more complex, burdensome, expensive, and confusing, with an increasing probability of decreasing efficacy,” (202).
Their solution is to move to an ecosystem based model, which would simplify the management process, while ensuring the protection of multiple year-classes that give the populations resilience. The author do an admirable job up to this point, but how to get to an eco-system based management process is a little murky. Are we going to write MSY out of American fisheries management? I’m all in favor of that, but as they point out, it is “very probably politically unrealistic” to suppose MSY is going to be abolished anytime soon (223). And I certainly agree that its administrative limitations should be acknowledged (especially to the public, which is constantly told fisheries are managed on the best available science). It would indeed be a useful exercise to think about a management model that could replace it. The thoughts of two individuals who have been so involved in fisheries management for so long would be useful here.
Apollonio and Dykstra believe that fisheries should be managed for sustainability, and this is best achieved by preserving the structure of fish ecosystems. In other words, as British scientist Michael Graham put it in 1943, in The Fish Gate, if you protect the fish stocks, you will protect the livelihood of fishermen. “Fisheries that are unlimited become unprofitable.”
Fishery scientists such as Graham hit on the key to fisheries management, but I argue that science was derailed by politics, between 1945 and 1955. MSY emerged from the bowels of the U.S. State Department, and while it was birthed by a scientist, Wilbert Chapman, let’s remember he was an ichthyologist, and that he crafted MSY as a political solution to a number of problems. Chapman believed that fishing stimulated fish populations, and that removing the older, slow-growing fish stimulated the production of younger, faster-growing individuals.
That’s what we thought in 1949. It turns out to have been wrong, but by 1955, after the meeting of the International Technical Conference on the Conservation of the Living Resources of the Sea in Rome, MSY was established as the foundation for international fisheries management. It was adopted at the 1956 meeting of the International Law Commission, cementing its position as science, policy, and as a legal concept.
The science was wrong. And the history of American fisheries management is a history of reluctance to limit the number of fishermen, for ideological reason that are beyond the scope of this review. As Apollonio and Dykstra point out, managers are exploring new ways of controlling effort, but the thinking is “largely fine-tuning and small variations on traditional themes,” (226). The whole problem requires new thinking and new concepts.
It also requires new science, based on what we know in 2010 (with the potential to make changes as we acquire more knowledge of ecoystems), not what we knew in 1949.
Michael Graham, The Fish Gate, (London: Farber and Farber Ltd., 1943), 143.
 Wilbert M. Chapman, “United States Policy on High Seas Fisheries.” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. XX, No. 498, Jan. 16, 1949, 67-80.