June 12: Sustainable fisheries need agreement first
“Fishery management is no rocket science – it's much harder”, says Dorothy Dankel who received her PhD in fisheries management from the University of Bergen. Under promotorship of professor Dankert Skagen, she has been exploring how bringing together fishermen, scientists and environmentalists can make fisheries more sustainable.
We spoke with her (DD) and her co-promotor Martin Pastoors (MP) from the Wageningen University shortly after her promotion in Bergen.

You began by explaining that it's not all misery in fisheries management. What are the keys to successful fishery management?
DD: “The sock-eyed salmon in Alaska is a nice example of successful fishery management. Now, salmon comes back to the same river it was born in to spawn. That helps managers, because by simply looking down from a tower, they can count the salmon as the they come back to the river. That makes it a nice stock to be in charge of. Also in Alaska in 1977 economic exclusive zones were named so that the country has jurisdiction up to 200 nautical miles from its coastline. So the Russian fleet has been kicked out. So, you have good biology and you have jurisdiction over the stock. And they have the Board of Fisheries in Alaska, which is a forum for the scientists to meet the stakeholders. It is one thing to invite stakeholders to come to the meeting, another to specifically invite them and give them brochures and driving directions to the hotel. Basically saying: your thoughts are valuable to us. In Alaska is so small, so the contact net between the management and the fishery is so short. They know eachother's uncles.”
You say in your thesis that also cod could be caught sustainably. How would that work?
DD: “I showed that the consensus figure is that we should fish cod at a very large minimum size of a meter instead of half a meter. And if we do that, there is a large range of harvest proportions. From 10 to 70 percent fishing. Right now we're fishing at 36 percent and that is low in comparison to what the consensus says on minimum size. The purpose is to open up a discussion. Are we managing optimally? Do we know what our stakeholders really want?”
How are cod stocks doing nowadays?
DD: “The Barentsz Sea cod in interesting, because now it's at almost record high levels. This is the largest cod stock in the world. I think it's assessed at almost the same level it was in 1946. Some scientists, like me and my colleagues at the MRI, take it with a grain of salt. It's hard for them to believe it's post WW2 size. But ICES has reviewed the assessment and says this stock is really huge. You compare that to the George's Bank cod, and they have 20 – 30 thousand tonnes. It's on different scales. The recommended cod for last year was 460 thousand tonnes for Barentsz Sea cod and now they can raise that to almost half a million tonnes in catch, and that is still in the precautionay zone. Everything is going so well with cod, there is no need to look for consensus with the stakeholders. They're all happy so to say.
Now the supply of cod is really high, we're exporting a lot to Spain and Portugal. For them, because of the financial crisis the cod is very expensive. They now have warehouses full of dried cod that they would take to Spain and Portugal but nobody is buying it. So the cod price is now very low. It's all rosy with the cod stock, but it's no good unless you can sell it.”
Is there any explanation as to the growth of this cod stock?
DD: “It's kind of embarassing that we don't really understand how it got to be like this. The Norwegian herring stock is also the largest in the world. Why it is so big? It totally collapsed in the 1960's. There was no fishing and it came back. Do we know why? We're not really good at these ecosystem things.”
What do you think, Martin?
MP: “I think there are two things. One is to explain why you get these large recruitments at some stage and the other is what you do when you get these high recruitments. If you have a stock that is very low and you're waiting for a high recruitment and it happens, then you have to make sure that we don't catch them when they're too small. And it seems that in Norway they have been successful in doing that second step. In taking measures to protect discarding of cod for example. So that when you get these high recruitments, you use them to build up a bigger stock. A bigger stock is more resilient, more age groups in the stock, so when you fish them, you don't get this type of burst and boom type of fishery. It's more resilient, more stable and you can harvest in a more steady way.”
How do they realise that?
MP: “The top-end of Norwegian fish management is that there is a ban on discard. You are not allowed to discard cod. It's very difficult to control of course. But they have a number of additional measures. You are not allowed to fish in closed areas and they can dynamically close areas. When they find a lot of small cod in an area, they can close it for a few months so that no one can fish there. Another thing is that they have successfully reduced the size of the fishing fleet. So that you don't get the type of pressure you get in Europe, where the reduction in the fishing fleet has been less.“
DD: “That's very true. In the eighties the cod in Norway was doing quite poorly. This overlapped with Norways oil industry expansion. And so a lot of these fishermen went from fishery straight into the oil industry. That was very good for the cod stock, because you're able to cut down on the fleet capacity and these guys are getting good jobs with huge salaries in the oil industry. It was an win-win situation. This is not the same in other parts of Europe or other parts of the world where you can not always have this graceful transition from one industry into another.“
You mentioned that willingness to cooperate is a key element in reaching consensus. And you quote George's Banks near Canada as an example. They have come from a desperate situation where cod was totally collapsed. So, I can imagine the fishermen are then willing to cooperate. But what are more generally the key factors for the required cooperation?
DD: “It varies from situation to situation. When things are going bad, people realise: okay, we're all in this together, everybody's getting screwed, we need to work together.
I think there are many factors. Some fishermen are really concerned about fishing for the future, that their grandchildren will be able to fish, that this is a way of life. There are other ones that are motivated because they realise they are part of an intricate system, like being part of a community of fishery. I think the problem lies with fishermen that don't see the consequences, because they can always move on to another shore. Then they are not interested to become involved in a meeting. Things at the moment are too de-personalised. I think when we personalise things, people start saying: my actions do have consequences.“
Then you would need a system in which people are identifiable, live within a certain community and have their responsabilities.
MP: “I think in Europe we're seeing initiatives towards much more interaction between stakeholders and scientists, more joint projects. We have now possibilities to do discard observation and sometimes scientists go along as well. We see joint projects on developing new gears. That type of projects is also about making personal contacts. So you see now much more collaboration at the stakeholder level than you had say ten years ago. So that is improving, I would say.”
The classical picture of fishery management is that you have scientists assessing the fish stocks, they advise certain quota's to the European Commission, which are then watered down in political negotiations between the member states and subsequently these quota get ignored by fishermen by every means possible. How can you improve this situation by collaboration?
MP: “One example is the transparancy of the assessment process. You had these groups of scientists collecting all the data from surveys, they would sit in a closed session – not public – and they would develop their estimates provided to the European Commisson, the Norwegian government etcetera. Now, we are inviting stakeholders to the scientific meeting. We explain what kind of models we use, what kind of data we use and we discuss between scientists and stakeholders how to interpret that information. Making that process public and transparant has helped a lot in building trust in how we do things. Similarly, we now invite fishermen to come aboard our research surveys, so that they can see the way we do it. They can comment on it. Building that kind of bridges in my opinion has helped a lot in establishing a communication that will in the future help to improve the efficiency of the fisheries management.”
I'm trying to apply the key-elements you named for successful fisheries management, namely assessment, ownership, control of the fleet and collaboration between scientists and stakeholders to the North Sea. Could your consensus model work there as well?
DD: “When the common fisheries policy from the EU was reformed in 2002, the EU realised we needed close collaboration with the stakeholders. So they wanted to set up regional advisory councils (RACs) with stakeholders like environmental groups, industrial fishermen, coastal fishermen and what not. The EU set it up because what they want is consensus reports from the stakeholders. In order to get credibility they sometimes forced consensus even though they did not really agree. But for the EU it was a learning curve too. I wouldn't say the RAC system is a perfect system altogether. You see a lot of strong stakeholders really running the meetings and pushing the environmentalists at the sideline. I think the RACs can be improved but anyway it's convenient for scientists to be able go to these meetings and to know that there are a lot of stakeholders and to be able to disseminate some of the results in stead of having to meet all the parties involved separately, like you guys are doing on your bicycle.”
Is this consensus the new paradigm in fisheries management?
DD: “I think it's hard to make a broad statement like that. I think in fisheries management, it's important to think in case studies and to look at certain regions. It's hard to say if consensus is the new paradigm. What if you have a stock where the consensus is: let's just fish it out. That could be, like let's just catch the last blue fin tuna and be done with that stupid sushi idea, which could be legitimate. I don't know. What would you say?”
MP: “In my view you should really move towards regional management organisations and for the North Sea that should include Norway. We should get away from this EU – Norway dichotomy and just make them jointly responsible for managing the North Sea area because they are the ones that have a stake there.”
The problem is of course that the EU doesn't have a great reputation is managing its fisheries.
MP: “Well, they're trying.”
DD: “The EU is an example of quite bureacratic topdown management. Are there other examples of where topdown management is successful? It's difficult because you have so many countries and so many objectives, so many stocks and so many different fleets. So the complexity builds up and you expect people at the top to understand all that. So I agree with Martin. I think regional management organisations are the way we should go.”
Dorothee Dankel is a biologist of American origin who works at the Institute for Marine Research ('Havforskningsintitutet') in Bergen, that is strongly affiliated with the Department of Biology at the University of Bergen. Her thesis is called: 'Building Blocks of Sustainability in Marine Fisheries Management'. She received her PhD on June 12th 2009 in Bergen, Norway.
Martin Pastoors is a senior fishery management researcher from the Wageningen University research institute Imares in the Netherlands. In 2006 and 2007 he chaired the advisory committee on fishery managent on ICES (International Commission on Exploitation of the Seas), a treaty between 20 member states including the US and Canada aiming to control fisheries in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.