Juvenile Chinook Salmon
Fishery scientists in Denmark and other nations which draw from the severely depleted North Sea have long known about the need for sustainable catch and fish farm practices. Recently several scientists of SINTEF Fisheries and Agriculture laid out the issues of demand for fish, technological and ideological advancements in the fishery industry, and approaching efficiency in seafood markets.
The linked article discusses more of the supply side changes that need to be made if we want to keep eating fish tomorrow (by “tomorrow,” I mean within this generation, as opposed to “some far off abstract generation” which is what economists often mean when using this word).
The problems of unsustainable fishing practices – that is, harvesting more fish than can be replaced by natural reproduction – are varied, and it is a problem humans have never been forced to deal with on a grand scale.
Causes of Fish Depletion
One cause of fish depletion is technological. For most of our existence, humans have used small nets, spears, or line fishing as tools to allow extremely selective take at a very limited scale. Now we have dynamite, cyanide, and trawlers as tools, not to mention machines to haul up loads of fish that manpower could not have matched. These modern methods allow relatively easy take of extraordinary pounds of biological material, but they are not selective and result in vast quantities of by-catch. So where before we had limited selectivity with no impact on fish or habitats, now we have an unlimited general take which damages the general habitat, including juvenile fish. Another issue is the huge population boom of the last two centuries. Demand for fish has risen simply because there are more people now.
The motivations and incentives fishers face often causes another problem. If one fisher adopts trawl technology, then that fisher will make a greater profit simply due to more mass caught at less effort. Other fishers will see this and want part of that profit as well, and will switch from the older technology of line catch to trawl until all fishers are trawling. Even if this depletes the fish supply in the near future, all of them will choose to do it, because one must pay the bills today even though the means to pay the bills may be gone in twenty years. But who cares? The bill is for today, not twenty years from now.
This is especially disturbing in nations with unregulated fishery practices, because they often have the problem of one or several large firms (companies) competing against small firms (individuals, often with a subsistence need). The short-term survival needs almost always outweigh the health of the fishery or the general environment. This is not so in the United States, as there are a limited number of individual fishing boat licenses sold, so even companies with more boats are not necessarily better off than individual fishers because they must also have one of the licenses.
Finally, while there is some distinction in prices between kinds of fish caught, this is almost exclusively due to species differences. Generally, differences in fishing practices translate into higher or lower prices which consumers respond to as though price is the only important factor. There is some difference in consumer response – say, some consumers will prefer more expensive Pacific wild-caught salmon to Atlantic farmed salmon – but most will see no reason to pay higher prices for what they see as essentially the same good. So fishers with more sustainable practices therefore have higher costs, since consumers are unwilling to basically subsidize their practices by paying more.
So what can we do to address this issue?
There are, of course, two sides and several approaches for each. I’ll start with the supply side, which would be the response of the fisheries, and then address the demand side for average consumers.
The first and best response would be to adopt new (or old) sustainable fishing and fish farming practices, and by doing so create demand for the development of more efficient sustainable fishing technologies. “Efficient” in this case means both market efficiency and getting the greatest return from a fish population given the environmental limitations. I cannot emphasize this enough. The key difference between the “efficiency” of return from trawls and the “efficiency” of sustainability is that the sustainability accounts for the limitations of the environment. Salmon aren’t going to reproduce any more quickly no matter how high the prices are, so we must account and adjust.
Yet this is extremely difficult to do. For one thing, the same force that made fishers switch to trawlers still operate, so that any fisher that tries to switch away will lose money. Only as a group can they switch and still be well off relative to each other. Plus even one fisher that uses trawls while everyone else uses sustainable methods will reduce the future catch of all the suppliers, because trawls damage the environment generally.
Another problem is the lack of good alternatives that still make a profit. This is because the sustainable fishery technology market still lacks the capital to invest in biological research, innovate, and produce sustainable goods in mass quantities. This movement lacks money because not enough fishers are demanding sustainable technology, and they aren’t demanding it because it’s not very good (e.g. cheap, effective) relative to the unsustainable alternative.
There are some short-term changes in practice that could work – the 90 degree method of trawling, for instance. But in the long term they won’t have much difference.
Another reason that reducing profit margins is so difficult is the current high price of fuel. Now there is less room for fishers to operate without losing money, since simply getting to the fish is so expensive. This could have mixed effects: if more fishers go out of business due to high fuel costs, then there will be less pressure on fish populations. However, the ones that do stick around will have a greater incentive to use unsustainable, high mass and high by-catch strategies. And fishers going out of business is not a desirable goal if we can keep them around and save the fish (which we can).
There needs to be a restructuring of the way that suppliers think about their product. It is mostly the case that short term price and revenue/profit are the ONLY measures by which a fisher decides to fish or not. Thus we have people fishing at greater and greater rates as the fish are getting smaller and younger. Fishers need to think about tomorrow. Of course unless the fishery is on the verge of collapse, it is not reasonable to expect them to because what do they care? They’ll retire in five years anyway, so if it collapses in ten they won’t change their practices. But if it risks collapse in two years, then they will care.
Here, I think, is a place for government to set protected areas for juvenile and spawning areas and to enforce limited catches. There are a variety of methods for the industry to be regulated, but depending on the government is not a good idea in the long term due to changes in leadership and the power of fishing lobbyists. In the end the most permanent solutions will come from within the industry.
What can consumers of seafood do?
Probably the simplest solution is to reduce demand by not eating fish. However, this is also the most difficult, because unless one is a vegetarian or vegan, there’s a huge temptation to slip.
More practical (and enjoyable) ways to reduce/change demand is to be an informed consumer with sites like Seafood Watch. You can also refuse to buy fish whose origins you don’t know about, like the frozen stuff in boxes. Instead go to farmer’s markets and talk to the fishers: ask them about where they fish and how.
You must be willing to pay higher prices for this fish. If price and species are the only ways you assess the quality of the good, then you will never see a change in the fishing industry.
This doesn’t reduce demand for seafood per se, but what it does is shift the nature of the demand from price-based only (e.g. “a shrimp is a shrimp is a shrimp”) to a demand that requires numerous conditions in order for the sale to happen (e.g. “a farmed shrimp is not a wild-caught shrimp is not a wild-caught shrimp caught with cages instead of trawls”). This is the thing that will eventually move suppliers en masse to sustainable technologies, because they won’t be able to sell anything if they aren’t sustainable.
This may seem like a daunting task, as of course each consumer is just one person. But if many people change their buying practices, then the whole market will be changed; and it is impossible for many people to change without each individual changing, too. Plus, as demand for sustainable fish goes up, the price of said fish will go down as fishers shift to new practices and supply more, while the price of unsustainable catch will go up. Hopefully it will become an industry standard and prices will reflect the true cost of catching fish without destroying the environment.