Thursday, November 29, 2012

Enforcement, fisheries dirty little secret

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer to work directly with fishing communities in designing management systems. This is not a misguided liberal idea that fishing men and women are inherently responsible stewards of their resource. We have examples both of conservation ethic and of blatant mismanagement by fishers, in modern times and going well back in history. Nevertheless, the opinion of fishing communities matter because enforcing fisheries regulation is really tricky and the attitudes of fishing communities makes or breaks most forms of regulation.

Most fisheries take place offshore with boats spread over huge areas. We have a growing toolbox of enforcement techniques to keep an eye on fishing activity and ensure it complies with regulations, but we are still a long way off from being effective enforcers, particularly in small-scale fisheries in developing countries where resources are limited. Arguably the most impressive modern technology is a vessel monitoring system. When enforcing a closed fishing area, onboard transponders can signal the location of the fishing vessel. Typically regulations require that any passage through a closed area is done while under full power, since most fishing activity can only take place if the boat slows down and speed can be tracked by the vessel monitoring system. This technique also offers the potential to identify illegal boats, a capacity I hope I can work with the Colombians to put into some of the remote fishing grounds we study. Remote radar systems can identify all boats, while vessel monitoring systems can show the locations of legal boats. Any other vessel can be flagged for inspection to see if it is fishing illegally (or doing other illegal activities, like drug trafficking).

Other regulations are more challenging to enforce. We often use size limits for fish, only allowing people to keep ones that are above a minimum size or, less commonly, below a maximum size. While large scale fishing operations are relatively easy to monitor by inspecting their catch dockside, catch from smaller more dispersed fleets is not so easy to monitor. There’s an even bigger problem. Most fishing gear catches a wide range of fish sizes. Gear modifications can reduce the unintended catch of fish that are too small or too big, but rarely eliminate it. Amazingly, the typical management solution to this challenge is to require that boats throw under-or over-sized fish overboard. The same policy goes for cases where a big haul exceeds the catch limit that a boat has: fish get thrown overboard. In a few cases, primarily invertebrates like lobster or crab, most of the fish survive this process. In most cases, though, many of the fish are dead and just as “caught” as if they had been brought into port. Moreover, because the fish were discarded, we often do not have data on this portion of the catch.

What can we do, then, to enforce size and catch limits, two of the most common forms of fisheries regulation? Compliance from the fishing community can make all the difference. If the majority of the community does not believe in a regulation, it is very unlikely it will be followed. If the majority do believe in a regulation, they are likely to enforce among each other.

This realization should not be a justification to give license to fishing communities to pick and choose any regulations they like. The rules should be set up with long-term goals, including sustainability, in mind. Doing so requires that scientists, managers, and fishing communities work closely together to identify goals, design appropriate management measures, and ensure that fishing communities understand the value of these regulations for their own future.

Compliance should not be a goal in and of itself, but marine fisheries regulations will be far more effective if they are made in concert with the fishing community. Compliance is a far better enforcement solution than a heavy hand.

All the best,

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