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  • Writer's pictureFiona Beaty

How do we define a successful fishery?

A few weeks ago, I was tasked to present an example of a commercial fisheries success story as a part of an Ocean Conservation course at the University of British Columbia. I chose the snow crab fishery, which developed off Newfoundland's coast in the 1990s following the horrific collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery, and now comprises 25-90% of the province's annual fisheries revenue.

Snow crab image credit: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

The reason I selected this fishery was due to the relatively successful implementation of a co-management structure, which involves sharing decision-making powers across the main groups involved in harvesting, using, and managing the resource. Here, this includes Indigenous communities, DFO fisheries scientists and managers, commercial harvesters (Fleet Committees), and the processing sector. Each year, these groups work together to collect data about snow crab abundance and distribution and decide upon the fishery management plan. Importantly, ultimate decision-making power is retained by the federal fisheries minister, which makes this an example of a 'consultative co-management' structure.

The snow crab co-management structure is still evolving, as it is only a few decades old, and the groups involved are working out a few kinks associated with their collaboration and knowledge sharing. In a recent paper, DFO fisheries scientists outline a few principles they hope will improve the implementation of co-management and ensure the ongoing success and survival of the snow crab fishery (see below).

During the class symposium of fisheries success stories, I was astounded by a very common thread - many of our 'success stories' described fish stocks whose populations plummeted during the 1980s due to overfishing. Following the collapse, fisheries managers tended to do one of two things: select an alternative target species (e.g. the snow crab fishery) or focus on returning the stock abundance to pre-collapse levels (e.g. Pacific Lingcod).

So, it seems that our definition of success aligns very strongly with restoring populations that have been formerly decimated by overfishing. At first this seems like an appropriate goal, and in many ways it is, given that humans did drive, and still are driving, many fish and invertebrate stocks into the ground.

The Pacfic Lingcod fishery on the West Coast of the US collapsed in the late 1980s (graph shows spawning stock biomass). Following the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens act and a 10-year rebuilding plan (red dashed line), lingcod populations have begun to recover. Today, the West Coast groundfish fishery provides approximately $60 million in annual revenue. Graphic from Oceana:

However, I find it very unsettling that we have so few examples of commercial fishery success stories that do not involve this 'collapse and then recover' storyline. Where are the examples of sustainable harvest practices that allow fish and invertebrate populations to thrive over many generations?

In searching for an answer to this question, I have much to learn from Indigenous harvesting practices. For example, in this short video Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes core elements of the honourable harvest, an Indigenous approach that has guided sustainable plant harvesting for millenia. These principles include only taking what you need, using everything you take, and never taking the first plant or animal you come across. In doing so, you can ensure that you never take the last individual in a population. The honourable harvest also involves practicing reciprocity and being accountable to the more-than-human world and the generations of life that will come after you.

Dr. Andrea Reid and Dr. Natalie Ban are adapting and applying these principles of reciprocal relationships to fisheries management and ocean conservation in an upcoming research chapter, visualized here:

Indigenous management principles can be brought together with commercial fisheries through co-management structures. For example, in April 2021 the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk, and Nuxalk First Nations and Department of Fisheries and Oceans developed a co-governance framework to oversee commercial, recreational, and Indigenous Dungeness crab fisheries along the Central Coast of British Columbia. See here for a research article that provides context for this landmark collaborative decision.

To what extent principles of co-management, the honourable harvest, and reciprocal relationships can be scaled to large commercial fisheries throughout the world remains unclear to me, but it is absolutely necessary. I fear that without a substantial paradigm shift and transformation of our current management approaches, we will continue to define success as recovering from collapse rather than as maintaining thriving marine ecosystems and communities.

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