Economist Misses the Mark with Overfishing Editorial

By Cheryl Dahle

A recent editorial in The Economist would have us believe that of all the problems facing the oceans—acidification, plastics pollution, decline of habitat — overfishing is the easy win, the simple fix. Really, the article argues, this whole overfishing mess is the fault of fishermen. If fishers would just wise-up to the long-term environmental consequences of taking too much, they would make the well-informed and uncomplicated choice to just simply catch fewer fish. This naive finger-pointing exercise is about as helpful and logical as driving past an unemployment line and yelling out the window, “Get a job!”

The article unfairly downplays and depersonalizes the fraught process of transitioning fishery management to catch shares, glossing over the fact that it can destabilize and threaten fishers’ livelihoods. Communities where these changes have been implemented can spiral into bitterness, economic havoc and sometimes, violence. Is that so surprising? How easy would it be for you to take a pay cut, change everything about the way you did your job, and submit to rules that stripped you of the way of life that had supported your family for generations – in return for the uncertain promise that the resource on which you depend will “likely” rebound in the future? That is a brutally personal risk to take.

Also, explain to me — who’s a “fisherman?” That term can refer to a subsistence fisher, a modern day slave on a commercial trawler, or an Asian corporate conglomerate with pirate fleets that fish illegally. Often, individual fishers are not the decision makers. To hang the overfishing problem on “fishermen” makes them the scapegoats for a system of historically unchecked corporate profiteering that has victimized the ocean, fishers and the communities where they reside.

I agree that enacting policies to shift incentives for individual fishers do work. But to suggest that these shifts are no-brainers, or that fishermen are stonewalling because they just don’t get it, or are simply greedy, is downright careless and disrespectful.

There are groups doing amazing work with fishers, and they know that these transitions to shift human behavior are complex. The journey involves education, risk mitigation, and real solutions to the very real economic hit that fishers take to make change.

For example, in developing nations, RARE helps communities self-police illegal fishing practices using awareness campaigns that instill pride in the fishery.

In the U.S., the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), a marine science center that helps create solutions to the complex twin challenges of ocean stewardship and economic growth. GMRI hosts neutral dialogues with fishermen and scientists that build trust and help local fishers meet the new pressures of the market and regulation with better gear, better business management and more cooperation.

These are not overnight changes or easy fixes. They are also not enough.

Fishermen represent one link in a complex supply chain that creates motivations to overfish at every level. Our research, which included sending anthropologists into the field to observe the day-to-day activities of processors, distributors, importers, exporters, brokers, and other industry players, revealed incentives that drive illegal fishing, mislabeling, masking of scarcity, and other practices that directly affect overfishing behaviors.

And let’s not leave ourselves as consumers off the hook. Our desire to enjoy shrimp cocktail in blissful ignorance of how it’s caught and our expectation of finding our favorite fresh fish all year round are part of the unrealistic demand cycle that pushes the industry. I’m not sure I think these are easier behavior changes to pull off than weaning folks off their SUVs, or getting our governments to enforce carbon emissions commitments—both of which are core to fixing the supposedly harder task of addressing climate change.

The solution? More innovation. More work to demonstrate the rewards (for every player in the chain) of better practices that drive the end of overfishing, like increased traceability and more efficient communication between supply and demand in the marketplace. More memorable and nuanced ways to tell the story of our endangered oceans in ways that live not as slogans, but as delicious choices for dinner. We work with entrepreneurs who are creating these new solutions daily.

Shifting complex systems requires deep understanding and empathy, neither of which is evidenced in The Economist’s analysis. Forging an ecosystem of solutions that address the multiple of layers to overfishing is difficult. But it is doable. We know enough about where to head and how to get there that I believe ending overfishing before it’s too late is absolutely achievable, if not easy.

When “easy” means oversimplifying and picking targets for blame, we fan the very the flames of resistance we’re trying to extinguish. If I’m anyone but a fisher reading this article, the analysis and solution sound great: It’s someone else’s fault and someone else’s job to fix. But until all of us, not just fishers, own our part in creating this systemic problem, we’ll continue to deplete this precious resource that is all of our responsibility to save.

Cheryl Dahle is founder and executive director of Future of Fish, a nonprofit incubator for innovators launching scalable, market-based initiatives that drive sustainability, efficiency, and traceability in the seafood supply chain. Follow her on Twitter @HeyFishLady


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6 responses

  1. Great piece – definitely gets across that there’s no easy fix to the fishing challenge. While The Economist might have drastically oversimplified things, it’s also quite understandable given our short attention span: we (the public) are generally really bad at taking the time to hear multiple stories/perspectives around a particular issue, figure out how they all fit together, and then decide on some kind of action. Even more so if we can go about our daily lives blissfully unaware – and unaffected – by our actions. Maybe the only way we’ll take note of how we’re destroying our oceans is if/when we hit an “ocean bubble”…which by all accounts isn’t too far off. Thoughts?

  2. Thank you, Cheryl.
    Un fortunately, as the parade of interlopers increases, financial interests, that are attracted by the EDF Catch Share “scheme”, and the broken record claim of over fishing, over fishi…, the citizens that own the resource are not exactly hearing the truth. At least of the United States.

    They are hearng a thirty year long talking point that has sustained growth.

    The growth of foundation funded information, starting with the Crown Jewel, Pew charitable Trust, and now to include every ENGO that is supported by the term, over fishing.

    We have arrived at a new crossroad as the “scheme’ of the Wall St cozy Environmental Defense Fund, the corporate green washing machine, is now attracting those that smell the blood soaked profits of 400% for investors, the David Festa prediction at the 2009 Milkin Global Conference.

    Catch Shares, Cap and Trade. Commodity creation of profit for speculators, and interlopers.


  3. Thank you for a great article Cheryl. I’ve seen first hand what catch shares have done to communities. While the problem of “overfishing” certainly won’t be addressed by replacing the head of NOAA; strongly believe that removing Jane Lubchenco would send a clear message to government and the ENGO’s that we the people will not be pushed around. Please take a second to review the attached link, I think you’ll find the facts disturbing and worth further attention.

  4. Cheryl Dahle, while criticizing the Economist’s approach, still is focusing on overfishing and fishermen
    (“fishers” in the PC lingo). What the whole discussion is missing in the recognition that impoverishing of fish stocks may be due not to overfishing, but also to many other causes. Some of them: environmental fluctuations causing   boom-and-bust changes in the stocks; inshore habitat modification and destruction, thus affecting conditions for fish spawning, hatching, larval and post-larval survival, etc.; coastal pollution that affects fish survival, health and reproductive qualities, flawed fishery management, such as selective fishing that removes the best spawners, single-species management that by trying to protect the less abundant sp. by limiting or stopping the fishery, lets its more abundant competitor depress the former even more; the quasi-religious belief in the fallacy that large spawning stock produces stronger recruitment; and the whole complex involving fish food and predators relations… Well, I could go on on that.    MB-Y

  5. Individual fisher folk are decision makers. The same way I decide to not eat seafood because it is unsustainable, a fisher person can choose not to fish. It isn’t difficult. Yes, that will be a loss of income but how much do we need to survive on, this is an important question. I choose, and this is a key word, not to have children to further my choice in doing what I choose is best for me and the environment, not what I have to earn to provide for a family.  
    And heaven forbid we destabilize and threaten fishers’ livelihoods’ – better that we devastate fish stocks so they take generations to restabilise? Come on, humans need to downsize and stop thinking we are the superior species when we are taking too, too much, at a cost to every other species on the planet. 
    Have a small read of Seasick – with an open mind.

    1. What gives you the impression seafood is not sustainable?
      Because a bunch of anti fishing zealots tell you the oceans are being emptied at an alarming rate?
      At the same time they tell investors they can expect a 400% return on their investment into something that is unsustainable? The very same ones that say openly hydro fracking is acceptable?
      The same ones that have thrived and become wealthy carrying the message paid for with the very dirty un sustainable oil money of the wealthy? The corporate sponsor that has made local businesses unsustainable while becoming the major US importer of foreign goods, and employer of unsustainable living wages that in many cases are subsidized with food stamps for US workers? The same one that pushes MPAs that exclude only fishing, but include oil and gas development?
      This is what you CHOOSE to believe?
      You should read a little more from diverse sources before you voice your opinion.
      At this stage, it reveals the depth of your knowledge. Read this!

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