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Can you have your fish and eat it too?

Could an emphasis on long-term profitability help put fishing on a sustainable basis?Heard the cascade of caterwauling about ocean fish? About 25 percent of fish stocks are depleted. For want of fish, commercial fishing boats are rusting at the dock, and local people are going hungry.

Figuring a fish in the boat is worth two in the sea, fisherfolk are hooked on the idea of catching while the catching is good, even if the net result is fewer fish down the line.

It's a watery version of the tragedy of the commons, and many predict that the current path will cause harm to our diet and our environment. Fish like the delectable tuna are, after all, top predators, and removing top predators can change the entire ecological web in the ocean.

Now comes a radical economic study from Australian National University, showing that tuna, orange roughy and two other fish could recover if catches were reduced for several years. That's old news.

The new news is that this approach would be more profitable than the current approach, which amounts to hunting fish as fast as possible -- at a level called "maximum sustainable yield."

The explanation? The cost of chasing fish rises as they become scarce, and that hurts profits.

Hooking a new idea
The new finding is anchored in the cost side of the ledger, rather than the historic focus on the size of the catch. "Our results prove that the highest profits are made when fish numbers are allowed to rise beyond levels traditionally considered optimal," says study author Quentin Grafton, research director at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University. "In other words, bigger stocks mean bigger bucks."

Commercial fishing boats with nets, cranes, and fishing lines seen across expanse of water
Fishing boats at Port Forchon, La. In some countries, regulation designed to curb overfishing are idling many fishing boats at the docks. Photo: NOAA

If you've bought diesel fuel recently, you might be chary of chasing rare fish. "When fish are more plentiful and thus easier to catch, fishers don't have to spend as much on fuel and other costs to fill their nets -- profits are higher," says Grafton.

This bit of common sense swims against the tide of the emphasis on first-come, first-served fishing. If I catch Charlie the star-crossed tuna today, you can't snag him tomorrow. And so I may be willing to spend weeks waiting for Charlie to hit the hook, spending considerable fuel, wages and supplies in the process.

But if I'm guaranteed to get a crack at Charlie -- and his kids -- in a few years, I might have an economic incentive to wait, says Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington.

Trading today's emphasis on fish-chasing for a guaranteed share of the catch allows long-term thinking to dominate, says Hilborn, another author of the new study. "Only when fishermen have a dedicated share of the catch ... will it be in their interest to move to higher stocks."

Such a longer-term attitude is already helping to regulate the huge pollock fishery in Alaska, he adds.

Smiling fishermen display their catch--over a dozen very large tuna hanging from their tails on a dock
In 1979, anglers showed off their yellowfin tuna in Mexico. After years of overfishing, we bet the yellowfin trophies would be much smaller today. Photo: NOAA

Putting fish on the scales
The flurry of concern about disappearing ocean fishes that surfaced in the mid-1990s has helped spark improvements in management, Hilborn says, even though he thinks the crisis was overstated. "In general, a lot of the very high-profile papers in the late '90s were gross exaggerations. This was rhetoric to raise concern about the issue."

Rhetoric or reality, the result was a major change in U.S. fishery law in 1996, Hilborn says, that enacted "a very rigorous science system so we have a pretty good idea of what is going on with the major stocks, and have very strong rules for how to change the catch in response to changing abundance."

The benefits have even started to appear in New England, he says, where haddock are recovering and there is "some progress" on cod.

Glass case full of fresh fish
As fish disappear from the ocean, fish now travel further to reach this store in the heart of New England's historic fishing country. Photo: Larson's Fish Market, Menemsha, Mass., © David Tenenbaum

Fish: It's not just for Friday anymore...
Nonetheless, the principle of "competitive fisheries," where you make more money by catching fish before the other guy, still rules in the majority of fisheries, in the United States and abroad.

The new study indicates that focusing on profitability will produce a win-win-win solution: more profits, more fish in the ocean, and more food on the plate.

But the system will only work if fishers know they will not be penalized for holding back: If I sit in the harbor while you haul in Charlie, you get paid and I don't.

Two orange-tinted fish, one large and one small, on ice, laying on their sides with one eye exposed
Orange roughy, one of the biggest deep-water fish catches, can live for about 150 years. Because they do not breed until about age 25, these fish are highly susceptible to over-fishing. A new economic model shows that cutting the roughy catch now would actually boost total fishing profits in the future. Image courtesy R. Waller, NOAA

Australia and New Zealand have taken the lead in limiting fishing while dedicating access to a specific company or community, says Hilborn. "They allocate the catch so it eliminates the competitive nature of the fishery."

It's a heretical notion: A focus on profit and ownership may yield both environmental and economic benefits. "Fishers have been so conditioned to taking whatever the government says is sustainable, they have not worked through the actual economics," says Hilborn. "We are hoping the paper will stimulate people to do the arithmetic: We will be better off by fishing less."

- David Tenenbaum

Related Why Files
Too Few Fish in the Sea
Something Fishy?
Old Fish, New Fish
Ocean Sickness
Tracking Sea Creatures

• Economics of Overexploitation Revisited, R.Q. Grafton, T. Kompas and R.W. Hilborn, Science, 7 December 2007.

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