Simplistic, naive and unhelpful

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 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 a 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 this: 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 fishing 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) is 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 helps 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 to 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.

Update (02/29/12): Check out Ecotrust VP and FoF innovator Ed Backus’s blog on why the Economist has it wrong on overfishing.