Challenging the Dogma of MSY

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Carmel Finley. All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. University of Chicago Press, 2011. 224 pages. Cloth: $35.00. 

“MSY: A quantity that has been shown by biologists not to exist, and by economists to be misleading if it did exist. The key to modern fisheries management.”1

In the lingo of fisheries management, M-S-Y is G-O-D. To attain maximum sustainable yield is to attain a kind of watery nirvana. It is, in theory, the Goldilocks point at which the population of targeted fish is neither too low (threatening a decline in catch) nor too high (representing a waste of fish that could otherwise be sold and consumed), but just right.

Or, as historian Carmel Finley puts it in her new book, All the Fish in the Sea, “some scientists after World War II believed that fishing had a positive impact on fish, removing older, slow-growing fish to free food supplies to support large numbers of faster-growing young fish. They believed they could estimate how many fish could safely be harvested.” She quotes Wilbert McLeod Chapman, the State Department employee in the post-war period who, more than anyone else, inserted MSY into fishery management treaties: “Fishery resources, being quickly replaced by nature, are wasted if the annual crop which can be safely harvested from them is not taken. The fish mature, die, and are lost to the benefit of no one.”

If MSY is God, the high priests of the religion are the fisheries scientists. Their arcane and mystifying calculus is displayed in power-point presentations on giant screens at every gathering of the congregation, as the scientists inform the benighted congregants of the status of stocks.

Finley, a professor of history at Oregon State University, is a heretic. In her book, she reviews the events and disputes – diplomatic, social, economic, political – that lie behind the emergence of MSY as a kind of gold standard for rational fisheries management. “MSY became part of American foreign and domestic policy in 1949,” she notes, “when it was formally adopted by the State Department as the goal of American fisheries policy.”

“Between 1949 and 1958, American diplomats pushed to have MSY adopted internationally as the goal of fisheries science. MSY is the basis for many of the international fisheries agreements signed during the 1950s, and it was formally recognized as a legal concept during the Law of the Sea negotiations in 1958.” Though modified somewhat in 1996, with passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, she continues, “it is still at the heart of modern American fisheries management.”

MSY fit well with a laissez-faire, free-market approach to commercial fishing, Finley explains. If MSY was exceeded, the theory went, then it would become unprofitable for fishermen to pursue the stock. With fishing pressure relieved, stocks could rebuild, to the point it was once more profitable to fish for them. Along with that came a blind faith in the ability of fish to bounce back from overfishing: “Chapman,” Finley writes, “believed in the essential resilience of the fish themselves, despite the pressure of sustained fishing. Till his death in 1970, he believed that fishing did not overharvest stocks; he was not alone in that belief.”

One of the fundamental tenets of MSY is the notion that fish have surplus production that can safely be harvested (i.e., fished); “when the catch per unit effort (CPUE) dropped,” Finley says in describing this view, “fishing would halt and the stocks would be given time to rebound to optimal levels. Introducing restrictions as the catch was increasing was not necessary. The fishery could regulate itself.”

However, she continues, “while surplus production theory purported to be based on biology, it rested on an economic trigger: a decline in the CPUE.”

“The whole biological-economic model presumed that markets were open, when, in fact, they were not. After 1945, governments increasingly subsidized the global fishing industry, creating new programs to build boats and processing facilities, funding university work on the development and marketing of new fish products, and implementing tariffs and other protective measures.

“When fish catches fell, the economic incentive to leave the industry was neutralized by government actions. If anything, once government spending was established, subsidies continued, creating the pressure for more assistance and continually thwarting the expected corrective action of the markets.”

The adoption of MSY as a regulatory standard did not occur without dissent. A British fisheries scientist, Michael Graham, took strong exception to the notion that human fishing effort was equivalent to just another type of natural predation. If “one agent of death becomes so active as to claim more fish than die by all other agencies together, then that agent has control of the average age of the stock of fish,” Graham wrote in a paper presented to a critical United Nations conference on fisheries management held in Rome in 1955. Graham, Finley writes, advocated a “go-slow approach that sought to achieve long-term economic benefits for fishermen, by protecting young fish from exploitation until they were older, larger, and had spawned. Today it is tempting to call Graham’s proposals precautionary, but Graham … was motivated not so much by the desire to protect fish as the desire to protect fishermen. Protecting fishermen would also protect fish.”

Graham’s objections were ignored, as were those of Sydney Holt, another fisheries scientist (still living today). Holt, Finley writes, was arguing that MSY encourages the development of a large fishing fleet, which increases expenses to fishermen, who, in turn, generate heavy political pressure on governments to allow continued fishing. “Holt argued against research aimed at estimating a ‘critical point’ for ocean fishery management,” she writes. “If fishing was focused on harvesting the maximum catch at its maximum weight, this could only be done by a large number of boats or ‘with an infinitely high fishing intensity and hence at a correspondingly high cost; it is therefore a totally unreal objective for resource use.”

Nonetheless, MSY became the order of the day in international fisheries management regimes, but scientists could not keep pace with the rapid development of post-war fisheries. “[T]he entire world of fishing was accelerating, as more government and private money was being poured into the industry,” Finley writes. “The peculiar postwar activity of fishery development had already emerged, with its strong political ties to government and its economic implications for fishermen. Fishery science was only one component of post-war fishery development, and the suggestion that fishing proceed slowly and cautiously did not fit with the post-war objectives of staking claims to new fishery resources.”

Not surprisingly, the second half of the 20th century saw fisheries crash: Atlantic cod, California sardines, salmon in the Pacific Northwest, Peruvian anchovies, South American pilchards, Georges Banks herring, California rockfish – the list goes on and on.

“It is generally argued that MSY was a step forward in recognizing that the great sea fishes were exhaustible,” Finley writes in her conclusion. “However, I argue the opposite. MSY, as it came to be implemented, created a false sense of security in the minds of the public and politicians. In a sense, fisheries science was frozen in 1955 by the actions at the Rome meeting. There have been various modifications of MSY, replacing the word ‘maximum’ with other words, such as ‘optimum’ or ‘economic,’ but the modifications have not been substantial enough to prevent fish populations from being overly exploited.”

In the last half century, as stocks have collapsed, efforts to tweak MSY to reflect more complicated realities have caused the fisheries scientists’ equations to become ever more abstract.

“The biological complexity around the reproduction of fish stocks in the oceans has been a much more confounding puzzle than early biologists suspected,” Finley writes. “Once the policy was established that the goal of management was to predict how many fish could be caught, the science was pushed into ever more complex mathematical models, increasingly divorced from the real world of what was happening in the water.”

What Finley argues for is nothing less than turning the hoary principle of MSY on its head: “The story we have always told about all the fish in the sea is that there are many of them. They are renewable, they can sustain heavy fishing pressure, and the ocean they live in is resilient and productive. Instead, our twenty-first-century story of all the fish in the sea is that they must be valued and husbanded. They platy a vital environmental role in the ocean; they must be protected so they can replenish and strengthen their population structures, and the ocean itself must be treated with greater understanding for its fragility and its limits.”

I fully expect the views of Finley, like those of the Anabaptists, to be disparaged by many of the scientists who have built their entire careers on divining MSY. She isn’t one of the initiates, after all, and there appears not one quadratic equation in her entire book. But for all that, her message deserves to be heard. Given the colossal failures in managing stocks of fish – collapses that are ongoing and which will, in all likelihood, only grow more frequent in the future – it is imperative that a new standard for fisheries management be developed. Finley’s heretical views mark an important milestone in that direction.

1 Quoted by Finley, who attributes it to John Gulland (1920-1991), a British fisheries scientist.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 22, Number 11 May 2012

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