Suzanne Iudicello is a researcher and writer and operates Junkyard Dogfish Consulting. She is a member of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Iudicello has written and spoken widely on fishery issues, particularly bycatch. She has authored Fish, Markets, And Fishermen: The Economics Of Overfishing.


Why do you think overfishing happens?

We're all concerned about overfishing and the fact that we take more out of the ocean than the ocean can replenish for us. But overfishing isn't happening because fishermen are greedy or they don't know when to stop. Overfishing happens because all the incentives are there for it to happen. If I'm told I'm allowed to catch ten fish, why would I stop at five when I know the guy next to me is going to catch his ten?

What is this 'boom and bust' cycle that you guys describe in the book?

The 'boom and bust' cycle of open access fishing, it's not quite like the boom and bust of the Gold Rush, because to some degree the oceans are a little more responsive to tender loving care than land.

But what happens is, someone says, "There's gold in them thar hills." There's a new fishery that opens up - royal red shrimp or pollock, or something that's never been caught before. And so the few forerunners get there early and they're making big money, and then we hear tell of it somewhere else and then we say, 'I'm going to get in on that bonanza and we go fishing.' And pretty soon, you've got the Gold Rush. You've got everybody piling on like it's the trail at Skagway, and more boats, more gear coming into the fishery.

Well, pretty soon, the number of fish that I can take out, as perhaps I was one of the front-runners, I'm just not getting what I used to get. So what am I going to do? If I don't have a new boom to go to, I'm going to gear up; I'm going to get better at catching those fish than you are, so I'm going to maybe get a bigger boat; maybe I'm going to change my gear; maybe I'm going to add more hooks. Whatever it is I'm doing, I'm going to get better at it.

So my catch per unit effort goes up and I do a little better. But then pretty soon everybody sees what I'm doing and they're all doing it too and we all escalate. Well, pretty soon we escalate to the point where somebody says, 'Hey let's put a stop to this.' And we ask the government to come in and stop us before we fish again. And so they put in regulations - most fishing regulations are about making fishermen less effective at what they do. Fishermen are very ingenious and they know how to catch fish and they do it well.

So government comes in and says, larger mesh. Well, what a crazy idea; fish are going to escape; that's not efficient; that's not what I'm here to do. But here come the rules. And so we get less efficient and maybe it slows down the catch for a little while. But eventually my ingenuity is going to outweigh the managers' capacity to make rules and I'm going to figure out a way to get around whatever their restrictions were. And so I'm going to up my catching effort again.

Well, after a time, it gets to be way too much and the ocean cannot keep pumping fish into all of our nets and our catch goes down and there is no recovery. Some of the other pieces that fuel the cycle, besides the ingenuity of fishermen, are perhaps the government rules are such that they delude us for a while. Maybe we get subsidies, maybe we get a break on our fuel tax, maybe we get a break on having a bigger engine installed, whatever it might be. Maybe we get a sale price break when we land the fish; something that allows us to fish at a cost that's higher than what we would get in selling the catch otherwise.

So this just goes around and around and you keep pumping more effort into the system until the system crashes.

So what's your sense? Have we already reached the productive limits of the oceans?

I think the ocean could be forgiving if we let it. In some fisheries we have reached the productive limits. Whether a cessation of effort would allow it to recover I think is in question. We're seeing now that outright closures in some of the areas of New England, which were the worst examples of fishery failures, are coming back.

I think that's good news. I think that should give us all a little bit more willingness to accept management measures, even when they seem very harsh in the present, that there is a payoff. I think one of the difficult things was that fishermen saw the paying today - "You're telling me I can't fish, I can't make money, I can't pay my boat off, I can't send my kids to school." These are all present-day paying and they didn't really count on the future benefit.

But I think the closures in New England that have resulted in really great scallop harvests and return of some of the groundfish, I think now there's some evidence that backing off really does make a difference.

Would you offer a thumbnail definition of overfishing?

Overfishing is taking so many adults out of a population of fish that you are not leaving behind enough reproducing adults to replenish the population.

How about another thumbnail sketch of overcapacity?

The shorthand version of overcapacity is 'too many boats chasing too few fish.' But it's not just a matter of the number of boats. It could be the time that they spend fishing. It could be the capacity of the gear - bigger engines allow them to go faster, allow them to go farther; larger gear can tow more cubic feet of net; dual trawls - there are configurations of vessels where you have two and three boats pulling huge nets between them.

So capacity is fishing power. Overcapacity is more fishing power than necessary to catch the number of fish.

Has the globalized fish market had impacts on developing countries and their marine resources?

Today, fishing is a global business. This is no longer solely an activity of people who go offshore from where they live, then bring the catch back for sale fresh. The invention of freezer capacity and the ability to generate ice is probably one of the biggest technology changes to come about in fishing.

So that today the fish we eat is probably not caught in the United States; it's most likely caught elsewhere. Certainly the percentages on consumption of fish indicate that we're importing more fish that we eat. What it means for less technological societies is that the fishing close to home doesn't take place anymore. And if it does, it's less effective.

So for example, if I'm living in a small island country where we used to depend on what was caught in a day's small boat ride offshore, that's all being fished out by a highly mobile, industrialized international fleet that can come in and move on, sell fish elsewhere, and there's not anything left for the folks at home.

Some of these developing countries need to generate foreign exchange, in order to pay off their external debts and so on. And to what degree, in your mind, does this motivate a country to sell out their fisheries?

In some countries fish are a convertible currency; it's a commodity that can produce cash. So, for example, when the former Soviet Union broke up into its various republics, there was desperate need for currency, for hard cash.

The ground fishery source off of Russia's eastern coast became a commodity to sell. So that the same leases, or rights, to fish within their zone were sold off to foreign companies. Fisheries that formerly had taken place by domestic fleets were cashed out to others.

And it's not just the case in the Russian Far East; this is occurring all over the world. Access agreements to the economic zones, fishing zones, of small island countries become very lucrative business trade-off. Sometimes payments to access of fish are coupled with foreign aid, onshore development. This has been the case in Argentina, in western Africa, to the point where some countries have finally had to say, 'No, no more. We're going to fish our own fish. The distant water fleet must stay out.'

Has the fleet grown faster than landings?

Yes. The fleet has grown faster than the landings. We have increased our capacity to catch fish faster than the ocean has been able to produce fish for us to catch. A part of it has been the technological improvements, so that we've maxed out the rate of catches and we've maxed out the rate at which we've increase catches. Now we're on a kind of a level rate of catch. We haven't increased it very much in the last five or more years.

But we're still putting technology out there. We're still improving the electronics, the power, the nets and so on, to the point where we're spending more to catch fish than the fish we catch are worth. That's global.

How is the world catch being maintained?

World catch is being maintained even though it's at a plateau because the industry is still willing to put more effort into catching the same number of fish. It may take more fuel, it may take larger engines, it may take bigger boats. But they're getting help on that because our governments are subsidizing those efforts through either direct payments or tax breaks or other financial mechanisms.

What are some of the solutions to overfishing?

There might be a way out of this escalating race to fish, but it's going to take both sides of the fishery management tool kit. The conventional side that we've used for years is to limit the number of fish that we allow fishermen to catch by setting quotas or setting seasons and so on.

But what are you going to do for the people who are already out there trying to make a buck? If you tell them, you used to catch ten and now we're only going to let you catch one, they're not going to pay for bait and fuel and ice and all the things they have to deal with. So we have to get at the effort side as well - the number of boats.

We've overbuilt our fleets around the world and we've got to find ways, not only to limit the number of fish that we take out so those populations can rebuild, but to reduce the number of vessels and gear chasing those fish.

Even as fish become more scarce and it becomes more costly to even catch them, why does overfishing continue?

The economic theory is that while there's still one last fish out there that's got some value attached to it, the rational person is going to go catch it. It may not seem rational to you and to me, but the point is we haven't fished any of these populations quite yet to the point where if a vessel goes out that they're not going to catch anything.

They are catching something. And that catch is sold and that income goes to pay expenses to some degree. The profit margin is getting slimmer and slimmer and slimmer. The response to that is just like the cycle that we talked about earlier - the response is to fish harder. If you're not making money, then you're going to fish harder to do your work to make some money.

There is a point, of course, where you're going to go belly-up, as if you're any kind of a business person, you just know you just can't afford to do it anymore.

There is a certain optimum point at which you fish a fish population where the long-term return is maximized. Can you speak to how the stocks now have to be rebuilt to try to re-approach it and try to have maximized long-term returns?

The whole notion of optimal sustainable yield - the maximum sustainable yield - seems arcane to most people, and there are biological formulas in curves that explain it. But I think the easiest way to understand it is that fish populations are responsive to their environment. And they're going to behave as a population in a way that adjusts the environment. And so animals, fish included, will reproduce to replace the members of the group that are lost.

So let's take fishing out of the equation for just a minute and talk about how the population is going to act, just on its own. Fish are born and fish die and as they die from a warming event or an oil spill, or predators eat them, or who knows what, more take their place. It's the idea of a steady state. Fishing enters into the equation as a different kind of mortality.

And the notion of maximum sustainable yield is that in an unexploited population, you can fish it down to a certain point where that will actually cause a population to produce more. It's the old corn chip adage: eat all you want, you'll make more.

There is a point where if you take that surplus off, the population will respond by producing at a higher rate to replace what was taken. They're going to make as many fish as they can to fill their caring capacity of their habitat; they want to be in a stable state with their environment.

If you just stay at that place, the reproduction is high. If you take less than that, actually the rate of reproduction goes down. Now, the problem has been we've never stopped there. We've taken more than that slice off of the top of the curve, if you will, and what we've done is push these populations so far below responsive reproduction that they're not even coming back to a point to keep themselves stable, let alone increasing.

How important is it to build economic incentives to supplement efforts to prevent overfishing?

Traditional fisheries management has tried to slow overfishing by restricting fishermen. And fishermen are not just ingenious at catching fish - that's what they do, they do it very well - they're also ingenious at circumventing all the rules, or finding a new way to fish, so the rules don't have any effect. But they're also rational people. If the rules say you can catch ten, and you can catch them with this kind of gear, and you can catch them at this place, they're going to catch ten.

And they're going to catch ten today and tomorrow and the next day, because I know if I don't, the guy with the boat next to me will do it. And I'm a rational person, I want to get my ten before he gets his ten and my ten. So without some certainty that there isn't somebody out in front of me, or that the rules aren't going to change, or that no matter what I do it's always going to go down to nine, and then to eight and then seven and then to six, without that kind of certainty, the race is always on.

The difference we have to create in a system, is some kind incentive to allow people to think of the future. Right now we're all thinking in the immediate present. We're going for satisfaction now, or at least the avoidance of pain today, because there hasn't been any certainty or assurance that if you back off now, it'll be better in the future. That element of stewardship, of conservation, has been missing from the management mix.

Not because fishermen are bad people and they don't care about the future; they care deeply about the future. They just haven't had any options. And what the system needs to do is to build options so that there is an assurance that if you back down today, if you forego some income, then there will be something more for you tomorrow.

What would be an example of an economic incentive?

There are a number of ways to configure economic incentives. We're talking about a nature resource here that has been traditionally open access. That means anybody with a boat and a gear and wherewithal and the bravery, if you will, to go out into the ocean and make a living could do it. Increasingly we are having to close the access to our fishery, whether via license or permit or some other means of limiting the access to the resource.

Going further down that road is the notion of some kind of rights to the resource. At one end of the spectrum is the out-and-out property right, that there is some ownership of the resource. There is the other extreme where the resource is entirely owned by the public and it's open to access by anyone, so nobody really owns it.

All along that spectrum are various combinations of permits and leases and quotas and any number of mechanisms, but the thing they all have in common is providing to fit some certainty of income, some certainty of, if not an amount of fish, at least a portion of the overall quota of fish that is set in some conservation scientific method. These are known, generally speaking, as quota systems, individual fishing quotas, individual transferable quotas, depending on the regime.

What a quota share promise or commitment does for the rational person, including the fisherman, is it assures him or her that if today is a really crummy, stormy day and it's way too dangerous, I can sit at home with my family and be safe. I don't have to go out because my quota is mine tomorrow, when the weather is better. My quota is mine in two months when the price is better. My quota is mine in six months when the fish are in prime condition.

So that you don't have this timing issue of boy, the gun is going to go off, the race is on, the derby has started; if I don't go out there and catch mine, somebody else is going to catch them. You have yours to catch whenever you might catch them.

Just how inefficient is the current state of fisheries management in terms of producing maximum yields? Is it failing?

The current approach to fisheries management has been to limit catches, to restrict the amount of fish that the fishermen take out of the ocean. We've tried this for 30 years, nearly, and it's just not working because fishermen find a way to fish harder, fish better, fish faster, fish bigger, fish longer.

And in addition, we've never stopped more competitors from coming in to drive the first wave to fish harder and faster. So the competition is wrong; the incentives are all wrong for the resource.

Are the operating costs for the world fleet more than the total revenues?

Worldwide we are spending more money to catch fish than we get from selling the fish that we catch. Actually, on a global scale we're spending nearly a dollar for every 70 cents worth of fish.

In what way does the UN treaty on highly migratory fish represent a change in fisheries management?

In the early 90s there was a negotiation of a new international agreement - it's known in shorthand as Straddling Stocks Agreement - and basically a number of countries came together to figure out how to manage populations of fish that don't recognize any particular boundaries. They go from Canada to the US, they go from Argentina to Africa, or whatever. So they negotiated this agreement.

What was very, very different about it besides the kind of regional approach at trying to solve problems across borders was that it really changed the basic assumptions about fishing. For centuries, the primary assumption has been that the fish are out there in the ocean for anyone to catch; it's always open. And the UN treaty starts off by saying fishing isn't a right, it's a privilege. And fishing is going to bring with it some responsibilities. So that was one of the biggest changes.

And then it carries with it a lot of other measures for controls and observation and reporting and the kinds of things that have come to be thought of as the standard for good fishery agreement.

Is there an enforcement component to that? That seems to be missing in a lot of international treaties.

As with any international treaty, the enforcement is upon the flag state. That is, only the country who is responsible for the vessel, or the country who's flag the vessel is flying, can enforce on it.

There are still open access fisheries in the world, but even those have a shade of limited entry. Even with limited entry, with the permits and licensing, that hasn't been enough to halt overfishing?

In terms of stopping the race for fish, even if you couple the conventional measures - such as total catch limits and seasons and closures and so forth - with licenses and some limited entry to the fishery, you still don't have the effort controls; you still have room for this ever-increasing capacity to catch fish, unless you build in a kind of a right for the fishermen. They're not going to slow fishing until there's some certainty about what they're going to catch and that they have exclusive access to it.

Fishermen are afraid that ITQs will result in aggregation of the big money corporations. Is there a way ITQs can be implemented in a way that prevents aggregation?

A lot of the fear of quota regimes, such as Individual Transferable Quotas, ITQs, and the like, is that the entities with money will buy up all the quota shares and aggregate them into some massive monopoly. And there are instances around the world in the early stages of ITQ systems where that has happened.

I think rather than looking at what went wrong, getting stuck on that and declaring that that's going to go wrong every time, we owe it to ourselves to learn from what went wrong and try to build considerations and measures into these systems that will prevent that kind of consolidation.

So for example, in the halibut/sablefish quota system in Alaska there is a restriction on the aggregate number of shares that any one entity can hold. So when the people designed the system, including the fishermen who are going to be participating in it, they built that in. They said right away, "We don't want consolidation; we want this fishery spread among a lot of players and here's how we're going to do it."

What is another potential positive of ITQs?

There are a number of downsides to derby-style fishing, not just that we're catching too many fish too fast. There are a number of scary effects. One of them, of course, is the danger to the lives of the fishermen who are fishing in that kind of crazed atmosphere.

Another is that they can't fish as carefully. They lose gear, stuff goes overboard, they're wasting fish, and if you lose nets or thousands of feet of longline that's full of hooks, that gear doesn't stop fishing. They may have to cut it lose for safety reasons during the derby, but it's still on the bottom and it's still catching fish - totally wasted.

You've made the great point about how one of the economic incentives is to own the resource. Could you speak about another incentive, if on the demand side there is a premium for fish that's caught in a sustainable manner?

Incentives come in many forms. And we've seen how the incentive of certainty has played out. In the halibut-sablefish fishery in Alaska, for example, they're getting a better price. Well, one way to create a better price, which is always a good incentive, rather than limiting the supply might be to increase the demand for a certain kind of fish.

One of the efforts that have been afoot worldwide in the last 5 or 10 years is green labeling. We know that it's made a difference in a number of other marketing realms. We look for shampoo that hasn't been tested on animals and so forth. Consumers are very savvy about it and they're willing to vote with their pocketbooks.

We haven't tried that to any great degree yet with wild-caught fish. And we're just beginning to see efforts by conservation groups, marketing groups and the fishing industry to create the kind of stamp of approval, if you will, around their product that it was caught in an environmentally sustainable manner.

It remains to be seen yet consumers will be willing to pay a premium for that but I believe that they will.