Dr. Jane Lubchenco is Professor of Marine Biology and Zoology at Oregon State University and a member of the National Science Board.


Do you believe the current global marine catch has reached its limits?

Ten or fifteen years ago we thought that global marine catches would continue to go up and up and up and far exceed what we’ve seen happen. In the last decade or so they’ve leveled off at between 85 and 95 million metric tons. They seem to be plateauing at that level and are likely to stay there, maximum, if not decline. What we’ve realized in this very short period of time, in fact very recently, is the extent to which the current efforts to catch more and more fish are causing some unforeseen and some very serious problems. For example, some of the techniques currently used to catch fish involved trawling which, in some cases, destroys the very bottom habitat that is required to produce the next generation of fish. So we’re very quickly realizing that the oceans are far from infinite, that we have probably maxed out in terms of the amount we can capture from oceans. In fact we may have exceeded it.

What’s your biggest concern about the conduct of marine fisheries?

My biggest concern about the way we’re currently practicing fisheries is that it is very short term. If we don’t have enough fish, we can’t have fisheries. And so the people who are engaged in fishing activities are likely to be negatively affected. The ocean ecosystems that provide not only fish, but a wide range of services to people all around the world are being negatively affected. And the whole mind set is very short term, myopic, and not really grounded in a new ethic that I believe has to be part of our mind set.

How over-fished are the world’s oceans?

Two-thirds of the major marine fisheries of the world are currently fully exploited, over exploited, or depleted. Forty years ago that figure stood at less than 5%.

We hear a lot about the declining state of marine fisheries. Do you believe this has to do with pollution or over-fishing?

The reality is that there are multiple changes happening in oceans. Many of those are contributing to the demise of fisheries. If we look at all of those together, over-fishing is the biggest, single problem, but it’s not the only one. And to really reverse the situation and to recharge our oceans in a vital way, will require reducing fishing, but also addressing those other multiple causal agents.

To what degree do you think world population growth is a factor in the marine fisheries crisis?

The human population continues to grow explosively. In 1999 we reached over six billion humans on the planet. Not only does this take a serious toll on depletion of the oceans but it is also a very serious challenge as we need to provide adequate protein and other nutrients for people around the world.

How is sustaining fishery yields related to the need to sustain marine ecosystems?

We used to think that marine ecosystems would just sort of take care of themselves. And the real challenge was to achieve a sustainable yield in fish catches. Very recently we have begun to understand a lot more about the connections between those two. Specifically, we now know that in order to sustain fishery catches, we really have to sustain the functioning of marine ecosystems. It is those marine ecosystems that are, in fact, providing the fishes that we choose to capture and to eat.

What is an ecosystem based approach to fisheries management?

We now appreciate the fact that most of the stocks of fish we’re interested in capturing don’t simply emerge from the ocean, but in fact are provided by an entire ecological system that provides the habitat, the sources of food, the right requirements in terms of chemicals. As a consequence of that new knowledge, we have shifted our thinking about how to achieve sustainable fisheries to an ecosystem-based management approach, which really considers how to manage our activities in order to sustain the entire ecosystem that produces the fish.

Could you give us an example of a potentially large-scale disruption of ocean ecosystems that might be the result of the world’s fishing effort?

One example of a very large-scale disruption of ocean fisheries is the fact that the kind of fishes that we have been taking from the oceans has changed over time. Recently we have depleted the oceans of the very high trophic level or carnivorous species -- the great big huge species that are very valuable and are at the top of the food web. And over time, we have been fishing down marine food webs and capturing lower trophic level species, that are smaller and less valuable.

Why is "fishing down the food web" potentially a very serious problem?

This fishing down the food web has very serious ramifications for entire marine ecosystems with consequences to other wildlife as well as to fishing communities. When you remove the top predators of a system, there is a cascade of consequences that works its way down through the food web. In fact there are often very serious and abrupt changes at lower trophic levels that result.

Could you give us an example of the consequences of removing the lower trophic level fish?

An example is the continued removal and even increased exploitation of what are called small pelagic fishes. These would include anchovetta, a number of species of anchovies, a number of species of mackerel. This exploitation is in fact removing the very food sources that would be required to rebuild the stocks of those higher trophic level carnivores - tuna, for example, not just other fishes but animals such as marine mammals and birds that also depend on the small pelagic fishes.

In what way have fishery managers or even some of the scientists who advise fishery management taken too narrow a perspective in the past with regards to the potential impact of commercial fisheries?

The ways that we’ve thought about managing fisheries in the past have really not worked very well. They have focused on single stocks or groups of related species. They’ve had a very short-term focus and the underlying assumption has been that there’s plenty out there, there’s going to be plenty down the road, and the name of the game is how to get the most right now. We have learned that this approach doesn’t work and as reported by the National Academy of Sciences Report on sustaining marine fisheries, the whole way we think about managing fisheries needs to change dramatically.

One of the most serious changes that needs to happen is to figure out ways to provide incentives for conservation. This is in the best interests of fishermen; they understand this and many of them have been working hard on trying to figure out how to do this. These new mechanisms for providing incentives to leave fish in the ocean to reproduce and to be caught another day are a very difficult thing to do. The tradition of fishing has been one of open access. It has historically been viewed as a resource that’s available to anyone at any time, and the attitude of inexhaustibility, that everyone has a right to this inexhaustible resource, is in fact, coming back to haunt us. The resources are not inexhaustible and we cannot continue to have a tradition that focuses and rewards short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability which sustains not only the fishing communities, but also the ecosystems that we all depend upon.

Do you think the absence of definitive assessment data has been a legitimate reason for fishery managers to continue fishing at the existing catch rates despite the fact that those levels have already shown to be detrimental to stock?

I think one of the biggest problems we have faced in managing fisheries in the past has been the assumption that if we don’t know we’ll err on the side of taking more rather than fewer fish. We have not operated in a very conservative fashion. When there are errors or when information is uncertain, we have opted to set quotas higher and higher instead of being more cautious. That, along with other attitudes has in fact, been very problematic and is one of the things that really needs to be revised.

Scientists and fishermen are often aware of declining fish stocks long before the collapse or the over exploitation of a fishery such as cod, swordfish or blue fin tuna. Over the years, scientists have urged fishery managers to reduce allowable catches. Why do you think the US fishery management councils have been too slow to act?

There hasn’t been any real incentive for fisheries management councils to take a long-term view of the resource. There are immediate and very powerful economic factors driving a short-term focus. Fishers have loans that they took out to buy boats, to buy very expensive gear, and there is a very real need to pay back those loans. The tradition of open access coupled with the assumption that there are plenty of fish out there has all contributed to the very short-term pressures on fisheries management councils that, in fact, have resulted in the collapse of not all, but a significant number of stocks.

What needs to happen so that these management councils who are dominated by the industry don’t simply focus on the short term results?

One slight difficulty I have in thinking about this is that we don’t know what kinds of changes are going to happen between now and when this comes out, in terms of management councils. And there are lots and lots of discussions about how to change them. There are more and more members of different NGO’s that are being appointed to councils. They’re still in the minority, but there are changes happening. So it’s hard to frame this in a way that is not going to be somewhat dated.

Several fishermen and even some scientists say the fish population is healthy. What is your response to this?

There are most certainly lots of fish in the ocean. And the numbers vary from one place to another and from one time to another. We don’t completely understand all of the factors that cause those variations, in space, or in time. What’s clear is that many, many fisheries are in serious trouble -- not all. What’s also clear is that many fisheries that have seemed to be doing fine have all of a sudden crashed. We can see that in the cod fish reefs in the Northern Atlantic, as a single example. We now have nine species of salmon and steelhead that are listed in the Pacific Northwest. Those have all declined in relatively recent years and relatively abruptly. What we know is that one of the major contributing factors is overfishing, in each of those cases. As a consequence, that’s one thing that we can definitely do something about.

Oceans are a very dynamic place. We know that some years are an El Nino year, others are a La Nina year and others are so called, "normal." We don’t know what causes those changes. We do know that many of those changes have a very real influence on the number of fish that recruit into a population in any one year. So there is a definitely a lot of background variation, fluctuation, from year to year, in many different fish stocks. The name of the game is to make management decisions, based on the expectation -- not just of those high years, but of the variability that we know is inherent in many fish populations. And that is what has not historically been done. Many of the fisheries management decisions have assumed that the years are going to be good and so we take too many and have a crash and so you get a double whammy -- overfishing and a change in ocean conditions. And people say, What happened?"

How would you define "the precautionary principle" in fishery management?

Human activities have inadvertently modified ocean systems in ways that we didn’t imagine would be possible. We are currently changing the chemistry, the physical structure and the biology of our oceans. It’s time that we used a more cautious approach in making decisions about the oceans. The oceans and the life in them are too valuable to risk losing. Instead of assuming that there is no consequence or that things can always rebound, we need to be much more cautious in our activities and err on the side of protecting ocean resources for the future.

In terms of the changes currently taking place in fishery management, do you believe the precautionary principle is being taken into consideration now?

I think fishers around the world have been very sobered by what they’ve seen happen to many fisheries in terms of their collapse. And as a consequence, our thinking more long-term, our thinking more sustainability and, in fact, this thinking is aided by some legislation, at least. So there definitely is a shift that I have seen in the concern expressed by many fishers for being more cautious and for thinking long-term.

In fact, many of the most eloquent spokespeople that I’ve heard for creating marine reserves, for doing a much better job of managing ocean resources have been fishers themselves, who have seen first-hand how devastating the consequences of collapses can be, and who know first-hand how these systems have changed so radically through time.

What are some additional causes of fish mortality apart from reported landings and discards?

The total catch figures that are reported by FAO probably seriously underestimate the actual changes, in terms of the biomass of fishes that are in the oceans. In addition to the topic of by-catch, which has, in fact, received more and more appropriate attention, we also know that fishing gear sometimes causes additional mortality. For example, a phenomenon called ghost-fishing, which has been described by Paul Dayton, results when fishing gear is lost, sits on the bottom and continues to trap and kill fishes -- nets, hooks, whatever. Additional sources of mortality include things like the actual fishing gear of some kinds of trolls, for example. In addition to catching some fish, it actually churns up the bottom, which may include juvenile individuals, larvae fishes, those kinds of things. So the overall amount of biomass that is affected by our current level of fishing activities is undoubtedly much greater than simply the amount that is reported as the total catch.

To what degree do you think technological advances have contributed to over fishing?

The current level of fishing is indeed impressive. And it’s a consequence of many things. One of them is the phenomenal increases and advances in technology that we have seen, which have now enabled fishing to happen on a much greater scale and a much faster pace than ever before. There is no doubt that this technology makes fishing a safer practice which is, in fact, wonderful. But it also makes it possible to get fishes -- a number and amount at levels that were just unprecedented and unimagined pre- all this wonderful technology.

The consequences of this technology were not really foreseen because we thought that the resources were inexhaustible. And the name of the game was to figure out how to get more faster and safer. And now that we can do that, we’re quickly discovering that we’re depleting them at ways that are coming back to haunt us.

How are marine protected areas important to marine fishery management?

One of the major tools that will help to protect stocks as well as rebuild depleted stocks will be fully protected marine reserves. A fully protected marine reserve is one in which no extractive activities, including fishing, are allowed. It is analogous to our National Parks in the United States. The fully protected marine reserves function to protect the habitat, to protect critical species, or in some cases, to protect critical life stages -- juveniles or spawning sites that enable fishes to thrive. If you look across the entire ocean of the world, less than a quarter of 1% is set aside in any kind of protected status - much of that is what we call Paper Parks. They’re on paper, there’s no real enforcement. Some of that is in a status that allows fishing but not some other activity. Many of us believe, and there is excellent evidence accumulating to support the concept that vastly increasing the amount of fully protected marine reserves will be a very important tool both for fisheries management as well as conservation.

The cause for concern we hear about often is of too many boats chasing after too few fish. Coupled with many fishermen’s attitudes that "if I don’t take it someone else will," what do you believe has to change with regards to open-access fisheries?

One of the real problems that’s driven the depletion of many fisheries has been a tradition of open access where anyone who wants to fish can go out and catch anything. There’s no thought for tomorrow. There are most definitely too many boats chasing too few fish.

Do you believe there’s a role consumers can play in helping to achieve the goal of sustainable fisheries?

I think there is a powerful role for consumers to play in helping to achieve the goal of sustainable fisheries. The more people know about what their seafood is, how it is caught, where it’s farmed, what the environmental conditions are, the better able they will be able to express their own values by choosing one thing over something else.

How does consumer choice translate to the behavior of fisherman?

Informed consumer choices are a potentially very valuable mechanism for encouraging sustainable, environmental practices on the part of fishers and industries. Many people are hungry for information about where their seafood comes from, how it’s caught, and the conditions under which it was grown. I think there is a huge potential market out there, for environmentally caught seafood. And very quickly we’re going to see people figuring out the mechanisms to tap into that market and to provide the verification and the information that consumers are going to be demanding. It’s not unlike what we see emerging in organic vegetables, for example.

Do you think aquaculture has thus far created a net loss or gain for marine resources and why?

I personally feel that aquaculture is an extremely important part of our future. With the explosively growing human population, we have more and more mouths to feed. And aquaculture is going to be part of that solution. The real key is to ensure that the aquacultural part of the solution is one that on balance, is helpful, not destructive. If you look over the last decade, aquaculture has more than doubled in terms of both value and the weight of farm fish that’s produced. Aquaculture currently accounts for about a quarter of all the fish that is consumed globally. That fraction is undoubtedly going to increase. And the real challenges are to have it increasing in a useful direction instead of a destructive direction. Not all aquaculture is the same. The farming of herbivorous species, like carp, tilapia or mollusks, that are filter feeders, is in a very different category from the farming of a high trophic level carnivorous species like salmon and shrimp.

What is a drawback of farming a carnivorous fish versus an herbivorous fish?

The farming of carnivorous species, like salmon and shrimp, is much more energy intensive and much more problematic in many ways than the farming of herbivorous fishes, such as carp and tilapia or the growing of mollusks -- like clams, mussels, oysters. For example, it takes from two to five pounds of wild caught fish, converted to fish protein and fish oil to produce one pound of many of the high trophic level species, like salmon and shrimp. So, in fact, those kinds of aquaculture are most definitely not part of the solution required to feed many people in the future.

Could you comment on fish yield and what that represents?

Species like shrimp and salmon, that are carnivores in the wild are also carnivores in shrimp pens, or shrimp ponds. The have to be fed fish protein, and in fact, it takes between two and five pounds of wild caught fish to produce one pound of many of those carnivorous species. This is a real problem because this is clearly not enhancing wild caught fisheries. It’s not taking the pressure off of wild caught fisheries. In fact, it is contributing to the draw down of wild fisheries or wild fish.

There is a lot of controversy over the threat of farmed salmon escaping their net cages. Could you comment on this?

There is, in fact, good evidence that farm salmon are escaping and are living and thriving in the wild. There is also very good evidence that they are depleting the local populations -- both of other salmon or of other types of fishes, for example, in Chile, where they’re not native. So, the phenomenon of wild-caught fish escaping and thriving, becoming established, is a very real one and is potentially extremely problematic in depleting the wild caught populations. We don’t really know what the consequences of any of those is going to be. When all the information hasn’t yet been gathered, it can dangerous because you can just sort of plow ahead willy-nilly, or instead do you put on the breaks and say, "Let’s be careful here; let’s make sure it’s not going to cause problems." Because once it’s out of the box, we can’t recapture all of these things.

Do you have any concerns about the use of antibiotics that is so prolific with shrimp and salmon?

I think there are very real reasons to be concerned about use of antibiotics in open-system aquaculture facilities. We have seen without a doubt the very negative consequences of too many antibiotics used willy-nilly all around the world. And it is sheer folly to continue to introduce those into ocean systems. We need antibiotics and we need them to be effective. And if we are scattering them to the four corners, then the way evolution works is the critters that cause diseases are likely going to be resistant to many of the antibiotics that we need to use.

How do you feel about open versus closed system aquaculture? Do you think there’s hope for closed system aquaculture?

I think the closed system aquaculture facilities have very real potential to minimize environmental damage. The current challenges are technological ones but also financial. They are very capital-intensive up front. On the other hand, I think they need to be explored fully because, in fact, they may very well be part of the solution. I have heard of a man in Massachusetts who is doing closed-culture facilities for striped bass and has had wonderful success.

Do you think aquaculture has potential to take pressure off the world’s oceans?

I think that aquaculture will be a very essential component to the fishery solutions, but only if it’s done right. Some kinds of aquaculture, the farming of herbivorous species and mollusks is absolutely the right thing to be doing. I have very serious concerns about the environment consequences of the farming of carnivorous species, at least the way it’s currently done.

Is it a reality to believe there will be something in it for the fishermen? for example, "If I start fishing in a sustainable way now there’ll be benefits down the track for me."

Many of the fishers that I talk to are really concerned about their future and the future of their families, their livelihood, their culture. I share their concern and know that if we don’t have fish out there for them to be catching, there isn’t a future for them. So, the long-term solution, for fishers and for all of us, is to help create the conditions where fish can thrive in the ocean, where fishers can catch a fraction of those, but where we have healthy ocean ecosystems that are continuing to provide for all of us.

Are you optimistic about the future of marine fisheries and the health of ocean ecosystems?

I think fisheries and ocean ecosystems are in much greater trouble than is commonly appreciated. I think that if we act in the relatively near future, we can turn some of those things around. I don’t think we have a choice; we have to do that. And there is very real urgency in doing it sooner and doing it right. So, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic. But that’s qualified.

D o you ever have people say to you: "Well, I go to the seafood counter at the supermarket and I don’t see anything labeled about where or how its caught?"

Well, I should say that I really enjoy eating salmon and shrimp. And my goal is to have a world where those kinds of species can be provided in a non-destructive fashion.

When we go out to eat in a restaurant or go shopping at our local grocery store and there’s seafood on the menu, we almost always ask, "How was this caught? Where was it caught? Where is it from? Was it farmed?" And it’s interesting, relatively recently, nobody knew the answers to that, more and more so they know the answers. And in fact, in our local grocery store, they now put signs on all the different species and say whether they were farmed, whether they were wild, not just whether they were frozen or fresh. But much more information. And that is the direct response to consumers asking those questions. You know, we’re moving in the right direction here.