Carl Walters is a Professor at the Fishery Centre at the University of British Columbia and he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.


When the environmental conditions change, fisheries can suffer; fish populations go up and down. Do you think the fishing effort has, at times, made fishing populations more vulnerable to environmental changes?

Oh, it absolutely does. One of the things that fishing does is to erode away the age structure of the population. It gets rid of a lot of the older fish. It reduces longevity of the fish. So when an environmental factor usually hits little fish harder, so when recruitment gets knocked down, normally, the fish are living long enough that they will just reproduce again and again till they fill the gap. But if they’re not living long enough, that gap isn’t filled.

So in practically every major fisheries collapse we have had around the world, we see a combination of fishing and environmental change hit them at the same time.

A good part of your book talks about top level management — top down management — how it’s not working — how indecision becomes a fall-back. Could you say something about the natural fall back of a fishery manager is indecisiveness?

No they only talk about indecisiveness or fisheries managers. There’s two different things there. The indecision is rational choice as a universal. If you can, pass the buck and leave the problem to your successor to solve. People always do that. There was a wonderful radio show last night about how John F. Kennedy tried to pass the buck for funding of the space program, the man’s space program that put a man on the moon — to his successors that way. So trying to pass the buck is particularly prevalent in human political affairs and is particularly easy in fisheries because usually we are dealing with changes that occur a little bit slowly, take a long time; they’re hard to measure.

There’s always uncertainty in how to interpret the noisy data that we get and we always get conflicted opinions amongst the scientists. It’s a great soil for that kind of indecision to grow in; it’s easy to make excuses.

Can you speak to how indecisiveness at top-level fisheries management ends up discouraging a field-level staff from proposing effective measures? How do politics end up making fisheries management less effective?

This indecision as rational choice has its origin in the notion that every one of these decisions is a gamble. So, if the scientist comes forward to a politician and says: we got to close this fishery, the politician then faces a gamble. On the one side, he can believe the biologist and if he does, he knows he is going to take big time heat from the industry, right there on the spot. That is a certain outcome. If he gambles instead that the scientist is wrong, he’ll take a little heat from the scientist, but his fishing constituents will support him.

And facing a choice like that, they are going to gamble on the easy side every time, until things become so bad that they can’t ignore them. Or until some new political force, like the environmental groups today, starts to emerge as a worse threat if you don’t act than the threat if you do. The environmental groups are having a powerful effect on reshaping fisheries policy-making, making it much more costly to do nothing.

Much more costly to do nothing — what does this mean?

Well, to a politician, the main cost is heat. It’s the bad publicity you’ll get from various constituencies. In the old days, the only heat a politician faced was the heat he got from an outraged fishing industry if he tried to take away any of their jobs. And nowadays the heat he can get from a collection of environmental groups and the threats — the economic threats that can bring to bear, like getting people not to buy tuna that might be have been caught along with the dolphin. That’s a different story. The threat structure has changed.

It would be nice if politicians wouldn’t work that way, but if you’ve ever been involved in politics, then you know, that’s not the way it works.

You speak about the tendency of top-level managers to advocate "window dressing" type of measures, rather than measures that would force fishermen to accept a painful period of slow catches along the road to recovery. Are hatcheries an example of that?

In the Pacific Northeast at least, the salmon hatchery program is the worst kind of destructive quick fix that we have ever imagined in fisheries. It’s being replaced today by another kind of quick fix — that pretense that we can restore damaged fish watersheds, of habitats and streams and restore productivity that way.

But in the worst days of hatchery development, basically hatcheries were used as an excuse to allow fishermen to keep fishing when everybody knew they were catching too many. So they were the easy way out for everyone.

What about the salmon enhancement programs and restoring habitat as being a potential window dressing project?

Well an interesting thing here in Canada is that we had a self-monitored enhancement program called SEP. As the ineffectiveness of that program started to become evident, it’s not an accident that the program has all the same people but under a new name: HRSEP — Habitat Restoration Self Monitored Enhancement. And an awful lot of the people that used to flog hatcheries as the fix are now flogging fixed streams. If loss of stream habitat were really the biggest problem for salmon, that’d be a noble change. But all the evidence we have is that the thing that is killing off our salmon today is something largely that is happening in the ocean, not in freshwater.

Are you saying that the biggest problem with salmon in British Colombia doesn’t have to do with the destruction of their fresh water habitat?

There’s a large community of people today that are making their living by flogging the idea that we’ve lost all our salmon or are rapidly losing all of our salmon habitat and it’s easy to flog that because you go out and look at streams where there has been excessive logging — it obviously effects the stream channels. The channels go unstable and there are these big gravel bars and horrible flooding and route wads, and the world looks terrible so it’s easy to convince people that that’s damaging the fish.

But when we actually sample the fish and ask the fish what they actually think about that world out there, they’re not doing that bad. For example, in southern British Columbia, there’s just as many juvenile Coho salmon going to sea today as there were twenty years ago, despite all of the supposed loss of habitat.

What’s happening today that’s different is that about 8 out of 10 of those fish that would have come back twenty years ago don’t come back from the ocean. They’re dying in the ocean, before they have a chance to get caught or anything else. And we don’t know what’s causing that. But we’re not putting any money into it. It’s easy to put the money into getting a lot of people to go help you fix up streams. It’s an easy thing for people to get involved in publicly. And even if you know what doesn’t work, it’s really easy to be quiet about that side of the story.

The young salmon that are going to sea aren’t coming back, so there’s a problem out there and no one’s addressing it and no one’s putting money into it. Who does this serve?

Well, it’s a gamble. If they were to spend money on the real cause of the decline, in probably the first few months of the fishes ocean line, there’s a real good chance we’d find out it is something we couldn’t do anything about — like the winding down of primary production of the algae in the ocean. But there’s enough of a chance that it would turn out to be something we could control or help out with. Some predator that we might be able to do a short term control on, that it’s probably a good gamble to at least try and find out and to spend some money on it.

What’s really wrong though, is to keep trying to pump up the freshwater survival and production and dump even more fish into an ocean that isn’t capable of supporting them. That’s making things worse than better for the remaining wild populations; it’s having exactly the opposite effect of what people intend; well-intentioned people.

What kind of things you are looking at as possible reasons as to what is happening to these juvenile salmon once they return to the ocean?

Over the last forty or fifty years along the Pacific coast, there have been a lot of biologists running around collecting data. And we have largely interpreted the data in a pretty fragmentary way. So the oceanographers have their data, and the fish biologists have theirs, and the plankton biologists theirs. What we are starting to do today is to build computer models that represent what we think the mechanisms might be. We don’t pretend they’re right. We just say, let’s put this mechanism in the computer. And then we compare them to the historical data and see whether or not they can successfully replay what we have already seen happen out there.

And by doing that, I think we have been able narrow down the search for what is going wrong in this part of the ocean quite a bit. I think we can say with some confidence now that we cannot explain the history that we have seen without at least two effects in our computer. One of them is that hatcheries are having a severe deleterious effect on the survival rate of fish; there are too many hatchery fish out there. They are overstocking the capacity of the ocean to support them.

And the other thing is, the ocean’s productivity in this area is dropping. It’s evidence — not only in the salmon — we see it in almost all the top of the marine food chain in this region. Our birds are dropping in numbers; whales, other fishes beside salmon, like hake, declining in body sizes and now abundance. Herring is beginning to decline. And it’s as though the whole food web were shrinking in on itself.

If it were just one species, or whatever, you could explain it away as maybe it got poisoned or maybe it got caught somewhere. But not when the whole shooting match starts to wind down. And our models say there’s only one way that can happen, and that’s if total productivity of the ocean has fallen a lot.

Any reasons or theories that you would be willing to discuss as to what might be causing the shrinking productivity of the ocean in this area?

The strongest correlation that we have found with apparent changes of overall productivity is wind speed data. In this area off Vancouver and down into Puget Sound, for the last fifteen years it’s been getting steadily less windy. It’s about 40% as much what we call wind square — it’s an energy measure. 40% less energy per year, stirring the surface of the ocean out there than there was fifteen years ago. And that really translates pretty directly into 40% less nutrients mixed into the surface water, and 40% less algae growth and that drop feeds right up the food chain.

So we’re sure that productivity has fallen, nutrient delivery system has shut down, at least partly because of wind. What we’re not sure about is exactly how that effect is fed up through the food chain. There are a lot of leaks in there.

Could you speak about this notion of "too little, too late"?

There’s a kind of modern view based largely on a bit of tropical experience that says if you protect little areas of seed sources for fish to spawn in, they’ll re-seed areas around them. All of our tempered experience says that’s nonsense. If anything, we should be thinking of fishing areas as the small areas and the ocean as closed to fishing. And our most successful fisheries, in fact, have been like that. Our salmon fisheries on the pacific coast that are holding up pretty good in general. The ocean is closed to salmon fishing out there, for commercial fishing at least except in a few real small openings for a few days each year.

Our herring fisheries — there are very valuable rural herring fisheries that have now been sustained for a long period of crashes from the bad old days. Those are very short fishery openings. Just a few little areas, and a few little places and the rest of the time you can’t touch herring.

Off the east coast of Canada, most of the cod stock that kept most of Newfoundland’s culture and economy going for several hundred years wasn’t available to them. 80 or 90% of the cod were in water too deep too far off shore at the wrong time of year to ever get at ‘em. They were in an effective refuge from the technology available to the Newfoundlanders. So they might as well have had 80% of the ocean closed to fishing.

We’ve got other places where this erosion of economic or technological protection areas is occurring. One of the scariest ones is the tuna’s. The old tuna fisheries that seemed so stable and sustainable were mainly concentrated pretty close to the coastlines where the tuna were spread out over the great open oceans. Now the technology is spreading out all over those oceans. And so the tuna in the can — the last thing you’d ever imagine would collapse. Can you imagine going down to your local Safeway and not being able to buy a can of tuna? It’s a real possibility today.

In your book, Fish on the Line, you talk about how time and spatial closure are what are needed. That’s tied to this notion to the ocean being closed to fishing and then smaller areas are opening and closing.

Well, it comes down to the idea that in population dynamics of fish, the thing that determines whether you can sustain a harvest is whether you can limit the percentage of fish that get caught. If you can keep that percentage down, then that population has a chance to recover when it’s low, and it’ll come down if it’s large. Because the catch will be larger when the same percentage is taken from a big stock, and it’ll be less when it’s little. So the key to success is keeping the harvest percentage rate — or we call it the fishing rate — low.

In the last ten years, our estimates of how high that safe rate is have dropped by about 50% for a lot of fish populations. We discovered we were too optimistic about the biology. But the key thing is keeping the percentage rate down.

There are two ways to do that for a manger. One way is you pretend you know how many fish there are and then you set a quota that you think is the right percentage and then you let them go catch it. That’s insanely dangerous because their estimates are no good. And the other way of managing it is you make sure enough of the stock is protected in time and space that no more than a safe percentage ever gets seen by the gear. That’s the way the old fisheries worked. And that’s the way our successful ones work today. It’s not by good science. It’s by making sure that we can live at that percentage that is exposed to risk.

You had mentioned that one of the big problems is that all these hatchery fish are going out into the ocean and that’s overwhelming the carrying capacity of the ocean. That’s hard for me, and probably for a lot of people to understand because these are tiny little fish. What are they doing — competing for a lot of the same food?

What we are seeing with parent hatchery impact is mainly areas that are more like lakes. Like the Georgia Strait and Puget Sound that are partially closed off by islands so that the fish can’t spread out as easily or as rapidly to exploit a larger ocean area. They’re stuck in there for at least a while when they’re little. And when they’re stuck in there, there’s only a small part of the water that they can feed in. They can only feed very close to the surface because they can’t see down deep and often they’re restricted to stay close to shorelines because big predators will nail them when they get away. So these fish have a real small window of the ocean that they can safely feed in. And it doesn’t take all that many fish to fill that one little window. It’s a big ocean, but from their point of view it’s a little tiny ocean that’s too filled with other little fish.

And you’ve got to think about numbers here. We’re talking tens of millions of fish being released on these hatcheries. Tens of millions. And in a couple of species, it’s up over a billion of them being released.

In Fish on the Line, you talk about other problems of hatcheries such as deletion of the gene pool, the fact that you’re starting to select for a fish that does well in a hatcheries environment. I think they are displacing native stocks. Are those still issues you think are important with regard to hatcheries?

Yes. I think that the business of hatchery fish displacing wild fish in fresh water habitats is disappearing. I think the hatcheries are being restricted from releasing fish into the streams where really intense competition would occur. We are seeing some of that effect in the ocean where the competition can be, we now discover, as intense as in freshwater.

What we do see in hatcheries, at least here in Canada, the hatchery will come on line and survival will be great for a few years and then it will just kind of tail down. And we don’t really understand the mechanism behind that. It may be partly genetics, it may be disease accumulations, disease organisms we don’t understand and it may be, very simply, that mother nature doesn’t like seeing huge numbers of fish out there and it just attracts predators. There’s a whole bunch of critters that learn that May 15th is a really good time to the mouth of the river for a really good feed or for a really stupid fat fish. And that’s actually probably our best bet — that the ecosystem detects that super abundance and tries to use it.

Do you support the idea of terminal fisheries?

The terminal fishing idea — the notion that if you pull back to the mouth of the river, the fish of different races that are different in their productivity and survival can be harvested each at its best rate. That works fine in some coastal areas where you have small streams and each stream has water to stocks in it but unfortunately, some of our dirtiest mixed stock fisheries are at the mouths of our big rivers. So right now, passing the mouth of the Fraser River outside here are about 60 races of sockeye salmon, about sixty races of Chinook salmon, a couple of dozen early races of Coho and the list just keeps going on. And they’re all concentrated at that river mouth constantly at the same time, so some of our dirtiest fisheries, are in fact, ones at that river mouths. Getting to the river mouth isn’t necessarily a solution to the problem at all.

There are other ideas about trying to mark fish in various ways so that further out at sea we can identify who is who. And if we have selective fishing methods where we can take a little extra time and look at the fish, we can avoid the harvest of some of them. But in these big river basins, which is where the bulk or our problems occur — Columbia, Fraser, Ghana. It’s not clear there is an answer. You can’t pull fisheries back up into coastal spawning areas where fish are actually separate. Fish have no value at that point. Their quality, their ability to spawn is — they’ve used it up.

So, I think we’re going to have to live with mixed fishing problems forever. And try to just be as smart and as balanced about it as we can.

One thing your book makes clear is that it’s expensive to collect the data that is essential to make a fishery viable and to make in season management a reality.

If we were to try to monitor every salmon population in British Colombia — if we wanted an accurate estimate, how many fish spawned each year — the average cost per each population of fish would be about $50,000.00 a year. You got a try to block the stream, count the number of fish going by or put in electronic equipment; it’s expensive. There are three to seven thousand of those stocks of fish. You add up the number. We are talking about spending many more of millions of dollars every year just to get that kind of basic data everywhere than the fishery ever brings in. I think there’s already a question as to whether the public is being well served by even the amount of money that is being spent now, relative to the economic value of the fishery.

There’s what I basically view as a spreading cancer in fisheries management today in which, at its heart, a concept called quota management. The notion there is that the fishery’s agency sets the number of tons of fish that’ll be allowed to be caught and then the quota holders take those in any way that’s best for them economically — the best price, the best time and so on. And that certainly has economic advantages for fisheries.

Predictably, you can take your quota to the bank for a loan or sell it — you’re not competing with the other fisheries for it. And fisheries managers just love it. To set the quota, you’ve got to go to the scientists. And if they set the quota and the quota is too high, and it causes over-fishing, you’ve got someone to blame on that side. On the other side, if something goes wrong with the fishing industry’s economics, like if one big fat cat fries up the whole bloody industry and gets real rich and puts a lot of people out of work, you blame the economics. So fisheries managers just love this. It absolves them of all responsibility for wisdom in management. That’s why it spread like hotcakes.

Are you talking here about TAC’s or are you talking about IFQ’s?

The right hand pointing out there was the ITQ or the IFQ idea and the notion that each fisherman’s right consists of a number of tons of fish that he’s allowed to catch, or a percentage of the tons that are going to be available that year. Rather than the right to boat, or take the gear, or fishing time — it’s ton-age. That’s the ITQ system.

There’s been a lot of argument as about whether fisheries ever ought to be considered even a right at all. I think nowadays our thinking is these are public resources. And I don’t mean that the fisherman who has a quota or license owns them, it means that you or I own them; they’re ours; that’s our resource.

I think if you look at it from that point of view, that it’s something we all have a stake in, and our kids have a stake in, you change your attitudes real fast about whether to do something dangerous such as a quota management system.

What’s the alternative?

Well, in a fundamental sense, we could simply privatize the ownership of the fisheries. You, the company owns this population of fish. It’s up to you to husband its productive potential in the same way you would a herd of cattle, or anything else. Nowadays, I think from what we understand about interactions in ecosystems, we’d have to actually privatize whole ecosystems. There are places where I have personally advocated that — abalone fisheries along this coast. Abalone is severely over-fished in many areas. There’ s huge incentive for poaching. I think the only way they’ll ever be protected is if individual abalone fishermen each own a chunk of the resource, a chunk of the shoreline of the ocean, live there with a strong incentive to protect his little chunk of the resource.

There are other cases where maybe communities can do the same thing. The community of people who live at the mouth of a river can take a kind of ownership for fish that use that river and the ocean around it.

The other extreme from all this, is we go straight to the notion that fishing is a privilege. How can we, the public, make the most from our fish? Take away all the things we call fishing rights. That’s scary stuff.

Is it your belief that ITQ’s will instill a sense of stewardship and ownership in fishermen? Is this part of your sense of decentralization of fisheries management?

Well, the theory of ITQ’s says that a quota holder should care about the future — not only in terms of his own future earnings from that resource, but also in terms of maintaining the value of his right for sale at the time when he wants to retire.

There is a big problem with that and that is, as you start pushing up on that retirement age, values start to change. And people differ a lot in their discount rates. And they differ an awful lot in how much risk they are willing to take with that productive base. So, while in principle a fisherman who has a quota ought to care a lot about the future, the practice is pretty shortsighted.

They are a whole lot more shortsighted than I, as a current co-owner of those resources, am willing to accept. They are willing to take risks. I don’t want to see them take away the resources I own a share of.

In your report, you address that. You talk about human nature. You say that maybe the way to go is to make sure whoever is making the decisions does not have an economic interest in the fishing industry?

To the extent that we continue to hold fish and stocks and ecosystem in public ownership, we’ve got to have our representatives in there. There has to be a regulatory agency that can deal, at arms length, with issues of how much should be allowed to catch, what risks should be allowed in things like similar enhancement programs. There’s got to be somebody that represents our interests. Otherwise, inevitably, when things get tough, shortsighted decisions get made.

And when they do, things get tougher real fast. Fisheries go into a bad downward spiral once people try to keep fishing when they should stop. They make the problem much worse very rapidly. And I don’t think there is any way to avoid the participants in fishing having that kind of short sighted activity — gotta try to stay alive. I highly recommend "A Perfect Storm." Somebody has to deal with at arm’s length with our interests; a government agency, a fishery agency, whose employees recognize that their employer is not the fishing industry; the employer is you and I — the people who are paying the taxes — and that they represent our state in ensuring that the resource is productive for the future, and for our children and our children’s children.

‘At arm’s length’ operationally means conservation first. It means you don’t allow any policy that puts the productive capability of the ecosystem at serious risk. And there are a lot of things we put along there — precautionary principles, etc. But the root of it is to have an agency whose people know they’re there first and foremost, for conservation.

One of the things that ought to be said there is that there isn’t a right answer to what happens once you get to a depleted fishery and for people who are right on the line economically. When that happens, it’s a lose-lose situation for everybody. The old adage is real important: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We’ve got to back these fisheries to the point where you don’t ever have to go into a meeting room with a bunch of fishermen who are on the verge of starving. Eat the pain now and set ourselves up so those kinds of things can’t happen again.

In your report you talk about how salmon depend on several hundred distinct of races fish that have evolved over the past 10 thousand years. Can you address that in terms of getting into ecosystem management?

If you just travel up and down the coast at the times when the salmon are coming in from the sea, what you see is, in every stream, the fish are arriving at a bit different time. And the fish are a bit different size and they move in a bit different way. What you’re seeing there is how these fish have been selected harshly to do just the right thing to maximize their own survival and production of offspring. So nature has been working really hard to fit these creatures in the most productive way. There’s generally a huge diversity out there. In BC we have probably several thousand genetic races of salmon. The Columbia River alone in the US probably once had a thousand different genetic types of fish, each one selected to be the most productive it could be in one special place.

We’ve eroded an awful lot of that away through a combination of fishing, over-fishing the less productive of the stocks while chasing the others, to destroying bits and pieces of the habitat. We turned that huge mosaic into a much simpler kind of a children’s crossword puzzle. And we exaggerate the problem by pretending to know what the fish need and reproducing them hatcheries and so on. When we start playing a numbers game, thinking we can out-produce the natural system, mostly we lose those games. Mostly we end up with a whole lot less than we’d have had if we’d just been a little bit more patient in the first place and worked with the diversity and the productivity that’s out there, and with the ecosystem that’s producing the fish, rather than against it.

At a certain point in the report, you talk about a sustainable harvest rate. You say it is best at about 1/2 the annual mortality rate of the adult fish in that population. Then you went on to say that the Newfoundland fishery fished at about double this rate. Can you explain that?

There’s a bit of history here. In the 1950’s and 1960’s there developed what came to be called the theory of fishing. It was a bunch of models for how fish grow, and how they die and how they reproduce themselves. And that theory lead to the conclusion that you should be able to harvest, at least on a safe basis, at least as many fish each year as die naturally. We call it "F=M." To pretend we’ve got equations for such things.

In the last ten years, a whole lot of sad experience has taught us that those models were deeply wrong. So just since 1990, the best estimates of sustainable harvest rates have dropped down to about half of the natural mortality rate. Fish are turning out to be much more sensitive in their reproductive ability than we thought. It’s much easier than we used to think to erode away the reproductive capabilities of fish that live for many years, take away the larger more productive individuals. Just a whole bunch of things were wrong about those old calculations.

And even more, now, we’re beginning to understand that the numbers are going down from what we thought originally, partly because the ecosystem interaction effects; that a lot of times when a stock is knocked down, it doesn’t bounce back as hard as the old theory said it would because it changes in its competition predation interactions with the rest of the ecosystem.

We’ve had to learn this through a lot of really sad experience. We’ve had an awful lot of fisheries collapse when people thought they were managing them safely. I guess the fear now is that we won’t learn from that experience. And it’s a bit unfortunate that today still, despite all the experience, we still see an awful lot of people running around flogging those old models, apparently not reading the literature, not looking at other people’s experience, living in a time warp. That’s really part of this matter of the deep-rooted incompetence in the field of fisheries I spoke to you earlier about — the inverse pyramid.

And scientists that get caught up in helping make policy decisions and stop reading the literature: I would guess that in my main area of scientific expertise, fish stock assessment, probably half of my colleagues are not aware of how big the changes have been in the last ten years in overall estimates of sustainable exploitation rates. Half of them haven’t even read enough to see that happen, in the literature. Pretty sad.

Just as an example of that, you were talking about different types of salmon. They have different harvest rates — it depends on the population. And that brings up the issue of mixed stocks. Could you speak to that?

We’ve had over the last decade a really nasty situation develop in the Fraser River, out behind UBC here, where we had some Coho salmon populations that were able to withstand an 80% harvest rate. You take 8 out of every 10 fish and you leave two behind to spawn. Those are mostly fish spawning down in the lower part of the river. But there are fish that spawn further upstream in the less productive interior areas that, it turned out, can only take about a 40% harvest rate. But they’re coming in at the same time. They’re caught in the same fisheries. So, if we try to protect the fish that can take the 40% rate, it means giving up almost half of what we can catch of the more productive ones.

And there are more of them nowadays; probably were more unproductive ones a long time ago, but most of them got wiped out. So it’s kind of a dilemma. If we try to maintain these weaker populations, maintain that biodiversity as a hedge against things that could go wrong in the future with coastal populations, it’s an expensive insurance policy. We’ve got to give up a lot of what we could take today, in the form of an insurance payment.

Can you speak about the paradox whereby we catch more fish by catching less, saying that fishermen and managers needed to start to understand that?

It’s real simple. If you’ve got a population sitting out there that’s being harvested at a 25% rate, say there’s a thousand tons of fish in the population, so you take 250 tons every year. Very often, these populations have gotten over the years a situation where, if you back the harvest rate down to 10% that year, sure, the catch goes from 250 to 100 tons. But that population will build back up because there’s less harvest; it might build up to 8,000 tons. And then that same 10% is 800 tons, not 250. That’s what we really mean by over-fishing — is not something that happens in a year, it’s something that over the long term erodes the population size down to where at a given harvest rate, it isn’t producing anything like it can in total.

Can you address the need for help from the fishermen and cooperative efforts between fishermen and managers to attain better information and the need for assessment efforts to increase?

When we look in almost any of our fisheries at the information, we really need to manage better to assess the changes in the distribution of the fish and their abundance, and in cases like the salmon fishery determine the timing with which the fish are coming on to the coast and how abundant they are. If we go out and try to gather that information with scientific research crews and so on, it’s hopelessly expensive. You’ve got to cover huge areas of the ocean for long periods of time. But we have fishing industries that are already doing that to a substantial degree.

But now they’ve got all kinds of incentives to lie about what they’re doing to distort the information they provide, to do their fishing in ways that maximizes their profit, and that’s not the way to get the most information. You go where the most fish are, not where you get the most information about the fish. But we suspect that if there’ s a way to break through this, by relatively small increases in cost to fishermen and time — redistributing their activities, creating incentives for them to fish in ways that fill the gaps in the information and the data — then we can multiply our eyes and ears out there, tenfold or a hundredfold in some of these systems. The heart of that idea is recognizing that it’s a win-win thing for the scientists and the fishermen to know more about what’s going on.

A lot of so-called scientists look on fishermen with a certain contempt — education and so on. Some years ago we built a computer management game for training fisheries managers here in BC to run salmon fisheries. And that game worked by replaying the history of a couple of major fisheries day by day, where we could change the way things were done each day. The game had a scorecard. You could get a hundred percent or fifty percent or so on. We had biologists play that game as part of training. We also had commercial fishermen come in and play the game. The top five out of ten scores on the game were commercial fishermen — all the top scores. You know, these people aren’t stupid. You don’t go out there with the kind of technology that’s out there in modern day fishing if you’re an idiot — not for very long. We’re dealing with bright, intelligent people that are fully capable of learning. And they’re being treated with contempt.

There are a lot of clowns out there that will screw things up, either deliberately or because they don’t understand what’s being sought and the scientists aren’t good enough at explaining what they need to make it clear. But in cases like that, it’s easier just to keep doing what you’ve been doing. It’s a lot harder if you’ve got to go out there and work with people and do an education thing — get everybody understanding what’s needed — work out all the tactics for making sure it happens in the field and making sure that there’s cross checks to make sure nobody’s cheating, and it’s a lot of work.

What can you suggest to fishermen to help them through the pain of the effects of downsizing the fishing effort?

As we see these fisheries collapse, out of the ashes rises a new kind of world, a world of people who know that these stocks aren’t infinite, they know that there’s limits and they know that it can happen again. So you got a community of people out there who are really beginning to understand the importance of having decent information, of not fighting with the biologists across the table, that you got a shared interest in seeing a future for yourself.

And maybe most importantly, really taking to heart this thing called the precautionary principle that says, if you’re not sure what to do, if you’re not sure you can get away with it, back off. Make your insurance payment NOW; don’t pretend that that gamble is a good one.

So I think the attitude changes are there, largely because the harsh, bloody experience and people don’t want to see it happen again. And I think we’ll see these systems evolve to the point where everybody agrees there needs to be a big safety margin, a big buffer, in their management so that we don’t go into those places where everybody’s about to starve. We pay a little price now rather than a big price later.

If you feel that overall fishing capacity has to be reduced, what is your take on the most equitable way or the most realistic way that can happen, to help out the folks that are going to get squeezed?

I don’t have a good answer for that. This business of over-capacity I think is a bit of a joke. The fact of the matter is that in the Pacific Northwest or salmon or herring or other major fishing industries have the power to take 5 or 10 times the number of fish that are out there now. We tolerate fairly large numbers of people in these industries in order to spread the wealth. We’re sacrificing profit for employment and for creating a diversity of lifestyle opportunities and that’s fine with me.

If we really wanted to do things the cheapest, safest possible way, we’d get rid of these industries entirely; there wouldn’t be employment in fishing. But I think it’d be a much poorer world out there.

To me one of the saddest things that’s happened to me in my experience as a fish biologist is when the government decided to get rid of all of them small inefficient trawlers, here in the Georges Strait. There used to be hundreds and hundreds of these characters that had 14 to 16-foot long boats, a couple of pulls, and they’d go out fishing for Chinook and Coho salmon through the summer and even into the winter.

They’d provide fresh fish for the market, they had a wonderful lifestyle, they barely made enough to get by on, they mostly lived in little houses out on islands, and they were probably the happiest people you’d ever run into.

What replaced them? A couple of hundred great big freezer trawlers with guys beholden to the banks, fishing for 15 days a year, sweatin’ every minute of it — is that better? I don’t think so; I don’t think that’s a better world.

There are a lot of variations on names for this, but I think it’s sort of the owner-operator idea, it’s a term to keep the operation small, allow for a fairly large number of people to make a living and don’t let a small number of really wealthy people buy up the capital of the industry to a point where most fishermen are serfs, tenant farmers. That’s where things are going with high capital fishing.

Is there a future for fishing?

Oh sure, there’s a big future for fish and fisheries out there. Most of these stocks will recover and they’ll recover with a bunch of people chasing them that understand that you can screw up. One of our best fisheries here in Canada is the Pacific herring fishery. We drove the herring stocks in the 60s down to maybe 2% of what they were shipping. That thing’s bounced back, it’s enormously valuable, and there’s nobody involved in that industry that wants to do anything stupid again — very cautious management system. But they’ll come.

What gives you the most hope? You’ve told us your biggest disappointments, but what is your biggest upper?

Well, it’d be a scientific upper, and it’d be the work that we’ve been doing last two or three years on ecosystems. And I think we’re really finally getting models that capture a lot of the basic dynamics out there that ten year ago I’d have said, no bloody way ever! It’s very, very exciting work and I think it’s going to open up a variety of doors to more careful management and help us interpret what’s gone wrong in the past. So I think personally it’ll probably be the most lasting contribution I make to the field.

Would you care to talk about this dynamic as being potentially revealed by the modeling, with regard to the Steller sea lions?

When we first started to fire up these ecosystem models we kind of thought of a simple food chain and we were looking for simple things like, if you fished out on the small fishes — the herrings — we looked to see their predators go down; you take away their food, the big predatory cods and things ought to go down. But we really quickly ran up against several data sets, from the Bering Sea, from the Norse Sea in Europe, from the Georges Strait right out here, where everything seems to be turned around.

Where it seemed like the lower those prey fish got, the better the predators were doing. And we strongly suspected there’s an important predator-prey reversal; the abundant things like herring didn’t just get to be abundant by accident, they got to be abundant because they found a way to turn the tables on their predators; they found ways to keep predator numbers down enough to let them be the dominants, either by eating juvenile predators or knocking out something else that the predators need.

And so when you turn that around, it means that when you fish down one of these big pescavores, like a cod, there’s a big risk that when its prey build up in abundance, that they’re going to turn around and hurt the cod, hurt the very critter, even more, that you’re already hurting with the fishery. That’s called the depensatory effect in fishery science.

We don’t think it’s very common, but it doesn’t have to be. If it happens in 10% of fisheries, and one of them is the cod off of Newfoundland and 35,000 people are out of work for the rest of their lives, it’s worth worrying about.