TRANSCRIPT - Dr. Carl Walters
Walters is a Professor at the Fishery Centre at the University
of British Columbia and he is a fellow of the Royal Society
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
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 theyre
not living long enough, that gap isnt 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 its 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. Theres 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 mans 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; theyre
hard to measure.
always uncertainty in how to interpret the noisy data that we get
and we always get conflicted opinions amongst the scientists. Its
a great soil for that kind of indecision to grow in; its 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
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, hell take
a little heat from the scientist, but his fishing constituents will
And facing a
choice like that, they are going to gamble on the easy side every
time, until things become so bad that they cant ignore them.
Or until some new political force, like the environmental groups
today, starts to emerge as a worse threat if you dont 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. Its the bad publicity youll 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.
Thats a different story. The threat structure has changed.
It would be
nice if politicians wouldnt work that way, but if youve
ever been involved in politics, then you know, thats 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.
Its 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, its 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,
thatd 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
doesnt have to do with the destruction of their fresh water
a large community of people today that are making their living by
flogging the idea that weve lost all our salmon or are rapidly
losing all of our salmon habitat and its 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 its easy to
convince people that thats damaging the fish.
But when we
actually sample the fish and ask the fish what they actually think
about that world out there, theyre not doing that bad. For
example, in southern British Columbia, theres just as many
juvenile Coho salmon going to sea today as there were twenty years
ago, despite all of the supposed loss of habitat.
happening today thats different is that about 8 out of 10
of those fish that would have come back twenty years ago dont
come back from the ocean. Theyre dying in the ocean, before
they have a chance to get caught or anything else. And we dont
know whats causing that. But were not putting any money
into it. Its easy to put the money into getting a lot of people
to go help you fix up streams. Its an easy thing for people
to get involved in publicly. And even if you know what doesnt
work, its really easy to be quiet about that side of the story.
The young salmon that are going to sea arent coming back,
so theres a problem out there and no ones addressing
it and no ones putting money into it. Who does this serve?
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, theres
a real good chance wed find out it is something we couldnt
do anything about like the winding down of primary production
of the algae in the ocean. But theres 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 its probably a good gamble to at least try and find out
and to spend some money on it.
really wrong though, is to keep trying to pump up the freshwater
survival and production and dump even more fish into an ocean that
isnt capable of supporting them. Thats making things
worse than better for the remaining wild populations; its
having exactly the opposite effect of what people intend; well-intentioned
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
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 dont pretend theyre right. We just say, lets
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
And the other
thing is, the oceans productivity in this area is dropping.
Its 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 its 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 theres
only one way that can happen, and thats 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?
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 its been
getting steadily less windy. Its about 40% as much what we
call wind square its 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.
sure that productivity has fallen, nutrient delivery system has
shut down, at least partly because of wind. What were 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"?
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, theyll re-seed areas around them. All of our tempered
experience says thats 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.
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
cant touch herring.
Off the east
coast of Canada, most of the cod stock that kept most of Newfoundlands
culture and economy going for several hundred years wasnt
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.
other places where this erosion of economic or technological protection
areas is occurring. One of the scariest ones is the tunas.
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 youd ever imagine would collapse. Can
you imagine going down to your local Safeway and not being
able to buy a can of tuna? Its a real possibility today.
In your book, Fish on the Line, you talk about how time and
spatial closure are what are needed. Thats 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 its low, and itll come down if its large.
Because the catch will be larger when the same percentage is taken
from a big stock, and itll be less when its 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. Thats
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. Thats the way the old fisheries
worked. And thats the way our successful ones work today.
Its not by good science. Its 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 thats overwhelming
the carrying capacity of the ocean. Thats 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
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 cant spread out as
easily or as rapidly to exploit a larger ocean area. Theyre
stuck in there for at least a while when theyre little. And
when theyre stuck in there, theres only a small part
of the water that they can feed in. They can only feed very close
to the surface because they cant see down deep and often theyre
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 doesnt take
all that many fish to fill that one little window. Its a big
ocean, but from their point of view its a little tiny ocean
thats too filled with other little fish.
got to think about numbers here. Were talking tens of millions
of fish being released on these hatcheries. Tens of millions. And
in a couple of species, its up over a billion of them being
In Fish on the Line, you talk about other problems of hatcheries
such as deletion of the gene pool, the fact that youre 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 dont really understand the
mechanism behind that. It may be partly genetics, it may be disease
accumulations, disease organisms we dont understand and it
may be, very simply, that mother nature doesnt like seeing
huge numbers of fish out there and it just attracts predators. Theres
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 thats 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?
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 theyre 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 isnt necessarily a solution to the problem at
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. Its not clear there is an
answer. You cant 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 theyve
used it up.
So, I think
were 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 its 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; its
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 theres
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.
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 fisherys agency sets the number
of tons of fish thatll be allowed to be caught and then the
quota holders take those in any way thats best for them economically
the best price, the best time and so on. And that certainly
has economic advantages for fisheries.
you can take your quota to the bank for a loan or sell it
youre not competing with the other fisheries for it. And fisheries
managers just love it. To set the quota, youve got to go to
the scientists. And if they set the quota and the quota is too high,
and it causes over-fishing, youve got someone to blame on
that side. On the other side, if something goes wrong with the fishing
industrys 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. Thats why it spread like hotcakes.
Are you talking here about TACs or are you talking about IFQs?
The right hand
pointing out there was the ITQ or the IFQ idea and the notion that
each fishermans right consists of a number of tons of fish
that hes 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 its ton-age. Thats
the ITQ system.
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 dont mean that the fisherman
who has a quota or license owns them, it means that you or I own
them; theyre ours; thats our resource.
I think if you
look at it from that point of view, that its 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.
Whats the alternative?
Well, in a fundamental
sense, we could simply privatize the ownership of the fisheries.
You, the company owns this population of fish. Its 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, wed 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 theyll 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. Thats scary
Is it your belief that ITQs 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 ITQs 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 dont
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, weve 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. Theres
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 dont 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 arms 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 childrens children.
length operationally means conservation first. It means you
dont 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 theyre there
first and foremost, for conservation.
One of the things
that ought to be said there is that there isnt 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, its
a lose-lose situation for everybody. The old adage is real important:
an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Weve got
to back these fisheries to the point where you dont 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 cant 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 youre 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. Theres 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.
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 childrens 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 wed have had if wed just been a little bit more
patient in the first place and worked with the diversity and the
productivity thats out there, and with the ecosystem
thats 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
a bit of history here. In the 1950s and 1960s 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 weve 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. Its
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, were 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 doesnt 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.
to learn this through a lot of really sad experience. Weve
had an awful lot of fisheries collapse when people thought they
were managing them safely. I guess the fear now is that we wont
learn from that experience. And its 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 peoples experience,
living in a time warp. Thats really part of this matter of
the deep-rooted incompetence in the field of fisheries I spoke to
you earlier about the inverse pyramid.
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 havent even read enough to see that happen, in the literature.
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?
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 theyre coming in at the same time. Theyre 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 its 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, its an expensive insurance
policy. Weve 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
simple. If youve got a population sitting out there thats
being harvested at a 25% rate, say theres 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 theres less harvest; it might build up to
8,000 tons. And then that same 10% is 800 tons, not 250. Thats
what we really mean by over-fishing is not something that
happens in a year, its something that over the long term erodes
the population size down to where at a given harvest rate, it isnt
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, its hopelessly expensive.
Youve 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 theyve
got all kinds of incentives to lie about what theyre doing
to distort the information they provide, to do their fishing in
ways that maximizes their profit, and thats 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 its
a win-win thing for the scientists and the fishermen to know more
about whats 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 arent
stupid. You dont go out there with the kind of technology
thats out there in modern day fishing if youre an idiot
not for very long. Were dealing with bright, intelligent
people that are fully capable of learning. And theyre being
treated with contempt.
There are a
lot of clowns out there that will screw things up, either deliberately
or because they dont understand whats being sought and
the scientists arent good enough at explaining what they need
to make it clear. But in cases like that, its easier just
to keep doing what youve been doing. Its a lot harder
if youve got to go out there and work with people and do an
education thing get everybody understanding whats needed
work out all the tactics for making sure it happens in the
field and making sure that theres cross checks to make sure
nobodys cheating, and its 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 arent infinite,
they know that theres 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 youre not sure what to do, if youre
not sure you can get away with it, back off. Make your insurance
payment NOW; dont pretend that that gamble is a good one.
So I think the
attitude changes are there, largely because the harsh, bloody experience
and people dont want to see it happen again. And I think well
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 dont go into those places where everybodys
about to starve. We pay a little price now rather than a big price
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?
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. Were sacrificing
profit for employment and for creating a diversity of lifestyle
opportunities and thats fine with me.
If we really
wanted to do things the cheapest, safest possible way, wed
get rid of these industries entirely; there wouldnt be employment
in fishing. But I think itd be a much poorer world out there.
To me one of
the saddest things thats 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 theyd
go out fishing for Chinook and Coho salmon through the summer and
even into the winter.
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
youd ever run into.
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 dont think so; I dont
think thats a better world.
There are a
lot of variations on names for this, but I think its sort
of the owner-operator idea, its a term to keep the operation
small, allow for a fairly large number of people to make a living
and dont 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. Thats where things are going with high
Is there a future for fishing?
Oh sure, theres
a big future for fish and fisheries out there. Most of these stocks
will recover and theyll 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
things bounced back, its enormously valuable, and theres
nobody involved in that industry that wants to do anything stupid
again very cautious management system. But theyll come.
What gives you the most hope? Youve told us your biggest disappointments,
but what is your biggest upper?
be a scientific upper, and itd be the work that weve
been doing last two or three years on ecosystems. And I think were
really finally getting models that capture a lot of the basic dynamics
out there that ten year ago Id have said, no bloody way ever!
Its very, very exciting work and I think its going to
open up a variety of doors to more careful management and help us
interpret whats gone wrong in the past. So I think personally
itll probably be the most lasting contribution I make to the
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 theres an important predator-prey
reversal; the abundant things like herring didnt 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, theres a big risk that when its
prey build up in abundance, that theyre going to turn around
and hurt the cod, hurt the very critter, even more, that youre
already hurting with the fishery. Thats called the depensatory
effect in fishery science.
think its very common, but it doesnt 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, its worth worrying about.