Fish is not a limitless resource. Stephen works in consulting at all levels to improve fisheries especially in African, Middle East and South Asian countries. He works with international agencies, government ministers, law enforcement agencies, commercial fishing organisations and also with fishermen directly. Many of us take the supply of fish for granted. How does it actually work? Stephen is a philosopher in the School.
Stephen Akester, Wessex, UK
My career in fisheries started with teaching sailing in south Devon, where working alongside the fishermen got me interested in the issues of management. This was in the English Channel, and included time at sea on fishing vessels. I love being at sea and everything to do with it. The sea is a great teacher, but lack of respect can be fatal.
In 1977, the chance came up to work on fisheries management in West Africa, so we formed a consultancy group. We have been working ever since, on management of fisheries, spreading to most parts of the world.
How it works
70% of marine resources are in coastal waters, on underwater continental shelves. Fishing requires good management of fish stocks. So a well-managed fishery is truly wonderful. It’s like a bank account where we can take the interest and leave the capital sum intact. But this only works if the stock can be recovered to sustainable levels. Worldwide it’s a 700 million tonnes a year industry.
Fisheries are a renewable resource; when harvested respecting simple rules, the stock replenishes itself. Sustainable life support systems and economies then operate as nature intended. Capture Fisheries [ie not farmed] do not need replanting or take up land as in agriculture; they do not need herding or feeding as in livestock. But fisheries do have natural limits of production that must be respected. In too many countries these simple truths are not realised.
Managing people, not fisheries
There has been a growing realisation over the past 20 years of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ taking place in world fisheries. Put simply, a common stock without regulations will be removed for profit until it’s gone. Sadly, industry looks for any opportunity to maximise profits and circumvent regulations – for example in West Africa and the Indian Ocean.
However even though 30% of world fisheries are overfished and 60% are at maximum yield, there have still been cases of recovery. Nature’s ability to recover is extraordinary; it’s enormously resilient. It’s not about managing the fish but about managing the people interfering by overfishing, habitat destruction and polluting.
The sad tale of cod
One stark example of human failure is the cod fishery of the north Atlantic. Catastrophically, in spite of years of warnings, overfishing continued and the stock collapsed so comprehensively that cod dropped out of the ecosystem altogether in Canadian coastal waters.
When this happens another species takes its place; in this case the Canadian lobster. This sounds great, and initially it delighted local markets with this luxury item. But it’s a short-lived joy. The ecosystem was not designed for this, and the lobster will also decline, further depleting the system. Then what? We don’t know but, sadly it can decline further to jellyfish.
Yet after a 30-year closure, amazingly, even there we see signs of some level of recovery in Canada. Cod has been the subject of a painful management plan in European waters which is now working, thanks in part to EU rules. This demonstrates how working together across oceans, different administrations can support the recovery process nature is willing to provide.
Disastrous overfishing: trawlers
But while there are green shoots in better-managed economies, the story in Africa, Middle East and Asia is very different with widespread overfishing. Unscrupulous operators have already removed most of the valuable fish stocks, through non-transparent deals with weak governments. Now they are arguing over the remains.
Bottom-trawling without regulation is non-selective and involves dragging a big net on the sea bottom. The ground rope takes everything in its path and reduces the ability of the ecosystem to keep producing by flattening the sea bed and removing the habitat for fish spawning. Weak governments under the influence of agents take low licence fees in exchange for quick cash, without proper fisheries management. This threatens food security.
So if I were emperor of the world for a day, the one thing I would do is ban bottom-trawling!
In Bangladesh for example, trawlers have fished out all the big fish. Now only sardines remain, of very low value and only in quantity as they have no predators but without enough food source for proper growth. It’s a question of getting governments to understand and act effectively.
West African Fisheries
In the 9 countries of sub Saharan West Africa 100 million people are dependent on fish for nutrition. Here all the valuable fish stocks are trawled by only 535 foreign vessels, mostly Asiatic and some European operators mostly for export. While the trawlers are not armed, they do pay national agents to take care of their interests!
This can be scary and threatening for both national administration staff trying to do the right thing and us trying to help them. So our task is to maintain the truth and keep focussed on the work.
Ghana for example, used to be self-sufficient in fish, the major source of protein for its people. But due to Chinese trawlers it now has to spend US$500 million importing low cost fish from Latin America to feed its population, increasing foreign debt! As fish stocks diminish, coastal fishing communities fail and urban drift expands.
I have been working with fishing communities in West Africa for over 40 years and experience the anguish of old friends as their fishing activities fail to provide for their family’s needs and their health deteriorates. Successive governments make election promises; these are not fulfilled. Yet somehow politicians have good lifestyles while working people do not!
The World Bank
For the past 10 years I have been advising a regional World Bank investment in fisheries management in the West Africa region. At the start we had only ideas about the true situation, knowing only that it was not working for fishing communities.
Now we know what is wrong and who is doing it. We also know how much they are profiting from it and we know the solutions. But we have not yet reached the decision makers to exert enough pressure on political will to change the trajectory towards broken ecosystems and increasing poverty.
Still, the World Bank is among the most effective institutions working to improve management. It has powerful procurement processes that are better than most at transparency.
How philosophy helps
I have to remain effective and optimistic while witnessing these situations- not always easy. Supported by the teachings of the School, the opportunities for practice are many! Meetings with communities suffering from poor management and reducing benefits can be tempestuous. Staying connected makes the difference between useful communication and guidance for all – or conflict.
Working with senior politicians who are not achieving the common good requires an openness and clarity of purpose enabled by the teachings. Note to self: room for improvement here!
Good news for fisheries
I recently visited Robertsport community in North Liberia. Five years ago the World Bank program convinced the government to stop bottom trawling and fish stocks are now in recovery. People’s welfare is improving. There is a rush of emotions and a restored sense of purpose – holding hands with friends and high fives. A recent good fish catch restores the faith that working together we can do this!
How can we help?
As communications increase, we see the potential for the buying public to bring pressure to bear. This is through both education, and above all purchasing power! The shopper and consumer have power in their choices. In Asia for example, demand for the iconic shark fin soup is declining due to shaming of those still purchasing; this may help reverse the decimation of shark stocks in all oceans. Our purchasing decisions make a real difference; let’s try to use them well.
It is a great privilege to be asked to help make a difference, and occasionally to do so. And to have friends in many places and be part of a movement towards a better future for our oceans.
Fisheries are a real concern to real people. Read Solomon’s story