Overfishing: Moving beyond Malthus for effective and equitable solutions / by Francisco Blaha

Papers on overfishing abound, but papers on the roots of what we consider overfishing are rare, so I loved this in particular one from first glance "Reconstructing overfishing: Moving beyond Malthus for effective and equitable solutions". It comes from a source I always liked, the “Ghoti* papers” that are innovative and have a perspective that may lead to fresh and productive insight of concepts, issues and research agendas in fisheries.

Examples of drivers mediating and expanding the relationship between population growth and fishing effort

Examples of drivers mediating and expanding the relationship between population growth and fishing effort

The paper resonates very well with my experience in the Pacific (an area with very little population and a lot of fish) by questioning into the “Malthusian overfishing narrative” that suggests that overfishing is driven by too many fishers chasing too few fish and that fishing effort grows proportionately to human population growth, requiring policy interventions that reduce fisher access, the number of fishers, or the human population. By neglecting other drivers of overfishing that may be more directly related to fishing pressure and provide more tangible policy levers for achieving fisheries sustainability, Malthusian overfishing relegates blame to regions of the world with high population growth rates, while consumers, corporations and political systems responsible for these other mediating drivers remain unexamined.

While social–ecological systems literature has provided alternatives to the Malthusian paradigm, its focus on institutions and organized social units often fails to address fundamental issues of power and politics that have inhibited the design and implementation of effective fisheries policy.

The authors apply a political ecology lens to unpack Malthusian overfishing and, relying on insights derived from the social sciences, reconstruct the narrative incorporating four exemplar mediating drivers:

  • technology and innovation,
  • resource demand and distribution,
  •  marginalization and equity,
  •  and governance and management.

They argue that a more nuanced understanding of such factors will lead to effective and equitable fisheries policies and programmes, by identifying a suite of policy levers designed to address the root causes of overfishing in diverse contexts.

Of course, you should read the original, as the dive into all those areas (I found the marginalization and equity very interesting and love to do more work there!), yet below I quote the discussion and conclusions.

Instead of rejecting the dominant Malthusian overfishing narrative, we demonstrate the importance of creating space for a diverse and complementary dialogue with the potential to increase our capacity for effecting change and moving towards healthy, just and sustainable fisheries. Our four examples of intermediate drivers illustrate the pitfalls of Malthusian prescriptions and the potential for more nuanced, tractable policies (see table 2).
The double-edged sword of technology promotes sustainability through innovation, but it can also increase catch efficiency and intensity through mechanization. High demand for seafood generated mostly by developed countries, and facilitated by a globalized economy, is depleting fish stocks in the EEZs of many developing countries, while threatening local livelihoods, food security and human rights.
Issues of equity and marginalization are structural processes contributing to overfishing by progressively alienating many fishers from the marine environment and from political and economic opportunities.
While good governance and effective management combined can enable sustainability of fisheries, some policies intended to increase economic development and fisheries production, or policies that are not sensitive to local context can instead drive overexploitation.
Table 2. Mediating drivers of overfishing and related policy levers

Table 2. Mediating drivers of overfishing and related policy levers

Importantly, the relative impacts of each of these drivers, and others, need to be treated as hypotheses and tested with empirical evidence in different contexts (Branch, 2015); these relationships should never be assumed, as the population–environment relationship so often is. As such, there will never be a panacea for addressing overfishing. The “scaling up” of marine governance solutions without knowledge of different contexts can lead to ineffective or inappropriately applied fisheries management policies or programmes. At worst, this will lead to perverse and counter-intuitive outcomes like those mentioned above.
Designing an effective response requires developing a holistic understanding of the diverse drivers of overfishing, hypothesis testing to identify the most relevant drivers responsible and choosing from corresponding available and salient fisheries management policies (see Table 2). For example, if destructive gear is the primary driver of overfishing, a closer look at differential access to fishing technology and permits can uncover potential systemic inequalities driving fisherman behaviour and gear utilization. Likewise, fisher involvement in innovation and testing of new technology can increase efficacy and uptake of new sustainable technologies (Jenkins, 2010).
Addressing issues of demand and distribution may require national-level policies restricting access of distant water vessels, efforts to address the accumulation of licenses by corporations, or greater attention to ensure local fisheries adequately contribute to food and livelihood security. If the issues of marginalization and equity are important drivers of overfishing, effective fisheries policies may have to be codeveloped with well-designed poverty alleviation and development projects in accordance with human rights protocols (Allison et al., 2012; FAO 2015; Kittinger et al., 2013, 2017; Ratner, Åsgård, & Allison, 2014; Weeratunge et al., 2014), and incorporate strategies designed to restore the connections between resources and people by shifting existing power and market dynamics (Nayak et al., 2014).
Governance and management institutions can increase perceived legitimacy, compliance and fairness by involving fishers in policy processes and acknowledging local context and pre-existing norms and institutions and allow for more creative and flexible solutions to overfishing (Finkbeiner & Basurto, 2015). It bears repeating that these are just four examples of the many complex drivers of overfishing.
Any comprehensive fisheries policies effective at curbing overfishing will require more than stock assessments and autocratic decision-making, but rather assessment and evaluation of additional relevant local drivers, facilitated by the integration of social science data on fishing communities and cultures, as well as local stakeholders’ knowledge, needs and beliefs.
Expanding the overfishing narrative beyond the lens of population growth explicitly reveals the role of power, politics, wealth and conflict in overfishing: differential access to technology, permits and markets; patron–client relationships contributing to bonded labour; fisher alienation from policy processes; competition between international, highly mechanized fleets and local fishers; and disproportionate consumption of seafood across geographies are all characterized by extreme power differentials and inequity.
Narratives are often constructed by those in power with major implications for the powerless. As scientists, conservationists and policymakers, it is important for us to be critically self-aware of the possible neocolonial bias implicit in the narratives we advance and how it plays out on the ground in various contexts (Duarte et al., 2015).
Attributing global fisheries declines to population growth is a potentially unfair and apolitical attribution of environmental degradation and is an easy way to export problems and responsibilities to other geographic and demographic contexts.
The practical contribution of this manuscript is to advance the idea that a reduction in the number of fishers is not the only way to solve overfishing. Rather, we can maintain livelihood and food security for small-scale fishers while advancing sustainability by addressing power imbalances and inequity. Equitable solutions can free fishers from “social–ecological traps,” increasing their autonomy and flexibility to use less destructive gear, target more abundant stocks and retain more value (Cinner, 2010, 2011). Empirical studies have shown increased environmental stewardship and ecosystem health, with the same number of fishers, when collective rights and ownership are allocated to fishing communities (Fiske, 1992; Gelcich et al., 2008; Micheli et al., 2012). Thus, we argue that equity is necessary for sustainability, regardless of population growth or number of fishers.
We hope that by reconstructing the overfishing narrative in a more complex and nuanced fashion with explicit attention to the sociopolitical processes governing its intermediate drivers, we can constructively add to policy discussions and actions. We suggest reconsidering the blame placed upon fishers in contexts where access to the marine environment is a critical component of livelihoods and food security. The policy prescriptions designed to reduce access rights, harvesting rights and resource dependence of local populations may produce ethical and social ramifications with unintended environmental consequences.
Finally, we suggest the importance of being critically self-aware in the creation and use of meta-narratives about human–environment relationships, arguing instead for a more holistic understanding of the drivers of overfishing. Rather than simply “scaling up” fisheries management and conservation policy prescriptions, empirical analysis of the drivers of overfishing in different contexts could guide the choice of more effective policies to address the challenge of overfishing.
While we use fisheries as a case-study to explore these human–environment relationship assumptions, this debate continues to occur on a much broader scale across sectors and geographies; thus, we hope the message of this article is salient and useful in a broader context as we continue to work towards socially just and environmentally sustainable policy solutions.

*George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), polymath, playwright, Nobel prize winner, and the most prolific letter writer in history, was an advocate of English spelling reform. He was reportedly fond of pointing out its absurdities by proving that ‘fish’ could be spelt ‘ghoti’