August 10, 2022
With terms like target and trigger, one may be forgiven if they mistook a conversation about harvest strategies for one about shooting sports. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate metaphor for international fisheries management, which has come under fire to improve its performance. Until the mid-20th century, fisheries were largely unregulated with very few controls beyond the inherent limits on investment, the ability to catch fish, and the biological capacity of the resource. That changed with the growing recognition of the tragedy of the commons combined with several high-profile fishery collapses. Most stakeholders viewed these collapses as a failure of collective governance under a scattershot management approach, which led to the development of international agreements and standards that, in turn, led to the establishment of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) charged with managing their respective fisheries.
Unfortunately, the establishment of RFMOs and deployment of traditional fisheries management tools failed to offer a silver bullet as evidenced by mixed results across each RFMO. A weakness of RFMOs is that they rely on an annual decision-making process where members often support policies that sustain their short-term, individual economic or political self-interests that tend to override long-term, science and evidence-based collective interests in sustainability. This weakness is exacerbated by a preference for consensus, which leads to the “tyranny of the minority,” where a single member can effectively veto a proposal supported by science and the majority. Combined with yearly protracted horse trading used to delay or water down decisions and a tendency toward exploitative risk rather than precaution, status quo management seems to ratchet fisheries steadily toward crisis.
Nevertheless, as Dr. Ray Hilborn, a pre-eminent fisheries management expert, observed, “The decline of many [fisheries] is not a failure of ﬁsheries management, it is a failure to implement ﬁsheries management techniques that we know can work well.” A technique we know works well is the use of the harvest strategy approach, which, through extensive stakeholder engagement and scientific analysis, offers pre-agreed decision points and actions, such as catch and effort limits, built on a robust foundation of science and evidence. A high calibre harvest strategy mitigates the weaknesses of the current process, such as the prolonged annual negotiations that frequently hold decisions hostage, by “automating” the decision-making process based on discrete criteria targeted at meeting clear objectives.
The upcoming (SMD) at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), scheduled for 19-22 August 2022, represents an important opportunity to build capacity and understanding of how and why the harvest strategy approach better regulates and stabilises fisheries management in favour of evidence-based sustainability and productivity. Additionally, managers and scientists will have the chance to progress stock-specific harvest strategies under development at WCPFC, notably skipjack, which is on track for adoption this year. Thus, the WCPFC should establish the SMD as a recurring working group to support meeting the harvest strategy workplan and timelines. If we stick to our guns on the status quo RFMO management, we’ll only be shooting ourselves in the foot in the long run. So, instead of engaging the annual circular horse-trading that the RFMO process has become, it’s time for the WCPFC and other RFMOs around the world to aim high, bite the bullet, and pull the trigger on harvest strategies.
Bubba Cook has spent a lifetime on the ocean, 19 years working in fisheries conservation and management, and currently serves as the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Wellington, New Zealand, where he focuses on improving tuna fisheries management at a national and regional level in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean through policy improvements, market tools, and technological innovation.