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J.-J. Maguire


Large volume demersal fisheries have been conducted for centuries in the North Atlantic, being one of the main reasons for the colonisation of North America by Europeans. Fisheries science and science -based fishery management can be said to have originated in this area for the management of large volume pelagic and demersal fisheries. Yet, despite its long history and the large investments in fishery science and in fishery management, most large volume demersal fisheries in the area have severely overexploited the resources and stocks are seriously depleted. None of the fishery management systems reviewed can be described as achieving sustainability under any of the four components of sustainability. It is hypothesised that an exclusive focus on the bio-ecological component of sustainability may be at least partially responsible for the failure of fishery management in the area.


An International Workshop on Factors Contributing to Unsustainability and Overexploitation in Fisheries was held in Bangkok, Thailand from 4 to 8 February 2002 (“the Bangkok Workshop”) in the context of an FAO/Japan Government cooperative programme initiated in 2001 to address issues related to factors of unsustainability and overexploitation in fisheries.[94] Case studies of the management of a number of typical fisheries are to be reviewed in a second workshop to be held in Mauritius in February 2003. This review of large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic was prepared in this context.

After describing the characteristics of large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic, the success of fishery management under four components of sustainability (bio-ecological, social, economic and institutional) is evaluated, and reasons for the success or failure of fishery management are proposed.


Large volume demersal fisheries are at the root of western modern fishery science and science - based fishery management. Bottom trawl predominates, but various other types of towed (Danish and Scottish seines) or fixed (gillnet, set lines, hand lines) gear may also be used. Vessels range from relatively large vessels towing bottom trawls, to nearshore open deck handlining or fixed nets vessels. Large volume demersal fisheries can be more or less single species (hake off South Africa/Namibia), but there are few examples in the North Atlantic and most should be considered multispecies. Because several sectors (based on the gear fished, on the geographical base, or on nationality) are present in the fisheries, the allocation of resource between the various sectors is source of conflict.

The large volume demersal fisheries examined take place in FAO Statistical Area 21, the Northwest Atlantic and in the Northeast Atlantic (FAO Statistical Area 27) (Figure 1). The archetype demersal fishery takes place in the North Sea, but fisheries with similar characteristics also occurs off Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Canada and the USA.

Modern fisheries science can be said to have originated in this area in the late 1800s (Smith 1988) while active science-based fishery management was implemented from the 1960s. Steam trawlers were introduced in the late 1800s and bottom trawling has generated the large volumes of the titles since the early 1900s. Trawlers are of various sizes (from less than 10m to more than 30m). Other gears, gillnets, longlines, and various forms of seining (Danish, Scottish) contribute smaller volumes to total landings.

Figure 1: FAO Statistical Area 21, North West Atlantic and 27, North East Atlantic

The species of most interest are cod (Gadus morhua) and haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), but whiting (Merlangius merlangus), pollock/saithe (Pollachius virens), hake (Merluccius spp), plaice (Pleuronectes platessa, Hippoglossoides platessoides), sole (Solea solea) and various other species are also caught.

In the Northeast Atlantic, all countries fishing in the area, except Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, belong to the European Union who has responsibility for fishery management. The Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway have their own EEZ and they have bilateral agreements with the European Union. Of the eight countries having a coast on the North Sea, only Norway is not a member of the European Union. Norway and Russia have joint management of the fisheries harvesting resources they share. Iceland, Canada and the USA do not have serious problems with overlapping jurisdiction.

The main management measure is Total Allowable Catches (TACs) sub-allocated to countries and/or individual fishing enterprises, sometimes in the form of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ), except on the Faroe Islands where Individual Days at Sea are allocated. Other management measures include gear and mesh limitations, as well as closed areas and seasons. Scientific advice for fishery management is provided through peer review processes whose openness varies from very open in the USA, to almost completely closed in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea who provides advice to the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Island. The Canadian scientific advisory process is intermediate between that of ICES and that of the USA. Stock assessments and scientific advice are on a single species basis, although scientific advice may take into account the fact that the fisheries are exploiting several species at the same time.

A similar ranking of the decision making process can be made, with the most open system (the Regional Fishery Management Councils) being found in the USA, the most hermetic one in the EU, with processes in Canada, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway less elaborate and giving more discretionary powers to the Minister in charge.

In the EU, TACs are distributed to the different participating countries according to a fixed allocation key. Within each participating country, the sub-allocation of the national quota varies. Some countries have officially adopted ITQs, others have implemented systems which essentially amounts to an ITQ system without the name (Goodlad 1999), while still others function in a more or less competitive fishery. Various national arrangements have been set up to ensure that the national share is indeed caught in order to protect the national position.

All countries enjoy a relatively high standard of living with diversified economies where fishing account for a small portion of GDP or of government revenues, albeit fishing may be locally important to regional economies.

A more complete description of the fishery management system in the North Atlantic can be found in Maguire (2001).


3.1 Bio-ecological component of sustainability

All fishery management organizationss in this area understand that that their main bio-ecological aim is to protect, conserve, and restore fishery resources and that overfishing should be prevented. The need to protect, conserve, and restore the environment, the habitat, the ecosystem and bio-diversity; is similarly understood in theory, but the focus on single - species fishery management means that in practice there is few concrete actions in those areas. Except in the USA, little attention has been given to the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) concept, and nowhere is MSY interpreted in the context of multispecies and ecosystem considerations in any applied way.

All fishery management organizationss in this area explicitly recognise that conservation of fishery resources is their main objectives and all try to follow scientific advice as closely as possible. The fishery management decision - making process in the EU, whether because of its structure or because of its history, does not tend to favour conservation: National Ministers are seen to have caved-in to the European Commission (EC) when they adopt the EC proposals without changes (Holden 1994). Despite this apparent flaw in the decision - making process, the fishery management proposals made by the European Commission have generally either followed strictly the ICES advice, or been more restrictive. Furthermore, the decisions made by the Fisheries Council since the early 1990s have been close to the Commission’s proposals, and therefore consistent with the scientific advice provided by ICES. This has implied severe cuts in quotas and the imposition of additional management measures to reduce fishing mortality on overfished stocks, including drastic reductions in days at sea for some sectors in 2003 (EC 2002).

Although it can be confidently stated that the Fisheries Council understands that its main objective is to protect and conserve resources, it would be difficult to argue that it has been successful. Of the principal demersal fishes harvested in the North Sea, cod, plaice, sole and whiting are outside safe biological limits while haddock is harvested outside safe biological limits (i.e. fishing mortality is too high). In addition, fishing mortality on cod is so high that it is expected to lead to the collapse of the stock (ICES 2002). The failure of the European Common Fishery Policy (CFP) is acknowledged in official documents such as the Green Paper on the Reform of the CFP (EC 2001), the European Commission proposed reform (EC 2002a) as well as in public statements by Commissioner Fischler (2002).

The successful rebuilding of Northeast Arctic cod at the end of the 1980s has been heralded has a hallmark of Norwegian fishery management. Much less has been made of the substantial revision in stock status in 1997 and the continued low biomass of Northeast Arctic cod since then. Northeast Arctic cod is currently outside safe biological limits with fishing mortality estimated to be at or above that leading to the collapse of the stock (Flim) and the agreed TACs have been in excess of the scientific advice since 1998. The agreed TAC of 395 000 tonnes for 2002 is more than two times higher than the ICES advice of less than 181 000 tonnes (ICES 2002).

Icelandic cod is a mainstay of the Icelandic economy. ITQ management has been introduced in the early 1980s, and the system is deemed to have reached a satisfactory equilibrium in the early 1990s. Following extensive bio-economic simulation modelling, a formal harvest rule was introduced in the mid 1990s. Initially, biomass increased and the harvest rule was applied strictly. The 1999 assessment implied a decrease in the TAC and the harvest rule was adjusted. Although safe biological limits have not been defined for Icelandic cod, fishing mortality is estimated at about F = 0.8 in 2001, one of the highest in the time series since 1955 and twice the target of about F = 0.4, and spawning stock biomass is in the lowest 35th percentile for the time series. Bio-ecological sustainability is cannot be said to be achieved for Icelandic cod.

The Faroe Islands’ economy also depends heavily on fisheries. TAC management was introduced in the early 1990s as a condition requested by the Danish government to financially save the Faroese banking system. The TAC management system was introduced but not accepted by the fishing industry and substantial misreporting of catches and landings ensued. The Faroese government, on the recommendation of a joint working group including industry, fishery science and fishery management, implemented a system based on transferable (within gear categories) days at sea. The new system appears to have solved the data quality problem, but fishing mortality on the main demersal species remains high, particularly on cod. The management system also includes relatively large closed areas. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that bio-ecological sustainability is being achieved given the high fishing mortality on the main species. Biomass, however, does not show sustained downward trends and apparently continues to fluctuate within normal limits.

Of the seven cod fisheries entirely or mostly under Canadian jurisdiction (defined by the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) Divisions or Subdivisions they occupy: 2J3KL, 3Ps, 3Pn4RS, 4T-4Vn (Nov-Apr), 4Vn (May-Oct), 4VsW, 4X), all were closed to fishing in 1992-1993 except that on the southern Scotian Shelf and in the Bay of Fundy (NAFO Div. 4X). Small scale fisheries were re-opened in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1997 (3Pn4RS and 4T-4Vn (Nov.-Apr.) after initial signs of some rebuilding. Both fisheries may be closed again in 2003 because of a lack of growth in the stocks. Some inshore components of the 2J3KL cod stock complex appear to have grown somewhat, but the large offshore components remain severely depleted, as do cod stocks in 4Vn (May-Oct) and in 4VsW. Surprisingly, the cod resource in 3Ps does seem to have recovered while the biomass of cod in 4X remains very low and fishing mortality is higher than the target. Most other groundfish in the Canadian area remain depleted, except haddock and yellowtail. Fishing mortality was reduced to F = 0.10 or less for most cod stocks, but there is an apparent increase in natural mortality with total mortality remaining relatively stable despite the closure of the fisheries. Bio-ecological sustainability is therefore not achieved for Canadian demersal stocks.

The USA New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) implemented drastic management measures on groundfish starting in 1994-1995. These included an approximate halving of the allowable days at sea and the permanent closure of large areas where logbooks from commercial vessels showed high catch per unit of effort. These measures have successfully reduced fishing mortality on most groundfish species, with haddock and yellowtail in particular showing substantial increases in biomass. Similar to waters to the north however, cod biomass appears to have been less responsive to decreased fishing mortality. Bio-ecological sustainability may have been achieved for some of the groundfish fisheries in the area of the New England Fishery Management Council.

3.2 Social component of sustainability

Fishery management organizationss in this area are mostly concerned with the bio-ecological component of sustainability. The other components of sustainability are either less explicitly expressed, or not expressed at all. Optimum utilisation of the resource, when explicitly addressed is pursued mainly in a conservation (i.e. bio-ecological component of sustainability) context through mesh size regulations and protection of juveniles. The provision of safe, healthy and fair working conditions is generally the responsibility of an agency outside of the fishery management process. Diversification of income was seen as an objective of fishery management in the 1970s in several parts this area, but since the mid 1980s, it has taken a back seat to the protection of the resource. The European Union, Norway and Iceland have aid components in their fishery management framework, but in other countries, fisheries aid to developing countries is the responsibility of government institutions not part of the domestic fishery management process.

In the European Union, the recent agreement on the reform of the CFP (EC 2002) does include a component to help enterprises and communities affected by the reduced fishing opportunities. In addition, the proposed reform states that it aims at achieving sustainable fishing communities and profitable fishing enterprises. However, recent actions suggest that the social and economic components of sustainability are subsidiary to the bio-ecological one which has clear precedence: the message from the European fishery management authorities seems to be that bio-ecological sustainability will be achieved whatever the social costs.

No specific governmental documentation in English on the social objectives of fishery management in Norway, Iceland, or the Faroe Islands was found. In Canada, a major policy document of the early 1980s (Kirby 1982) identified bio-ecological, as well as social and economic objectives in fishery management but they were neither quantified nor prioritised. They were therefore not helpful in making decisions in fishery management. When it closed the cod and other demersal fisheries in the early 1990s, the Canadian government paid monetary compensations to fishermen and fish plant workers affected by the fishery closures. This can be interpreted as an effort to ensure the sustainability of fishing communities.

However, with the severe budget cuts of the mid 1990s to bring the Canadian deficit under control, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) re-focused itself on three main objectives for fishery management: Conservation, conservation, conservation (page 1 of the Minister message DFO 1999), i.e. and exclusive focus on the bio-ecological component of sustainability. Despite this explicitly exclusive focus on the bio-ecological component of sustainability, the actions of the DFO speak differently. The allocation of highly valuable shrimp and snow crab quotas to a large number of fishermen in the Newfoundland Region suggest that the DFO bureaucracy continues to pursue socio-economic objectives. However, it would be difficult to assert that the social component of sustainability is successfully achieved considering the inequities that continue to exist in several fishing communities where some fishermen involved in highly lucrative invertebrate fisheries make hundreds of thousand dollars (Canadian) while groundfish fishermen are essentially without income from their traditional fisheries.

In the USA, the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) of 1996 specifies 10 national standards that fishery management plans must satisfy.[95] National standards 8 and 10 relate to the social component of sustainability. They can be summarised as follows.

8. Consistent with the conservation requirements of this Act (including the prevention of overfishing and rebuilding of overfished stocks), take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities in order to:

a) provide for the sustained participation of such communities, and
b) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.

10. Conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, promote the safety of human life at sea.

The USA SFA therefore includes a social component of sustainability and the New England Fishery Management Council includes a Social Sciences Committee to advise it on the socio-economic implications of the management measures it considers implementing. The USA National Marine Fisheries Service does employ some social science scientists, including sociologists and anthropologists who participate with academic colleagues in the NEFMC Social Sciences Committee. Social considerations, however are secondary to bio-ecological ones as the rank in the listing of the 10 national standards indicate. A further indication is the revision of biological reference points that took place in March 2002 (NMFS 2002). As a result of the revision, target biomasses were substantially increased for several stocks with a resulting call for further substantial cuts in the fishery even though stocks were rebuilding, and sometimes approaching the “old” target biomasses, under existing management measures.

Although the social component of sustainability is explicitly included in the legislation of some jurisdictions, the overall perception is one where the bio-ecological component of sustainability has clear and complete precedence. The prevailing expectation in fishery management circles is that as fishing units become more and more efficient the number of fishing units will need to be progressively reduced (or their activity curtailed) in order to protect and conserve the resources. The forecast is for a continued decreased in the number of people involved in fishing as technological innovations and modernisation continues.

3.3 Economic component of sustainability

Almost all fishery management organizationss in the North Atlantic are acutely aware that their main economic aims are to match fishing capacity to the productive capacity of the resources. Various decommissioning schemes, buy-back programs as well as the implementation of ITQ programs do testify that the fishery management organizationss are trying to reduce excessive fishing capacity. Conducting trade according to the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, including preventing illegally caught fish (that is fish caught in IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fisheries) from reaching their markets is also generally understood as an objective of fishery management. It is not universally clear that the elimination of subsidies is also one of the main economic aims of fishery management, but it is difficult to find reliable information on this subject.

Generally speaking, there is considerably less information available on the economic component of sustainability than on the bio-ecological one. Updated stock assessments are made on a regular basis, and these are readily available on the internet:

Information on the economic aspects of fishery management, particularly in terms of the economic performance of individual fleets is more difficult to access. In Europe, the European Commission has encouraged and financed several economic studies through its FAIR funding mechanism. At least some of those studies have been used to elaborate the EC’s proposal for the reform of the CFP, but it is not obvious that there is a mechanism to update the studies on a regular basis and that the results are effectively used routinely in fishery management decision - making. Nevertheless, the turmoil created by the fishery management measures adopted for 2003 suggest that the economic impact of the TAC reductions will be large on at least some fleets. For example, a large proportion of the Scottish demersal fleet submitted decommissioning bids in 2002, and indication that several fishermen were not optimistic for the future.

A brief search on the web did not yield any source of economic information for the Faroe Islands, Norway or Iceland. There were reports in 2001, however, that the ITQ system in Iceland was leading to high-grading, i.e. discarding of the less valuable portion of the catch in order to maximise the landed value of the available quota. This behaviour was occurring particularly by those enterprises that had to buy additional fishing quotas to operate. Given the paucity of information found on the economic component of sustainability, no conclusion could be reached on whether it was achieved or not.

3.4 Institutional component of sustainability

If persistence is an indication of sustainability, then institutions of fishery management in the North Atlantic are sustainable. However, the Analytical Framework for the preparation of this review demands more than simple continued existence:

“Does the organization (national/regional/provincial government and or regional fishery management organization) responsible for fishery management understand that its main institutional aims are to use the best scientific information (on resources, the environment, the ecosystem, on social and economic factors, including traditional knowledge, the collection and dissemination of statistics, the evaluation of the cost effectiveness, efficiency, and socio-economic effects of alternative management measures, and the revision or elimination of inefficient or useless measures); to apply the precautionary approach to conservation and management; to do monitoring, control and surveillance, in their areas of jurisdiction but also for those vessels flying their flags on the high seas or of foreign vessels using their ports; to co-operate with other States and other RFMOs to promote conservation and responsible fishing, and to resolve dispute peacefully; to implement transparent decision making process and involve interested parties; to promote the awareness of responsible fisheries through education and training; and to duly take into account the interest of their fisheries in planning the multiple use of coastal areas.”

None of the fishery management systems in the North Atlantic has been designed to address the complex problems they are currently facing (Cunningham and Maguire 2002). They have evolved from relatively organizationss involving few people to the current elaborate processes involving a large number of people. All the fishery management processes reviewed understand that the best scientific information should be used, but this is generally limited to the “best information” on the status of each individual stock. Information on the environment, the ecosystem and social and economic factors, including traditional knowledge, is no where regularly used in the assessment or the fishery management processes. In addition, very few of the management processes in the area seem to have a real appreciation for how good the “best scientific information” really is with the result that stock assessments are often given more importance in the fishery management process than what their reliability would justify.

All fishery management processes do collect and disseminate statistics on landings and some measure of fishing effort. Where TAC management systems are in place however, landing statistics are not believed to be reliable because of misreporting by species or areas and catches are even less reliable because of discarding for regulatory or market reasons. The stock assessment methods used in the North Atlantic depend heavily on the availability of reliable catch information. The fishing industry knows that, and it also knows how unreliable the catch statistics are. As a result, the credibility of the scientific advice suffers.

The fact that fishery management systems have evolved progressively over time rather than being the result of a “grand design” results in considerable resistance to change. This means that although the cost-effectiveness, the efficiency and the socio-economic effects of alternative management measures may sometimes be evaluated pro forma, they are rarely given serious consideration. Most interested parties have sufficient investment in the current system to prefer small changes to the existing unsatisfactory system than the large unknowns that a completely new system would bring. In Canada, the fisheries law dates from early in the twentieth century. It has been amended and modified numerous times, but the basic text cannot be considered an adequate basis to face the current challenges of fishery management. It seems particularly difficult to eliminate inefficient or useless measures.

The bio-ecological component of the precautionary approach (PA) was quickly implemented in the North Atlantic. ICES was one of the first international organizationss to adopt it and by 1998, ICES provided advice on all stocks in the context of a precautionary approach. The EU and national governments that receive advice from ICES generally responded well to the advice and have themselves adopted the concept of the PA. NAFO also quickly adopted the PA. The USA Sustainable Fisheries Act is a textbook implementation of the PA while Canada is somewhat lagging in its implementation of the PA. It had only recently begun identifying reference points for a few fish stocks.

The efficacy of monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) seems to vary considerably from one fishery management system to another but there are few systems where it can be considered entirely satisfactory. A recent report from the European Commission (EC 2002b) suggests that there is scope for considerable improvement of MCS in EU member countries. The suspected poor reliability of catch and landing statistics in the European Union is consistent with poor MSC. Anecdotal information suggests that MCS in Norwegian waters in considerably better: EU fishermen with access to Norwegian waters through bi-lateral agreements do not dare breaking the regulations because there is a high probability that they will be caught. Despite the importance of the fishery to the Icelandic economy, the existence of an advanced and elaborate management system, including MCS, there were reports that the ITQ management system was leading to high-grading, where only the most valuable specimens of the allocated species are kept while the others are discarded dead. In Canada, the most recent assessment for Bay of Fundy cod did not provide estimates of biomass because landings are suspected to substantially underestimate the real catches (Clark 2002). It therefore seems that there are severe implementation problems in almost every fishery management system of the North Atlantic, possibly with the exception of Norway.

The transparency of decision - making and the involvement of interested parties varies considerably in a counter clockwise manner with the least transparency and smallest involvement of interested parties occurring in the European Union management process and the most transparent and largest involvement of interested parties occurring in the USA. In the Eastern North Atlantic, scientific advice is provided by ICES through a process that is not open to outside scrutiny while the decisions by the EU Council of Ministers are made behind closed doors. In contrast, the scientific and decision - making processes in the USA are completely open to whoever wants to participate. The transparency of the fishery management system in Canada is somewhere in between.

Similar to monitoring, control and surveillance, education and training in responsible fisheries seems to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it cannot be described as fully satisfactory in any of them. There are private initiatives by fishermen’s organizationss on both sides of the Atlantic, but these have mostly to do with using appropriate gear rather than dealing with the full scope of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. In fact, in some cases, fishery management organizationss are discussing responsible fishing rather than responsible fisheries. Consequently, they see the code as relevant to fishermen’s behaviour, but not to their own.

The need to protect the interest of the fisheries in planning the multiple uses of coastal areas is increasingly recognised. However, fisheries often occur in the less developed areas of the countries bordering the North Atlantic where the any economic development activity is actively sought. It therefore remains difficult to protect the interest of the fisheries when activities such as oil exploration and exploitation are considered.

Overall, fishery management institutions in the North Atlantic appear to be almost exclusively concerned with the bio-ecological component of sustainability. TAC is a main conservation tool and scientific advice is the determinant factor in determining TACs and most other management measures. Monitoring, control and surveillance, particularly in terms of estimating the amounts caught and landed, is inadequate (at least it is believed to be so by a large number of interested parties) which undermines the credibility of the scientific advice. Decision-making in several jurisdictions is far from transparent, which further undermines the credibility of the entire system. Although fishery management institutions do continue to exist, it is difficult to describe them as being sustainable.


Fishery management in the North Atlantic cannot be described as being successful. In the North East Atlantic, several stocks are considered outside safe biological limits (ICES 2002), employment in the sector is steadily decreasing (EC 2001), the poor state of demersal resources combined with expensive management approaches threaten the survival of many fishing enterprises, and the institutional make up is not conducive to making decisions that are promoting sustainability.

Fishery management is not more successful in the Western North Atlantic. Off the Canadian coast, several important groundfish resources have collapsed in the early to mid-1990s and most remain depleted despite severe restrictions on the fisheries.[96] The bio-ecological sustainability has therefore not been achieved as far as demersal resources are concerned. Concurrently, the biomass and TACs of high priced crustaceans species, including snow crab (Chionocetes opilio) and shrimp (Pandalus borealis) have increased markedly. Given the management system in place, few demersal fishermen have been able to take advantage of the increased biomass and TACs, while snow crab and shrimp fishermen are making record profits. This does not help social harmony in small communities where wealthy snow crabs and shrimp fishermen live next door to nearly bankrupt groundfish fishermen.

The main factors of unsustainability identified in the Bangkok Workshop were:

1. Inappropriate incentives
2. High demand for limited resources
3. Poverty and lack of alternatives
4. Complexity and lack of knowledge
5. Lack of governance
6. Interactions of the fishery sector with other sectors, and the environment.

All played a role in the non-achievement of any of the components of sustainability in the North Atlantic, but the main factors are probably the inappropriate incentives, an inadequate governance system, and complexity and lack of knowledge (particularly when combined with an excessive importance given to scientific advice).

The non-achievement of any of the components of sustainability in large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic may be linked to explicitly focussing the fishery management processes on only one of the dimensions of sustainability. The sustainability framework suggested by Charles (2001) implies that all dimensions of sustainability should be pursued simultaneously. In the North Atlantic, the explicit focus has been almost exclusively on the bio-ecological component of sustainability. The other components have no doubt also been pursued, but not as explicitly. The recent reform of the EU Common Fishery Policy, leans towards an even greater focus on the bio-ecological component of sustainability. One of the assumptions underlying such a focus, is that it is necessary to have resources to exploit in order to have fisheries that are sustainable under the other components of sustainability. Another is that fishery management has a more or less direct effect on the resources: an increase in fishing mortality will result in a decrease in biomass, a decrease in fishing mortality will cause the opposite effect, and when biomass increase, recruitment will increase.

Unfortunately, links are not so immediate in marine ecosystems. Fish stocks can show temporary increases when fishing mortality is high and keeps increasing, and biomass can decrease when fishing mortality is low. Although it is generally accepted that the probability of strong year classes increases as spawning stock biomass does, at least up to a point, large and even exceptionally large recruitment are known to have been produced at low spawning stock sizes. Indeed, some spectacular stock rebuildings are due to such large recruitment produced by small spawning stock biomass.

Similarly, reductions in fishing mortality can result in spectacular increases in stock sizes in some situations and not in others. Decreases in stock sizes of demersal and subsequently of pelagic species in the North West Atlantic in the late 1960s and early 1970s were blamed on excessive fishing effort. These decreases in stock sizes attributed to excessive fishing effort were very influential in motivating Canada and the USA to extend their jurisdiction on fisheries to 200 nautical miles during the second half of the 1970s. Extension of jurisdiction appeared to be an appropriate response because several stocks increased almost instantaneously off the East coasts of both countries immediately following the establishment of enlarged EEZs.

A closer examination of the data shows that the stock decreases in the late 1960s and early 1970s was at least partially due to strings of poor year classes having been produced at relatively large spawning stock biomasses, and that although the spectacular increases in biomass after extension of jurisdiction were indeed partially the result of a decrease in exploitation (FRCC 1996), biomass would have nonetheless increased even if fishing mortality had not been reduced as drastically: strong year classes, produced by low spawning stock biomasses were already in the water when jurisdiction was extended.

The situation of cod stocks in the North West Atlantic in the 1990s and early 2000s is also informative. In Canada, fisheries on six cod stocks have been closed, or severely restricted since 1992-1993. Only one of them, that found in NAFO Subdivision 3Ps (St. Pierre Bank) has shown some recovery. The other stocks have either continued to decline after the fisheries were closed (the “Northern” cod in NAFO Divs. 2J3K and 3L, and the Eastern Scotian Shelf (NAFO Subdiv. 4Vs and div. 4W), or have stabilised (northern and southern Gulf of St. Lawrence).

It is therefore, not axiomatic that a decrease in fishing mortality will automatically result in increases in biomass. Possible explanations include multispecies interactions and climatic influence on recruitment. These are not normally, or at least not entirely, under human control. The rapid increase in demersal resources at extension of jurisdiction in the North West Atlantic coincided with low biomasses of herring and mackerel, two pelagic species that are known predators of cod eggs and larvae. Similarly, in the North Sea, the gadoid outburst of the 1960s and 1970s was linked to low biomasses of herring and mackerel. Swain and Sinclair (2000) “report a strong negative relationship between the biomass of these pelagic fishes and recruitment rate of southern Gulf cod. This is consistent with the recent suggestion that the success of large predatory fishes may depend on “cultivation” effects in which the adults crop down forage fishes that are predators or competitors of their young.” (Page 1321). Incidentally, these authors note that because seals are predators of the three species (cod, herring and mackerel), a targeted reduction of the seal heard may not have the intended effect if it results in an increase in stock size of herring and mackerel. Multispecies effect as those hypothesised by Swain and Sinclair for the Gulf of St. Lawrence are likely to be the norm rather than the exception. Therefore, “simplistic” single-species fishery management is unlikely to have the effect predicted from models that do not explicitly take into account multispecies effects.

Similarly, climate and hydrographic conditions are known to have considerable influence on the dynamics of marine ecosystems. The best examples are found at the extreme of the distributions of species, e.g., it is widely accepted that there were periods “with” cod and periods “without” cod off Greenland (Buch, Horsted, and Hovgård 1994). Other examples include stock size fluctuations in the absence of exploitation as demonstrated for sardine and anchovies in the Pacific Ocean (Baumgartner, Soutar and Ferreira-Bartrina. 1992. and more recently, Chavez, Ryan, Lluch-Cota and Ñiquen. 2003) and for Pacific salmon (Finney, Gregory-Eaves, Douglas, and Smol 2002).

The combined effect climatic and multispecies influences on the dynamics of marine ecosystems could imply that, although management measures may have some beneficial effect, they are unlikely to achieve the full scale of benefits predicted by models that do not take into account the possibly considerably more important effects of multispecies interactions and climatic influences. This suggest that harvest control rules, constructed mostly without taking into account likely multispecies and climatic effects, are unlikely to yield the intended outcome. This observation is consistent with Saila (1997) who suggests that conventional control theory in spite of its success with well-defined systems such as missile and space station guidance may not be appropriate to control complex systems such as commercial fisheries where the precise structure of the system is virtually unknown and no reliable models of the process to be controlled exist. Success in fishery management may instead require a softer approach capable to handle qualitative information and uncertainty, in a straightforward, transparent and not computationally intensive manner. This description does not correspond to the system in place to manage large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic.

If, indeed, human fishery management actions have much less influence on the overall dynamics of the marine ecosystems than conventionally assumed in fishery models, the large investments in traditional single-species fishery management may not only be fruitless, they may also be counterproductive if they prevent interested parties to act in areas where they could have a higher probability of achieving positive results. Wasted management efforts on factors that could be driven largely by processes outside of the control of the fishery management agency (such as multispecies interactions or climatic influences) would cause a loss of faith in the management system, but more importantly, they may produce irreversible and unnecessary damage to fishing enterprises and to fishing communities (Hilborn et. al. 2001), therefore leading to economic and social unsustainability.

The economic component (at least some aspects of it) of sustainability may similarly be outside the traditional reach of fishery management agencies. Given the substantial involvement of national governments in fishery management in this area over the last 40 years, it must be acknowledged that the current situation is largely the result of government intervention in one way or another (Walters and Maguire 1996). For example, in both Canada and the USA, there was considerable government investment in one form or another to help build domestic capacity in order to replace the foreign fishery displaced when these countries extended jurisdiction over fisheries to 200 mi. This was done in the context of the discussions of UNCLOS where Article 62 request coastal states to make available to other countries the resources that are surplus to the catching capacity of their own fleets.

The discussion above agrees with the review of the analysis of past fishery collapses by the Historical Perspective Subcommittee of the FRCC (1996, page 3) that identified a need for humility in fishery management (“humans cannot control nature in the manner assumed by standard fisheries models”) and recognised “that human behaviour is very difficult to control”.


This review of large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic confirms the conclusion of the Bangkok Workshop that it is not the lack of instruments that is impeding the achievement of the main objectives of fishery management. None of the parties interested in fishery management holds the objective of overexploiting and depleting the resources (Cunningham and Maguire (2002)), or of achieving unsustainability in any of the other dimensions of sustainability, at least for themselves. It is a pernicious effect of many fishery management systems that its end results are often diametrically opposite to the intended objectives of interested parties. The paths to solutions identified by the Bangkok Workshop (allocation of Rights, transparent, participatory, management, support to science, enforcement, planning, benefit distribution, integrated policy, precautionary approach, capacity building and public awareness building, and market incentives) are all relevant to overcoming the difficulties and obstacles.

However, given the history of fishery management in the North Atlantic, as well as the human and financial investments in fishery management in the area, it is unlikely that minor changes to the processes are the solution: a major re-thinking of the approaches seems warranted.

It is somewhat discouraging that after decades of good willed fishery management using the best scientific information available, there is so little to show in terms of positive results on any of the components of sustainability. It should be mentioned, however, that although achievement of sustainability is poor under the four components in the context of the large volume demersal fisheries examined here, other fisheries appear to have managed to achieve bio-ecological and economic sustainability, e.g. the pelagic fisheries in Europe, and the shrimp and snow crab fisheries in Canada. Considering that the social component of sustainability is not achieved, at least in terms of an equitable distribution of the benefits, it will be interesting to monitor whether the other components of sustainability will be affected as a result.


No missing instruments were identified for the management of large volume demersal fisheries in the North Atlantic.


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[93] The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author, J.-J Maguire, Consultant, Sillery, Quebec, Canada,
[94] Project GCP/INT/788/JPN, FAO Fisheries Report No. 672, FIPP/R672.
[95] See

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