Science & governance
For more than 100 years, and particularly since the early 1950s, fishery science has played a central role in capture fisheries governance. All disciplines have been involved - from technology, to bio-ecology, social sciences and, more recently, political science. The first two disciplines dominated the field as resources were discovered, fisheries expanded and modernized, and the basis for resources management was laid down. With the general acknowledgement of overcapacity and overfishing and the subsequent fisheries collapses between the 1970s and 1990s, social and political sciences started playing a growing role that can only increase in the future. And with the ecosystem approach to fisheries, quantitative ecology is making a rapid comeback.
Economic, social and political forces are inevitably involved as countries, in the case of shared resources, or communities within them, in the case of nationally owned resources, compete to derive the maximum allocation and benefits. The starting points, however, remains the same: an objective assessment of the sustainable production that can be expected from the resource and of the conditions under which such production can take place. Another significant focus must be the elaboration of alternative management options and feasible transition pathways of change.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, management decisions must be based on the best scientific evidence available. As a consequence, research is the cornerstone of effective fisheries management and an important element for the future of fisheries and aquaculture, their planning and management (capacity control, stock rebuilding, etc.).
The effectiveness of fishery management is significantly dependent on the extent to which it is informed by an accurate understanding of the status, trends and cause-effect relationships in the abundance, dynamics and resilience of fisheries resources, and of the environment in which they are found. It is equally dependent on an understanding of the state, trends, structure, social and economic dynamics of the fishery sector, and of the markets in which it trades. This requires the collection and analysis of data and, experimentation being mostly impossible, the elaboration of complex models articulating the various aspects of the fisheries sector.
Information on the resources (their environment, their abundance, health, and resilience to fishing), the fishing sector (its techniques, investments, efficiency, costs, social dimensions) and the market (supply, demand, prices, outlooks) are essential to:
Many important fisheries involve more than one country and are regulated by regional fishery commissions or political groupings. In some instances, the commission has its own mechanism to generate the scientific advice that it needs. In others, the scientific information is assembled and submitted by the same delegations that will eventually make the management decisions.
In either case, the data is assembled and analysed by technical staff, the likely outcome of potential alternative decisions are calculated and evaluated, recommendations may be made and the final decisions are made by fishery managers and/or politicians. Historically, short-term national interests have tended to prevail over long-term needs for conservation, particularly where scientific advice has been uncertain, conflicting or inconclusive.
Progress is still needed to develop national capacity (particularly in developing, small and island countries) and to ensure transparency in decision-making. Progress is also needed in the fishery science itself, to increase the contribution of social sciences; improve the understanding of ecosystems structure, functioning, and resilience; to normalize and generalize indicators of sustainability; and to further develop applications of the precautionary approach.
Science and uncertainty
Fishery managers are often required to make decisions in the face of a high degree of uncertainty arising from three fundamental causes. Firstly, the statistical variability associated with the problem of sampling largely invisible and moving organisms over the vast areas of the ocean. Secondly, the fugitive nature of the knowledge on people, their preferences, expectations and motivations. Thirdly, the inherent complexity of the functioning of fishery social-ecological systems, evolving under the pressure of internal and external forces. This means that understanding of the processes determining the future state of the system will always be very incomplete, limiting our capacity to predict and fully control them. Recognizing this complexity is the first step of a systemic approach to fisheries. Recognizing this uncertainty is essential for the first step of a science-based precautionary approach to fisheries.