Fisheries Resource Management

Apart from my day job at the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, I teach a course in the Master of Marine Studies (Fisheries Resource Management) program at Memorial University’s Marine Institute, entitled, Overview of World Fisheries.

Before I go any further, I should confess that I am not a fisheries scientist and have never managed fish resources. However, I have been in the industry a long time, I have had a broad range of experience in the industry and I have literally traveled around the world and had opportunities to observe and/or participate in fisheries operations in many places.

And much of my work has involved dealing, one way or another, with impacts of fisheries resource management decisions.

Because fisheries resource management is always a hot topic, I thought I might pass on some of my observations and some of what students learn in my course.

Although there are some exceptions, most natural resources are publicly owned and managed. In managing any resource — fish, forests, minerals, petroleum — there are a few fundamental questions that must be answered:

  1. What is the size of the resource?
  2. How much of the resource can be harvested/extracted in a specified period of time (this is especially important in managing renewable resources, such as fish, because the rate of renewal should be an important factor)?
  3. Who should have harvesting/extraction rights and on what terms?
  4. What monitoring and enforcement are needed to ensure the quantity harvested does not exceed the quantity allowed?
  5. How do we measure the success of resource management?

These are all important questions. Finding answers to them is typically the responsibility of government, as stewards of resources owned by the public.

My course and this discussion deal primarily with the fifth question, How do we measure the success of resource management? It is not an easy question to answer.

The answer has a number of different dimensions that can be broadly classified as biological, economic, social and political. Inevitably, managing resources involves making trade-offs among the competing considerations.

How those trade-offs are framed and how they are made determine how successful resource management is. Because the different dimensions are often in conflict, decision makers must choose which objectives take priority over others.

Framing and making trade-offs lead to another question: What criteria should be used to make resource management decisions and in what order of priority?

In the United States, for example, the Magnusson-Stevens Act requires resource management decisions to be based on science. In Canada, the Fisheries Act gives absolute discretion to the minister to make such decisions. Science is just an input to the decision-making process, along with a number of other inputs, including politics, because the minister is an elected politician.

The most obvious measure of success in managing resources is the sustainability of the resources managed over time. As history shows, that has been a problem both in Canada and around the world. But it is not the only measure.

A complicating factor is that, although fish resources are publicly-owned and managed, they are typically harvested/extracted by private sector entities licensed by government that operate as businesses — i.e. they sell products/services to customers for a price, with the objective of earning a profit.

That means a public resource is more or less privatized through granting of harvesting rights. How those rights are granted determines a lot of things, including industry structure, how the industry operates, who benefits from the resource and by how much.

The market for fish and seafood is global in scope and businesses in many countries compete to supply that market.

Resource management decisions impact on the competitiveness and economic viability of the industry that depends on them. Because of that, they also impact on incomes and returns on investment earned by industry participants. Should these factors be considered in measuring the success in resource management? Some countries put more emphasis on them than others.

Kathy Johnson Photo

That raises another question: What responsibility should resource managers have to ensure maximum value is obtained from a publicly-owned resource? And then there are subsidiary questions:

  1. How do you define value?
  2. Who should benefit from the value created and by how much?

What obligations should a holder of harvesting rights have to pay for those rights, to harvest the resource made available and to ensure maximum value is obtained from the resource? Should the holder of rights obtained free from a governmental agency subsequently be able to sell those rights to someone else for a substantial amount of money?

There is also a time dimension — short-term vs. long-term. And we should not forget the people dimension — resource management decisions affect the lives and incomes of a good many people, including people not directly involved in the fishing industry.

Different people tend to consider different dimensions as being the most important, so there can be significant disagreement and conflict over resource management objectives.

The division of decision making between the public and private sectors presents many challenges. Resource management decisions are made to achieve public objectives, but business management decisions are made to achieve private objectives. There is often a conflict between the two.

The conflict shows up in various ways but particularly in the following three:

  1. Which is more important — maximizing the value obtained from a resource or ensuring benefits from the resource are equitably shared?
  2. Is it better to maximize benefits in the short-term or over the long-term?
  3. To protect or further their interests, the private sector tries in various ways to influence the decisions made in the public sector.

Resource management must try to find an optimum balance among these competing considerations. That is not easy.

Whatever decisions are made, it is likely some stakeholders will like them and others will not. A worst-case scenario is that nobody likes the decisions.

In managing fish resources, it is important to understand that fishing is not really about catching fish or providing incomes to harvesters, although media reports here in Canada often make it appear that way. It is about providing food for people to eat. And those people are often a considerable distance from where fish are harvested and turned into products to be offered for sale.

Markets and consumers create the incentives for people to harvest fish and turn them into marketable products. But in fish producing areas, there are typically few media reports about what customers want, whose products they are buying, or why they choose one supplier over another. If you depend on the media as a source of information, you are likely getting a very distorted view of the industry and what is important.

There are many resources in the ocean that are not harvested, because there are no customers willing to pay for them. And the customers who do buy fish products increasingly care about things like reliability of supply, sustainability, quality and the practices used to catch, process and market fish.

They have no particular obligation to buy from any one supplier. If they do not like a particular offering, they simply move on to another that comes closer to what they want — which may or may not be fish.

Harvested fish must be turned into products that people want and are willing to pay for. That is done in the processing sector, which creates value based on the products it turns out and the markets in which those products are sold. But those products must find their way from their point of origin to the point of consumption, so the people and organizations who find the consumers and make the products available to them create value, as well. Mostly, those people and organizations are close to the market, rather than to the point of production.

How well the different participants in this overall chain work together determines the size of the pie that can be shared among them. Unfortunately, resource management decisions typically focus only on the resource and the harvesting effort and do not take into account the other parts of the value chain that play critical roles in determining output value.

People who study fisheries resource management typically do not study business. That is a problem.

Decisions made by resource managers have huge implications for the businesses that depend on the resources they manage. Quite often, that is not understood or not adequately taken into account when resource management decisions are made.

David Greening Photo

For example, Canada’s fishing industry exports about 80 per cent of its output. It must compete for customers in international markets, often against other suppliers who have significant advantages in terms of market access, products, quality and/or cost. And it increasingly must compete with fish produced through aquaculture, an industry that produces similar products but in a very different way.

The industry must be competitive and economically viable to be sustainable as an industry, just as the resources it depends on must be sustainable to support the industry for the long term.

But, in Canada, resource management decisions are made by the federal government and are typically focused on fish and fishing. It does not consider impacts on the processing sector, which is a provincial jurisdiction, or the value chain that distributes the output to consumers, who mostly live in other countries.

Consequently, resource management decisions are often made without much regard for the industry’s international competitiveness or economic viability but, as our history has shown, sometimes decisions favour those objectives over sustainability. Similar examples can be found in other countries.

Ultimately, resource management decisions are made based on the values and priorities of the decision makers. These vary from one jurisdiction to another. They can even vary for management of different resources within a single jurisdiction.

There is no such thing as one right answer but a range of possibilities. But some decisions lead to better outcomes than others. There has been a considerable history of decision making related to management of fish resources and we can learn what works and what doesn’t by studying the outcomes of those decisions.

In general, outcomes are better when resource managers and industry agree on a shared set of objectives and work together to achieve them.


Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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