Taking Stock of Fisheries Management

by Timothy R. Parsons, Founding Editor of Fisheries Oceanography
(Originally published in Fisheries Oceanography, 5 (3/4), 224-226
© 1996 Blackwell Science Ltd. -- Reprinted with Permission of Publisher

The term 'fisheries oceanography' first came to my attention when I listened to a series of lectures by Professor Uda of Japan, who visited our laboratory in 1958. I believe that he was largely responsible for founding the Japanese Society for Fisheries Oceanography in the 1940s. For some years I contemplated trying to start a similar society in North America but it seemed that the idea was of no interest to established fisheries scientists, a position that was partly maintained by the two totally different funding systems for fisheries science and oceanography. In the 1980s two happy events came together to change my direction of thinking more towards a journal. These were meetings with Professor Sugimoto at the Ocean Research Institute in Tokyo and with Simon Rallison of Blackwells, both of whom were sympathetic to the idea of starting an international journal on fisheries oceanography. It was their idea that I should start as Editor, which I did by formulating an editorial policy, designing a cover and contacting potential Editorial Board members together with an additional Associate Editor (the late Dr. John Gamble), all of whom were prepared to risk their names in this joint venture.

My scientific thoughts on starting a new journal remain much the same now as they were before we managed to get started. It is obvious to the public in general that in the latter part of the 20th Century, scientific advancements in outer space have given us moon landings and views of other planets; in medicine, organ transplants; in agriculture, 'miracle rice'; and in engineering, we have tunnelled under the English Channel. What accomplishments can we cite in fisheries? The public perception of fisheries science and management is that we don't know why cod stocks failed on the Grand Banks, why Pacific salmon started to surge in abundance in the late 1970s (or why they are now declining in Canadian waters since the 1990s), or whether there will be a recovery of the blue whale population in the Antarctic. These are but a few examples of a myriad of fishery resource uncertainties that are reflected daily in many newspapers around the world. Surely it is time to say that something has gone very wrong with the scientific process for commercial fisheries compared with other branches of science, including those in biology such as agriculture and medicine.


Fisheries science has been based historically on the economic need to sustain the fish resources of the sea. The approach employed for most of the 20th Century was to focus on various commercial species of fish and to protect them, assuming a relationship between the number of parent fish (the stock) and the number of young fish achieving a size at which they could be caught (the recruits). This stock/recruitment relationship has been the subject of many learned writings by fisheries scientists, and was the basis for a well-known book published in 1957 by Beverton and Holt entitled On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations. The application of this scientific approach has obviously been inadequate for management, but what is more surprising is to find that this textbook was reprinted in 1995, largely without change. Is there any other branch of science in which one could reprint a 40-year-old textbook and claim contemporary validity of the science?

Historically, the economic basis for fisheries has led to overcapitalization, followed by overfishing and subsequent population declines. There has still been virtually no attention given to environmental causation and multispecies interactions, including non-commercial species, in determining fish abundance. Regulations drafted by national governments and by international organizations such as FAO have failed due to a lack of a proper scientific understanding of processes governing fish abundance. The hypothesis of stock/recruitment has been widely applied (even to many small pelagic species for which it was not developed). No fisheries model forecast the rapid decline of the Peruvian anchovy in the early 1970s; nor did a fisheries model forecast the resurgence of this fishery to 11 million tonnes in 1994 - this was not for a lack of complexity in fisheries models, but because basic data and understanding of the marine ecosystem were lacking.


It is often claimed that the management of fisheries is so complex because it must satisfy the competing interests of scientists, fishermen, fishing companies and governments. It is this web of complexity that has been held responsible for creating a lack of predictive success in managing the ocean's renewable resources. The same might have been said of medicine in the 1930s. The field of medicine was very complex because it involved the genetic makeup of the individual, the environment in which she or he lived, the economic circumstances dictating whether a patient could afford a cure (e.g. TB sanatoriums), and the use of 'trained' physicians whose training was controlled by medical schools where novel practices were seldom part of the curriculum. The physician 'practised' on the 'patient' who generally waited to get better; unscientifically justified operations such as tonsillectomies were commonly carried out. Medicine improved between the 1930s and the 1990s after it was invaded by other sciences - genetics, biochemistry, pharmacology, virology, physiology and so on - and today it is a predictive, if not always an exact science. It is necessary to invade the established schools of fisheries science with data on meteorology, physics, physiology, tropho-dynamic concepts and natural history studies of individual species (including non-commercial species, such as jellyfish). Many, but not all, of these sciences are included in the multidisciplinary science of oceanography - and hence the title of our journal, Fisheries Oceanography.


In the absence of a predictive science, one can argue that the world's industrial fisheries do as much harm as good. Against the justified need for fish protein, one has to consider the following points.

  1. There is no doubt that overfishing has occurred in just about every stock in the world, and this has reduced the abundance of fish while increasing the price of the increasingly scarce resource. In some cases, even the remaining refugia populations are threatened by the high prices offered for rare species.

  2. Not only has the actual cost of the resource increased, but the cost to the taxpayer of a highly subsidized industry is now estimated worldwide to be about $16 billion annually. Fisheries lose money, but fishing companies prosper on the backs of the taxpayer.

  3. In a recent survey of the British Columbian trawl fishery, it was shown that the fishery for turbot discarded over 50% of its total catch as bycatch (i.e. unprofitable species, or species that are not allowed to be caught). On a worldwide basis this discard of bycatch may range from 10% to 90% depending on species. A high percentage of the discarded bycatch may be assumed to be dead or dying (i.e. susceptible to disease from tissue damage or attacks from predators).

  4. Fisheries make the largest single anthropogenic impact on the ocean environment. No form of pollution is equal to the removal of about 100 million tonnes of commercial fish from the ocean (and no one is ever charged with damaging fish as bycatch!). There has been no systematic study on how fish harvesting has affected ocean ecology, although many examples can be given of dramatic effects (e.g. changes from large to small species, replacement of mammal populations in the Antarctic, increased occurrence of jellyfish, etc.). Fishing companies have not been challenged on these effects, as have many companies that exploit terrestrial resources.

  5. Fishing operations cause many types of habitat damage depending on the type of 'fishery' being carried out. Many of these have not been seriously challenged. They include the destruction of mangroves for shrimp farms, the destruction of benthic habitat by bottom trawls, the mining of coral reefs for building material, the capture of non-targeted species (turtles and dolphins have recently received some attention) and the use of dynamite and cyanide to collect shallow-water fish.


Following the collapse of a number of fisheries in the world, there was an effort in the 1970s to turn toward alternative management strategies. Statistical interpretations of data showed that some fish species appeared to fluctuate with climate. Unfortunately, these single-factor environmental models did not reveal the underlying cause for change. In many cases, relationships were autocorrelated, resulting in two or more parameters being linked although the causative agent was never in fact identified. The failure of such models, when tested over longer time periods, was a source of discouragement to environmentally-based fisheries management theories. However, these studies often served to open up the need for future changes in fisheries science.

Some future directions

"If we do not solve our problems, we are doomed." - Buckminster Fuller
  1. As in my earlier analogy to medicine in the 1930s, it is unlikely that fisheries science will change of its own accord. In fisheries science, the tendency to introduce more regulations and more complex mathematical theories is likely to dominate at least into the beginning of the next century. What is really needed is to be able to account for fish population fluctuations based on a scientific understanding of the ocean's ecology; this can then be used as a basis to establish a predictive science for fisheries management. To accomplish this, fisheries science must be invaded by new sciences and by new scientific techniques ranging from molecular biology to satellite imagery.

  2. The actual fishing process should, in many cases, be based on the total tonnage of fish that can be taken from an area, regardless of species. Protecting single-species fisheries in areas where fish populations are multispecies has not worked. Conservation of fish resources can be more readily achieved by assigning fishing areas within a total ecosystem (e.g. a shelf area subject to a trawl fishery). Because in most cases nets are size-selective, this means moving away from species-selective fisheries, which may kill more fish than they catch, to size-selective fisheries in which (by law) all fish caught must be processed in some way by fishing companies. Such a policy would eliminate the wasteful discard of bycatch, while allowing the changing background of species shifts to determine the total allowable tonnage during any one oceanographic regime dominance. This type of fishery appears to have been inadvertently followed off the coast of Japan where the dominant fish species has changed over an 80-year period from herring to sardine, to various species of mackerel and saury, and back again to sardine. This occurred without the need to endlessly organize committee meetings and change fisheries theories to regulate any one particular species fishery. Size-selective fisheries would not be applicable to fisheries in which the target species is easily identified (e.g. migrating salmon, tuna), but would apply to fisheries that routinely capture a variety of species of similar size.

  3. Changes in laws regarding the catching and processing of fish must accompany the change in (2) above.

  4. Finally, there is a paramount need in the future science of fisheries for factual data on the environment of fish (including competing species such as jellyfish) and fewer theoretical assumptions derived by scientists working with computers, out of touch with Nature.

(Tim Parsons is a Professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z4)