Book review – Ocean Recovery: A Sustainable Future for Global Fisheries?

7-minute read

Overfishing is a topic I can get particularly fired up about. But how bad is the situation really? Am I buying too much into the stories of gloom, doom, and impending fisheries collapse that is the bread and butter of environmental organisations? Ocean Recovery is a short and snappy book by fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn that offers a more nuanced picture. While highlighting that there are serious problems and there is plenty of room for improvement, he shows fishing can be, and in many places is, sustainable. The book certainly challenged some of my preconceived notions with a healthy reality check.

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Ocean Recovery: A Sustainable Future for Global Fisheries?, written by Ray Hilborn and Ulrike Hilborn, published by Oxford University Press in June 2019 (hardback, 208 pages)

Looking over the seventeen short chapters immediately reveals the role of co-author Ulrike Hilborn. She has acted as jargon buster and smoothed out Ray’s text into something very accessible. The first few chapters introduce common concepts in fisheries, such as Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), and different management strategies. Most people outside of fisheries sciences will not be intimately familiar with these. Especially MSY (the idea that you catch as many fish as possible now without eating into future catches, i.e. optimising catches for the long term) has been severely criticised. Part of the problem, Hilborn writes, is that it is easily misused. If you take it to be a fixed value, you are doing it wrong – fish populations naturally go through long-term boom-bust cycles that are still poorly understood, so this should be a continuous management process.

The remainder of the book examines oft-mentioned negative impacts of marine fisheries. Two groups, in particular, come in for criticism: fellow scientists preaching doom and gloom (and the scientific and popular news outlets who lap up these stories), and environmental NGOs whose intentions are good, but who are paving a road to hell with them.

Overfishing made headlines with a 2006 Science publication that was widely reported along the lines of “Seafood May Be Gone by 2048“. Except that fisheries scientists mean something else with the term “collapse”. More to the point, this extrapolation is by no means certain. It allows Hilborn to examine the status of fisheries worldwide (see also his book Overfishing). Where proper management is now in place (the USA, Europe, Australia, New Zealand), the majority of exploited fish stocks are stable or increasing. For most of Asia, Africa, and South America, however, data is missing, overfishing rife, and the picture grim. Overfishing does happen, but with proper management it can also be remediated, is Hilborn’s more nuanced message. Though I continue to wonder about shifting baselines (see below), and how impoverished the current stabilised states are compared to the past.

“Overfishing does happen, but with proper management it can also be remediated, is Hilborn’s more nuanced message”

Two other examples of overstated negative impacts might equally surprise you. First, Daniel Pauly, the fisheries scientist who introduced the powerful concept of shifting baselines wrote one of the most-cited papers in fisheries science, claiming we are fishing down food webs. Soon, only small fish and marine invertebrates will remain. But a response looking at the actual trophic level of caught fish – where they reside in the food web – concluded that Pauly was simply wrong. Hilborn’s summary is somewhat scant here, so I would have to follow up his references before being fully convinced. Second, trawling. Yes, it has a large impact, although different fishing gear design and best practices can reduce the most egregious side effects such as by-catch. However, Hilborn’s explanation of why the size of affected areas has been miscounted and exaggerated stands out for its clarity. In short, spatial data used was far too coarse, and analyses did not account for the fact that fishermen prefer to trawl the same area repeatedly rather than risking damaging their gear in areas not previously trawled.

Other topics covered include the underestimated and overlooked impact of both sports fishing and commercial freshwater fisheries, mistakes made and lessons learned in aquaculture (fish farming), and the need to enforce rules and tackle the enormous problem of illegal fishing. Regarding that last one: Hilborn’s proposed measures all look good on paper, but after having reviewed The Outlaw Ocean I do not feel hopeful we will tackle this one quickly or easily.

“The second group to come in for a healthy dollop of criticism are environmental NGOs, with Greenpeace leading the pack”

The second group to come in for a healthy dollop of criticism are a number of environmental NGOs, with Greenpeace leading the pack (see also Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout and my review of Seeds of Science for other examples of them ignoring sound science). Two areas that Hilborn highlights are, first, the various seafood certification schemes that often disagree with each other whether or not certain fish species are “safe” to eat (i.e. sustainably fished), causing confusion. And second, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Wait, what?

At first glance, this may seem unbelievable. But follow his logic, examine the data, and you might just change your mind. To be clear, Hilborn thinks that MPAs have a role to play – they could be really beneficial in heavily overfished areas in Asia. Instead, Western countries, pressured by environmental NGOs, are banning fishing in currently well-managed areas. The only thing this achieves is displacement, increasing the fishing pressure outside of MPAs. And since many fish species wander widely, this can actually have a negative overall effect. Worse, industries move to waters where regulations are laxer. “Warm and fuzzy righteousness does have consequences” (p. 147), Hilborn remarks.

This topic of displacement came up in my review of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise, but it is such an important and overlooked aspect that I will bang on about it again here. Unless we simultaneously reduce resource consumption, protecting an area from resource extraction is a hollow victory if the extractive industries are displaced to areas with less oversight and regulations. The way I see it, until environmentalists and their NGOs start seriously discussing what we all need to sacrifice, and how we are going to address the elephant in the room labelled overpopulation, a lot of their actions and plaintive cries reek not a little bit of hypocrisy. #UnpopularOpinion.

“[…] banning fishing in currently well-managed areas only  achieves displacement, increasing the fishing pressure outside of Marine Protected Areas […] “Warm and fuzzy righteousness does have consequences”, Hilborn remarks.”

This book will no doubt upset some environmentalists, and it is easy to see why. Hilborn is pragmatic. Whereas biologists often focus exclusively on species protection, for Hilborn sustainable development is about reaching a compromise between that and our need to eat. “Everyone has to eat and eating invariably causes some kind of death” (p. 81), he points out. And by many measures of impact, fishing is lighter on the environment than livestock husbandry and even agriculture.

As a side note (and this is more an observation than criticism), having reviewed Abundant Earth, Hilborn’s pragmatism also blatantly shows in his language. Referring to fish as “stocks to be exploited” shows he thinks of our ecosystems as humanity’s larder. If you are on board with that (no doubt a big if for some), Hilborn’s rational and nuanced writing is most welcome. His arguing that we ought to be good stewards of this larder rather than plundering it, and how to do that (“stop fishing so hard, and stocks will rebuild” (p. 59)); his acknowledgement of the many problems that do exist, of the amount of work fisheries scientists still have cut out for them, of the surprises that the future will have in store due to climate change… All of these made me feel that this book lived up to the impartial presentation promised on the dust jacket. Ocean Recovery is a thought-provoking read that made me re-think some of my own preconceptions. Any book that does that is worth your time.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Ocean Recovery hardback

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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