Sustainable Fisheries—Are We There Yet?


Making Seafood Sustainable: American Experiences in Global Perspective. Blackford, M. 2012. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA. 296 pp. $45.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978–0–8122–4393–2.

All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. Finley, C. 2011. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 224 pp. $35.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978–0226249667.

World Without Fish. Kurlansky, M. 2011. Workman Publishing, New York, NY. 192 pp. $16.95 (hardcover). ISBN 9780761156079.

For the past few years, in almost every major communication on marine resources, we have been told that the world's marine fisheries are in crisis at the global level. The situation is said to be worsening despite efforts at fisheries management. We may ask ourselves, with nagging doubt, whether commercial fisheries can ever be sustainable in a globalized world. Many of us try to understand how we came to this point and what we can do, now and in the future, to put fisheries back on track toward ecological, economic, and social sustainability in order to make significant contributions to human well being.

Three books reviewed here tackle the issue of sustainable commercial marine fisheries, with emphasis on U.S. fisheries, from different perspectives. Mansel Blackford, in Making Seafood Sustainable: American Experiences in Global Perspective, focuses mainly on government regulation and the development of the seafood industry. In All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management, Carmel Finley also examines U.S. fisheries management, but more from the angle of developing fisheries science tinged with international politics. Finally, Mark Kurlansky, in World Without Fish delightfully illustrated by Frank Stockton, takes younger readers on a journey of discovery and intervention that is much less academic than the other 2 volumes and probably immensely more satisfying to any reader seeking practical solutions to the complex and wicked problems of sustainability.

Blackford selects the Pacific northwest and Alaska as the main study area in which to ground his stories of the rise and fall of various fisheries, but he also touches on other parts of the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico. The chapters describe U.S. regulatory measures for various fisheries, from cod to crab, as he provides views from both the harvest and postharvest participants in the fishing industry. The many roles of seafood processing and marketing firms in the development and regulation of the various fisheries are analyzed. The policy influence of some firms in the fisheries was considerable. Blackford is adept at describing the wheeling and dealing that took place between industry power brokers and their counterparts in government. He illustrates, albeit indirectly in places, the necessity to address the ecological, economic, and social aspects of sustainability as a package.

The relationship between first promoting innovative technology in the development phase of a fishery and then constraining technology and efficiency in the conservation phase, when a fishery matures and overexploitation is evident or imminent, is complex. Blackford illustrates this often with quotes from industry stakeholders that add life to a fairly dull and repetitive narrative. We get a feel for real trade-offs between development and conservation at a personal level. A curious device in this vein is his frequent reference to the semifictional work of fisher and author William McCloskey Jr.; his novels depict the fluctuating fortunes of crab fisheries in particular. This infusion of fiction detracts from the otherwise evidence-based arguments the author makes.

The sum of these arguments is that “[f]ailures to attain sustainable fishing outnumbered successes” (p. 202) at a global level. However, in the too brief analytical closing section on common-pool resources, globalization, and the environment Blackford offers hope. He acknowledges that cooperative arrangements for resource management, from community to country level, have often been successful. Sustaining success requires paying attention to the implications of globalization, such as patterns of seafood marketing and trade. Consumerism combines with environmentalism to increasingly shape the way reference points, such as maximum or optimum sustainable yields, are viewed or met.

Finley's book is all about the latter points on which Blackford closes. She traces aspects of the development of fisheries science and management in the 20th century, focusing mainly on the concept of maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Like Blackford, she uses the north Pacific region as the geographic focus, but her attention ranges wider in the Americas and to Europe as well as Japan. The politics of fisheries management is a refreshing center of attention because few books on fisheries science and management explicitly tackle political power dynamics the way she does, head on. In doing so she exposes the reader to more detail, often as personal histories of key actors, than seems necessary to make key points, but at the same time this puts a human face on the attempted rationality and objectivity of science. This emphasizes the subjectivity underlying many fisheries management decisions and initiatives.

She may surprise some readers with how U.S. maritime and foreign policy to maintain a global ocean regime with the fewest restrictions on U.S. vessels influence fisheries management. The developed and developing countries perceived threats and opportunities respectively from enclosing sections of ocean for fisheries management and economic development. For Finley, Great Britain, the United States, and Japan are the key actors. The Second World War and the Cold War periods provide the political contexts for MSY. Without going into as much detail as Blackford, Finley analyses the roles and the power of the domestic fishing industry lobby in securing fishing grounds for U.S. fleets with minimal regulation at home or abroad. She makes the dynamic interdependent relationship between the United States and Japan quite intriguing in terms of both fisheries science and fishing industry perspectives on fisheries sustainability.

Finley assembles an entire cast of key actors present at the 1955 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting in Rome and explains the politics behind MSY becoming enshrined in international ocean law. This she describes as “a disaster for fisheries science” (p. 155). Her critical point is that use, and abuse, of MSY has caused fishing effort to increase in many instances, thereby reducing the prospects for sustainable fisheries. She does not offer much by way of solutions, but observes that if the politics was removed from fisheries science and management more realistic management measures and regimes would be implemented that could lead to improvements in the pursuit of sustainable fisheries.

It is the communication of concrete, practical, and personal recommendations for achieving sustainable fisheries that sets the book by Mark Kurlansky apart from the other two. Despite being targeted at young readers the book contains enough fact and substance to interest most adults, and the illustrations by Frank Stockton strongly reinforce the main messages in ways that are entertaining but not distracting. The book starts with a primer on fisheries ecology, integrating an ecosystem services approach that is conspicuously absent in the other 2 more academic volumes. Without employing an abundance of technical or scientific jargon, Kurlansky tackles issues of uncertainty, complexity, networks, learning, and adaptive capacity in fisheries. As a narrative running throughout the book the author examines relationships among science, industry, and consumers over time, addressing how cumulative uncertainty, misunderstanding, and unwillingness to intervene can lead to the escalation of problems in the world's fisheries.

World Without Fish ends by offering readers practical recommendations for taking individual and collective action in support of sustainable fisheries. It lists resources and contacts to help in the effort. Of the 3 books it communicates most clearly the agency available to all of us, and the urgency with which our ingenuity must be applied, to make a difference in creating the path toward more sustainable fisheries. It suggests that we can get there if we try.