MSY: Aiming at a 2015 Fisheries Nirvana

9th April 2010 in Advisory Councils

First moves to operationalise a Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) approach to European fisheries management were taken at an ICES workshop recently attended by the NFFO under the North Sea RAC

ICES scientists at the workshop were tasked with developing guidelines on implementing the MSY approach to its fisheries advice. Such work represents the first practical step towards fulfilling commitments under the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development agreement which sets a target date of 2015 to maintain or recover fisheries to levels consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield. MSY based catch options including step-by-step options towards the 2015 target are expected to be included in ICES advice for 2011.

The Federation said: “If over the long term an MSY framework could maximise returns from fisheries then that would be no bad thing. In practical terms, on the other hand, there remain significant challenges if science is to inform management effectively. In particular, as fisheries build, a failure to make an accurate assessment of predation and competition in a multi-species context could render MSY management targets unattainable in practice. This would risk sending out a completely false message about the state of stocks. If we are to go down an MSY road what is needed is flexibility to such practical realities and a sustainable transition. The risk, however, is for a draconian response to a rapidly approaching, but nonetheless arbitrary 2015 target. Such a state of affairs that ignore people’s livelihoods would be absurd and totally unacceptable.”

MSY, an Intuitive Goal?

As MSY seeks to maximise long term returns from a fishery there seems at first sight to be little in this basic objective that seems contentious. The green lobby seized upon the concept in current elaboration of what constitutes Good Environmental Status (GES) under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The Directive seeks to achieve GES by 2020 (see related article, GES Work). Aside from practical considerations, whether MSY should form a prerequisite for achieving Good Environmental Status is a question of whether such legislation should address economically efficient use of fishery resources in addition to being concerned that the resource base does not become impaired – the basis for the existing precautionary approach to fisheries management. The NFFO is against this interpretation of GES for commercial fish stocks. This notwithstanding, within a fisheries management context there would, in principle, be a collective benefit in aiming to maximise returns from fisheries for the benefit of all over the long term that seems intuitive. The devil, however, is likely to be in the practice.

Practical Considerations

There are a number of challenges to delivering an MSY approach, not least the fundamental flaw of applying what is an equilibrium concept based on the false assumption that a fishery will return to a pre-fished “natural” state if fishing pressure is removed that does not hold true in a dynamic environment. Nor in the context of European fisheries is it known what the pre-fished state of stocks looked like, and stock rebuilding will take stock assessments into unchartered waters not seen in the history of many assessments. In addition, because for practical reasons the estimation of MSY is presently heavily dependent upon single species assessment models, in the context of mixed fisheries, inter-stock predation patterns or competition risk MSY management targets being unachievable. For a number of stocks, either a lack of data or existing assessment models will make it difficult if not impossible to assess MSY for the stock with any accuracy. All of these issues will call on the management system to be flexible and adaptive to these realities.

Further Burdens upon Already Stressed Fleets?

It would be unrealistic to assume that moving to an MSY management framework would not imply any additional tightening of fishing opportunities over the precautionary approach which forms the basis for the existing European system. There is the potential that it could result in advice that would imply further burdens upon already heavily stressed fleets. Nonetheless, this will vary stock by stock. Once the implications are known for each stock it would then be sensible to start to plan a transition to the new system that balances the vitally important need of maintaining viable fishing fleets and communities and avoiding abrupt dislocation. It is in the transitioning to the new approach where the main grounds for caution lie.

Sustainable Change, Not Environmental Alarmism

This is because actions are only just commencing to operationalise the MSY approach with only 5 years to spare before the 2015 target is supposed to be attained under the 2002 Johannesburg agreement. Consequently, it is clear that in cases where significant reductions in fishing patterns are implied, arbitrary targets and rapidly shrinking timeframes have the potential to turn into a lethal cocktail for the fishing livelihoods affected. Such a state of affairs would be unacceptable and must be avoided.

We have been here before when the precautionary approach was implemented in too much haste. The legacy of this last change has yet to be fully digested or realised – stocks take time to respond to management changes. Moreover, whereas the precautionary approach deals with the risk of stock reproductive failure, the MSY framework deals principally with matters of economic efficiency. Consequently, alarmist actions that dislocate fishing communities are far less justified. Rather, communities dependent upon the success of the fish stocks that support them should be central to designing and realising long term management objectives. Pragmatism suggests such objectives should be tied to known historical levels of stock abundance rather than any theoretical notions of MSY1.

In rebuilding fish stocks, travelling in the right direction is much more important than any arbitrary timing of the arrival at the destination. Managing change requires due care and attention. It is not the responsibility of fishing communities, therefore, to bare an unwarranted fallout resulting from either the formation of an arbitrary target that ignores how best to manage change or from a delay on the part of the authorities to implement what they have signed up to.

  1. See, for example, Hilborn, R. and K. Stokes (2010) Defining Overfished Stocks: Have We Lost the Plot? Fisheries, 35(3).