If I ruled the world it would be the answer to a long-term campaigner’s dream. I’m a practical man so I would not demand too much. But, at a stroke, I would be able to make the changes I believe the world must accept if fish stocks around the globe are to survive.
My ideas need not cost taxpayers a penny. Everything could be achieved through what I call “green capitalism”. The goal is the elimin-ation of waste and a sustainable allocation of scarce resources. My friend, Bill McDonough, often talks about “saving the world through commerce”. He says human endeavour is the only force big enough and fast enough to get done all the things that need to be done. I agree wholeheartedly. So, in my role as a benevolent dictator, this principle would be applied to the management of fisheries in all the oceans.
At present, the global ocean fishery industry has annual revenues of about US$100 billion but if subsidies are removed the industry is probably losing $10-20 billion a year. Most of this failure can be blamed on fisheries’ management regimes and on their reliance on a traditional “common property” approach.
From time immemorial, most of the world’s oceans have been an open hunting ground for all and sundry. For a great many generations, treating fish as common property worked well because the primitive equipment and little boats that the old fishermen used were quite incapable of denuding the seas. We’ve come a long way since then. Take the modern purse seiner as an example. Such a vessel may be 250ft long, 3,000 gross tonnes and capable of catching 2,600 tonnes of fish in a single cast.
It’s surely time to abandon that idea completely. My alternative is a system of property rights, and the management of fisheries through private capital. I’d follow the proposals for global fisheries reform put forward by Professor Ragnar Árnason of the University of Iceland. If global fisheries were managed along such lines, investors would enjoy high dividends, as we already know that property rights work when applied to the management of fisheries. Rough calculations suggest that annual returns could be as high as $50 billion.
The proof comes from the way Iceland manages many of its fisheries by giving fishermen transferable quotas. These property rights have the virtue of combining high profits and conservation goals. Fishermen who want to be high earners realise this requires large fish stocks, so they become concerned about maintaining a healthy ocean habitat. They also accept sensible harvesting levels that aren’t decided by politicians looking for votes.
It is essential that such a system is run by the smallest effective administrative structure and managed locally. The stakeholders are the fishermen themselves and they are empowered to supervise the state of the stocks. State involvement is kept to the minimum needed to protect stocks and set catches at sustainable levels, determined by scientific assessments of the size and structure of the target species.
Ecosystem protection must also be a priority and demands that the food-chain is safeguarded by controlling fishing methods. If trawling were damaging the habitat it would be banned and replaced by long-lining from smaller boats. The senseless practice of industrial fishing would largely be stopped, as it creates great holes in the food-chain. Decimate the capelin and sandeels to make animal feeds or fuel for power stations, and salmon, sea fish and sea birds all suffer from a lack of food.
Each year-class would be managed sep-arately for all species, with the emphasis on maintaining the healthy stock of mature spawners that propels populations to success.
I would move towards optimum exploit-ation of the various age groups that can withstand fishing pressure. Scientific studies have shown that the most robust populations of fish are those that have been largely unfished. Their most important characteristic is that they are all dominated by large numbers of the older and bigger fish that produce most eggs. This would work hand in hand with closing areas to allow shrinking fish stocks to recover and avoid the shameful waste of discards.
Of course, the fate of the Atlantic salmon is still closest to my heart and there are two things that I would do to ensure its recovery. I would end all the remaining commercial fisheries that decimate mixed stocks of salmon, especially along the Scottish, Norwegian and Irish coasts. This is a mind-boggling waste of salmon that could rebuild the Atlantic’s stocks.
A second great threat to salmon comes from fish-farming. The aquaculture industry provides a much-needed product that takes pressure off wild stocks of salmon but we do not want this at a cost that outweighs the benefit. Being in the fortunate position of ruling the world, I would order all salmon-farm oper-ations to be removed from coastal waters and estuaries and become land based.
If I were king, you can be sure I’d impose all of the changes I have outlined. But the saddest part of it all is that none of them really requires a king. All that is needed is for the existing
governments of this world to shoulder their responsibilities and act for the greater good of what could be one of the most important ways of feeding their increasing populations.
Orri Vigfússon is chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF).