By Charlotte Weber,

Fisheries face many problems today, from overfishing and overcapacity to the extinction of key species and an overall degradation of the marine environment. So in order to improve the overall situation, making things better for the fish, the oceans and the people working in fisheries, we need to become more sustainable in our resource use. But what makes sustainability sustainable?

There are several ways on how to describe and display sustainability (link). They all have one thing in common. The inclusion of three main factors: Environment, Society and Economy (Figure 1). In fisheries, science has mainly focused on the ‘fish-side’ and the economic aspects. Which is understandable, because we only know how much to fish if we know how many fish are out there. And one can only go out to fish if there is some money to be made, to pay for fuel and boats in return. Out of simplicity, the technicalities are also often looked at first. Maybe less boats, or maybe different gear can help to solve some of today’s problems. However, these approaches haven’t lead to any desired outcomes and severe issues remain as listed in the EU Green Paper (link). Unsurprisingly, sustainability couldn’t be obtained by considering only two out of the three components, namely the environment and the economy. Now, in order to reach sustainability, a sound management plan needs to be in place that takes all the aspects of the fishery (from social, to biological to economic) into account (link). This ideal management plan will then provide well-being for humans and allow for sustainable resource use at the same time.

Figure 1: Two sustainability models. Left side: The bullseye sustainability model. Right side: the Mickey mouse sustainability model.

So I believe it is about time that we manage humans, not fish! Yet grasping the role of ‘society’ in the fishery system is a different story. Fishery science has only started within the last couple of years to regard people as a part of sustainable fisheries. Additionally, it is not that easy to identify how to really take society into consideration, in the sense that ‘social factors’ leave a lot of room for interpretation. And how do we actually ‘measure’ things concerning human well-being? So what is truly social and which of these social aspects are then in return relevant for fisheries considerations and will help to reach sustainability?

And this is where I come in! I am part of an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Training Network working with social science aspects of fisheries. In my current work, I am trying to establish a framework for exactly these social factors relevant for fisheries. This framework will help to grasp the yet so vague ‘social factors’. It will include a description and precise definition of each social factor and why and how it is relevant to fisheries.

In order to ‘bake’ a management plan, we need to be sure on how much of which ingredients to mix together in order to get a tasty result everyone wants to have a bite of.

Definitions are vital to precise work. Not only in science, but even in everyday life. For us to understand and work with almost everything in our world, we need to define it. How would you bake a cake if someone hadn’t gone out and defined how much a milliliter and a gram was? The same goes for management plans. In order to ‘bake’ a management plan, we need to be sure on how much of which ingredients to mix together in order to get a tasty result everyone wants to have a bite of.

So now let’s say we developed our ‘recipe’ with all the necessary ingredients, defined all the social aspects needed. How do we know that what we came up with will be any good? If it’s just a cake, we can bake it and try. But if we are talking about a management plan, this will take a huge effort, money, time and resources to put it into place. So you want to be really, really sure about it, before implementing it.

Figure 2: Picture of a simulation of Fishing. Black figures simulate boats, red dots simulate fish stocks.

If we stick to the ‘cake’ analogy for now, imagine you found your cake recipe on the internet: To check the quality of the recipe you might find comments by other users or simply a picture of the cake. This may help you to see if it looks like what you imagined it, and to decide whether or not to bake the cake or otherwise to choose a different recipe.

Scientist do something similar to check their “management plan recipes”. They use models and simulations (Figure 2). These are programs that can help us to simulate the real world. A researcher will tell the program all the ‘ingredients’ for that newly developed management plan and the program will bake this cake for you. In other words, you will get a picture of the outcomes, the results, and the consequences of your management. It might not be a 100% true what this program will predict and show, because after all it is always only an imitation of the real world. Yet in this way researchers have the possibility to explore their ideas, “ingredients” and outcomes of their management plans. Maybe it wasn’t the right ingredient, so just change it in the program and see if this makes it any better. We don’t have much to lose because it’s just a simulation, not the real world. And I believe you will agree that it is better to go for ‘trial and error’ in a computer world than the in the real one.

In my research I will take the ingredients that I will establish – the relevant social factors to fisheries – and will give them a good bake, mixed together with the biological and economic factors already available. This simulation will hopefully help me to come up with a tasty cake, so that the people, the fishermen, the communities and all other stakeholders will want to have a great bite out of it.

The content of this blog does not reflect the official opinion of the SAF21 project or of European Union. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author(s).