By Ixai Salvo Borda,

Ray Hilborn, one of the most important fisheries researchers, biologist, and professor at the University of Washington, considers that we have to change our scope of fisheries resources and consider them as a source of food for human welfare. He defends a sustainable management of the fishing activities instead of the simplistic modern fishing bands, which do not make sense and do not take into account, for example, the impact that the lack of fish in the human diet will have to the environment. About fishing bands, Hilborn states that erasing fish from human diet will force to increase the production of other protein sources, as stockbreeding, which environmental impact is even bigger due to the emission of greenhouse effect gases. In addition, Hilborn defends that the sustainable management of fisheries could increase the relative biomass (amount of fish in the ocean) by 619 million Tons. This will allow increasing the fisheries catches by 16 million tons, meaning a protein supply for 500 million humans.

Hilborn based his study on the analysis of 4500 fisheries around the world. The analysis is based on the application of bio-economic models and proves that the productivity and health of the oceans are compatible. According to Hilborn “Most part of the bigger fisheries of the world have a quite good performance, but it is urgent to change quite a lot of local fisheries, mostly in developing countries, where millions of people does not only use fisheries as a food source, but as a way of living”. Hilborn takes down 4 of the biggest myths on fisheries science. First and second, he considers absurd to state that fish stocks are reducing on a global scale and that most parts of fisheries are managed in an unsustainable way. He considers that it is not possible to make so generalist arguments due to the differences between oceans, fisheries, stocks and species in the world. This differences force to address each system differently with different and defined management tools based on scientific knowledge. In the other side, the non-sustainability of nowadays fisheries management is also a myth, and a dangerous one, as it questions the important work done in most part of developed countries and that is precisely based on the sustainability. This third myth also includes the idea that fisheries activities are destroying the environment. According to Hilborn “fisheries activity changes the environment, but normally, does not reduce productivity”. Finally, on the fourth myth, the one where the best way to protect the oceans is to prohibit fisheries, Hilborn considers that “with the application of efficient management systems, stocks will continue stable or will increase”.

In addition, Hilborn says that the lack of scientific data arises problems as the ones in the Mediterranean, the Northeast coast of Africa or the South and East Asia, where stocks do not have any representation in the evaluations. Precisely those areas are the ones where overfishing is more common, mostly because of the lack of effective management plans. In the other side of the spectrum, The United States of America, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, that for a long time have had a strong strategy in terms of policies and on the establishment of measures based on scientific advice, present good environmental results. In Europe, the progressive recovery that the Atlantic stocks are suffering shows the efficiency of the approach.

Finally, Hilborn defends that the localization and freezing of fishing effects, the vulnerable marine ecosystem area closures and the establishment of encounter protocols have being proved as efficient measures for conservation of stocks. Hilborn also encourages the need of finding an equilibrium on fisheries management against those organizations that encourage the prohibition of some fishing gears. Precisely, he argues that trawling is not as harmful as these organization defend. He says that trawling, nowadays, in the areas where is practiced, has a minimum effect and in some cases, even helps to regenerate the system and increase primary production.

The ideas that Hilborn presents can be strongly argued or defended. Biologically the removal effect that fisheries have in the environment, when fishing is an “environmentally sustainable activity”, help to maintain a constant renewal rate and in some cases. This mostly happens in the traditional fisheries where fishing is based on the upper levels of the trophic chain. This kind of fishery, help to increase primary production by the removal of predator species. However, the current fisheries state, where major stocks are overfished, has forced to fish down the trophic chain with disastrous effects in the environments. It is also true, as Hilborn states, which most part of this situations happens more often in development countries where the fishing effort control management plans are, in the best case, introduced but not enforced among stakeholders. Socially speaking, those societies where Hilborn locates the negative management balances, are mostly based on survival, artisanal fisheries models. In this societies, big management plans are more difficult to enforce and there is a big lack of scientific data. However, efforts are being done to include stakeholder’s knowledge to reduce this lack.

Personally, Hilborn ideas present some bias regarding the societal characteristics of the “bad places”. First, those places are mostly undeveloped or developing fishing communities where the introduction of any kind of management effort have a bigger effect on the society. Fisheries are not one industrial activity more of the society. Instead, they can suppose the difference between survival and extinction. The introduction of management plans, based on “occidental” ideas can unbalance the system with traumatic effects. Secondly, Hilborn considers the lack of research data as one of the big issues to solve. Easy to say when the northern hemisphere is mostly based on generalist fisheries with a strong scientific backup behind. The “negative” places of Hilborn, by contrast, are mostly small communities with small resources that cannot contemplate the idea of not fishing. In addition, the influence and extension of big industrial fishing fleets has endangered even more this communities. In terms of research, this “developing” countries that Hilborn mention, sometimes has to fight big economic interest coming from fisheries companies (normally from third “developed” countries) that try to control the research.

In conclusion, it can be said that Hilborn has taken a risky but well-planned road that could improve world fisheries state. However, he tends to forget the small populations of the world. His view is quite conditioned by his background and that’s why he tends to see fisheries as a worldwide ecological system, biologically understandable, forgetting that, as most part of this things in the world, resources are not just quantities or numbers of biomass. Resources involve communities, people and in this unfair world, the “not developed” ones are always the ones with the smallest part of the cake.

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