The role of science


Taken as a whole, world fisheries have grown remarkably, reaching a point where few important fish stocks remain under-utilized and many are seriously overfished. In such circumstances, development and management share the same goal: ensuring the full and sustainable use of a natural resource.

For more than 100 years, and particularly since the early 1950s, fishery science has played a central role in capture fisheries governance. All disciplines have been involved - from technology, to bio-ecology, social sciences and, more recently, political science. The first two disciplines dominated the field as resources were discovered, fisheries expanded and modernized, and the basis for resources management was laid down.

With the general acknowledgement of overcapacity and overfishing and the subsequent fisheries collapses between the 1970s and 1990s, social and political sciences started playing a growing role that can only increase in the future. And with the ecosystem approach to fisheries, quantitative ecology is making a rapid comeback.

Economic, social and political forces are inevitably involved as countries, in the case of shared resources, or communities within them, in the case of nationally owned resources, compete to derive the maximum allocation and benefits. The starting point, however, remains the same: an objective assessment of the sustainable production that can be expected from the resource.


Despite recent important advances in aquaculture, the fisheries sector remains the only major food producing system that still relies on hunting wild stocks, most of which are still considered under open access (e.g. open to exploitation by anyone in the high seas, or to any national in EEZs). Little attempt is made, at least in marine fisheries, to regulate species composition, to eliminate disease and predators, to control migrations or to select animals for enhanced breeding. Furthermore, the level of exploitation tends to build up, checked only by the cost of fishing (often reduced by subsidies) set against the value of the catch.

Fisheries tend to follow a cycle. Large catches, when stocks are abundant, encourage additional, often more efficient, entrants into the fishery. The long-term phenomenon is exacerbated by medium-term climate-driven oscillations in stocks productivity. As a fleet grows, the total catch increases, but both the abundance and the size of the fish begin to diminish. The catch per unit of effort decreases and eventually signs of over-fishing become apparent. The number of vessels in the fishery then begins to decrease. If the fishery remains unregulated or poorly managed, it settles down to a level that gives a low annual yield at the cost of considerable fishing effort. Its rise and fall is complete, but the social, economic and political repercussions may continue for many years to follow.

Information for effective management

Information on the resources (their environment, their abundance, health, and resilience to fishing), the fishing sector (its techniques, investments, efficiency, costs, social dimensions) and the market (supply, demand, prices, outlooks) are essential to development and management of responsible and sustainable fisheries; the elaboration of development and management plans, or stock rebuilding strategies; the establishment of systems of indicators of sustainability; the implementation of the precautionary approach; the development of cheaper and more environmently-friendly technology; improved food processing; value-adding, and in general for fisheries regulation and administration.

The future of the world's capture fisheries depends firstly on its capacity to adapt to globalisation challenges and to improve its governance. Secondly it depends to a significant extent upon the relationship between the fishery science (in its broadest sense, as required for comprehensive assessment and advice) and policy-making and management process (where science is applied).

Many important fisheries involve more than one country and are regulated by regional fishery commissions or political groupings. In some instances, the commission has its own mechanism to generate the scientific advice that it needs. In others, the scientific information is assembled and submitted by the same delegations that will eventually make the management decisions.

In either case, the data is assembled and analysed by technical staff, the likely outcome of potential alternative decisions are calculated and evaluated, recommendations may be made and the final decisions are made by fishery managers and/or politicians. Historically, short-term national interests have tended to prevail over long-term needs for conservation, particularly where scientific advice has been uncertain, conflicting or inconclusive.

Improvements in stock assessment and fishery models, reinforced by growing evidence of the harm done by ignoring scientific advice, now mean that fishery management is increasingly based on the best available scientific advice complemented, as required, by the precautionary approach (adopted in UNCED, the 1995 UN Fish Stock Agreement and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries) even though it may require tough political decisions affecting national fishing industries (particularly those concerning resource allocation).

Progress is still needed to develop national capacity (particularly in developing, small and island countries) and to ensure transparency in decision-making. Progress is also needed in the fishery science itself, to increase the contribution of social sciences; improve the understanding of ecosystems structure, functioning, and resilience; to normalize and generalize indicators of sustainability; and to further develop applications of the precautionary approach.

Fish safety and quality

Fish safety and quality represents another area where the role of science is gaining paramount significance, especially with the further globalization and liberalization of international fish trade. In this respect, the 1995 SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) and TBT (technical barriers to trade) agreements of the WTO (World Trade Organization), while confirming the right of member countries to apply measures necessary to protect consumers health and to combat fraudulent trade practices, require that these practices shall not represent disguised and discriminatory barriers to trade. To achieve this, the measures should be based on a scientific assessment of the risks to human health or quality using internationally accepted risk assessment techniques. The latter take into account the available scientific evidence, the relevant processes and production methods and the inspection/sampling/analytical methods drawing on a wide array of expertise ranging from microbiology, toxicology, epidemiology, mathematical modelling and food technology.

In general, developing countries need assistance to build the required scientific capacity in support of management and development. In the majority of the fisheries commissions, membersí commitment to applied research remains weak and research capacity is insufficient.

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