It’s More than Counting Fish: Where Social Science Meets Sustainability

By Claire Dawson, Hershman Marine Policy Fellow

Every new year marks the launch of the Bevan Series on Sustainable Fisheries at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science. The popular seminar series, free and open to the public, kicked off with a provocative talk from our Lead Scientist, Phil Levin: “Precisely Unsustainable: The Failure of Fisheries Science in the Age of Multiple Objectives." 

 Phil Levin

Phil Levin

Recently, we explored the definition of sustainable fisheries. What exactly does that mean? In general, fisheries are considered sustainably managed when they can provide for our current needs without compromising the needs of future generations. The Nature Conservancy extends this definition: Fisheries are sustainable when they also support diverse and secure livelihoods, enable strong coastal communities and promote a healthy ocean. 

The current science that informs decisions is concerned mainly with how many fish we can pull out now while leaving enough in the oceans to ensure successful reproduction and replenishing stocks that can be exploited season after season. To this end, fisheries managers must synthesize massive amounts of information on species abundance, distribution, reproductive patterns and fishing effort — a Sisyphean task, to say the least. 

Phil argued that, while there are benefits to such detailed information, this approach arrests our ability to create truly sustainable fisheries. Decision-making solely through the lens of fish population, Phil said, ignores the social and economic dimensions of fisheries sustainability.

These are bold claims to make, especially in a room of numerically inclined fisheries practitioners. Unfazed, Phil reminded us of the limits of our own cognition: Different people think about and respond to information in very different ways. People are more inclined to believe information they want to be true, information that aligns with their beliefs and values, sometimes regardless of accuracy. The biological and mathematical research that informs fisheries science and management have been cultivated over many years, in turn reinforcing similar thought and research. 

Young boys and two fishermen prepare their morning's catch of skipjack tuna for market, on the beach in front of their homes in the village of Walalung, Kosrae island, Micronesia. (Photo © Nick Hall)

Phil challenged this by asking a simple question, “Fisheries sustainable for who?” These four words open a Pandora’s box of sorts to consider the myriad ways humans, nature and the economy interact. For example, commercial, tribal and recreational fisheries co-mingle off Washington’s coasts and produce millions of dollars annually in household incomes. How do we integrate wellbeing, conservation and employment targets into our fisheries research? 

Social sciences are an integral piece of the fisheries puzzle. How do we break down institutional barriers to generating great social science in fisheries management? The first step is acknowledging the gap in current research. The next step requires purposeful integration as complementary — not competing — perspectives to advance the field. Phil prompted us in accomplishing the first step. Embarking on the second will take time, collaboration and effective communication to generate a broad, participatory environment in fisheries sciences. 

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