If regulation doesn’t destroy the fisheries…

With elections to the European Parliament currently underway, I’m surprised how little discussion there is of the Commission’s often clumsy regulation of the fishing industry. Having lived in regions strongly dependent on commercial fishing, I know full well the effect that rigidly interpreted quotas and the enforced scrapping of often shiny new boats can have on affected communities.

But that, I’m afraid, is by the bye. Or at least it is for now. For fishing communities there is no let up, because if the politicians don’t do for them, climate change may bring about their demise.

Pteropod Limacina Helicina (photo: Russ Hopcroft, UAF/NOAA)

I refer to ocean acidification, which is a direct result of atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving in and reacting with surface seawater to form carbonic acid. Acidification affects organisms such as corals, molluscs, plankton and shellfish which depend sufficient carbonate levels to form shells. Whitefish prey on plankton and shellfish, and are negatively affected by ocean acidification.

Declining fish stocks lead to economic losses for coastal communities, and in some areas fishing continues to be is big business and a major employer. In a paper just published in Environmental Research Letters, Sarah Cooley and Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Institution in Massachusetts present case studies of US commercial fisheries, and with the aid of atmospheric CO2 trends and laboratory studies detail the likely economic effects of ocean acidification over the next half century.

A couple of quotes from the paper…

“The worldwide political, ethical, social and economic ramifications of ocean acidification, plus its capacity to switch ecosystems to a different state following relatively small perturbations, make it a policy-relevant ‘tipping element’ of the earth system.”

“Preparing for ocean acidificationʼs effects on marine resources will certainly be complex, because it requires making decade-to-century plans for fisheries, which are normally managed over years to decades, to respond to shorter-term economic and environmental factors.”

That second point is crucial, as political decision making tends to be very short-sighted. Cooley and Doney talk of the need for long-range planning, and for quantitative assessments of biological responses to ocean acidification and climate change to be incorporated into fishery management plans. Anticipating and reacting to complex secondary effects requires, say the authors, the need for ecosystem-based management tools.

Detailed bioeconomic modelling of the kind called for by Cooley and Doney is surely beyond the limited comprehension of your average European Commissioner or US Environmental Protection Agency executive. Does this not point to a crisis in management that can only be addressed through a complete overhaul of the regulatory process – one based on scientific evidence, delegated decision making and community involvement?