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Designer ecosystems versus risk avoidance in marine policy

ICES My Fish symposium takes place this week, 27–30 October in Athens, Greece and aims to  "document and synthesise the best quality scientific approaches to management advice and implementation under potentially conflicting objectives".
Published: 28 October 2015

​​​​​​​​​​Poul Degnbol, Adjunct professor, Innovative Fisheries Management, Aalborg University, Denmark, is one of the keynote speakers at this week's ICES symposium, ​​MyFish: "Targets and limits for long term fisheries management”. In his presentation, "Linking targets and limits to practical management" he discusses how the use of targets and limits in practical management today must resolve tensions which are embedded in the historical development of these concepts and which reflect very different views as represented by different stakeholder groups today. 

The concepts of targets and limits in fisheries policy are linked to very different discourses which have been mainstream in society in different historical epochs. The use of targets and limits in the marine policy of the present carries this baggage with it. A reflection on the context and origin of these concepts is a first prerequisite for dialogue.

Target concepts have historically been linked to an understanding that marine policy is about optimization, that mankind through rational action can achieve specific goals such as maximum yields or, more recently, specific structures of marine ecosystems which are considered attractive – designer ecosystems. This way of thinking was in the forefront of the development of modern fisheries management, from Beverton and Holts seminal book published in the aftermath of the Second World War to the development of international regulatory institutions for fisheries up through the 1970s. This thinking has also historically been linked to a policy which had the single fish stock, one at a time, in focus. More recently, target thinking has been linked to the achievement of specific structures in marine ecosystems such as specific population sizes or relative sizes of populations at different trophic levels.

Limit concepts can be understood within the same discourse as targets as they are widely used as supplements to targets, which are necessitated by the fact that the outcomes of the acts of even perfectly rational mankind are not entirely predictable.

However, limits may fundamentally reflect an understanding that mankind cannot thoroughly manipulate and shape marine ecosystems, but are limited to try to make the best out of whatever ecosystem there is at any given time without doing unacceptable damage. Risk avoidance rather than optimization and ecosystem design is the focus. This thinking emerged through the 1980s when it became increasingly clear that single fish stocks do not live in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem and that this in itself puts limits to the potential for optimization.

These very different discourses are at the root of the tensions which arise when different stakeholder groups and policy organizations try to flesh out how marine policy should be shaped and implemented today.

These tensions are carried into current marine policy where targets and limits have come to be the core basis for setting policy objectives. Targets and limits have been used as the main instrument in international conventions and for legislators to introduce some measurable accountability in the implementation of policy. The conceptual basis – optimization versus risk avoidance – is however rarely spelled out with the result that the tension prevails through implementation.

The present practical implementation of targets and limits is in most jurisdictions linked to top-down micromanagement where it is not only the targets and limits which are defined in law, the technical details of how to achieve these are also set out in public regulation. This means that in the end, all responsibility and accountability for the achievement of targets and limits remains with the public body responsible for implementation – be it a national government or an international commission. This setup has proven counterproductive in terms of accountability, legitimacy, and economic efficiency. It is also an exception relative to policies in most other economic sectors. Targets and limits are, on the contrary, well suited to be the basis for a normalized fisheries policy where the "what to achieve" (targets and limits) is set out in law and monitored by the relevant public body while the "how to achieve" is left to the industry to figure out, implement, and document. Such a reversed burden of proof would encourage everybody to do the right thing within a rational system rather than trying to fool an irrational system where public bodies end up micromanaging each and every fishery and an industry is left without responsibility and with little power to decide on its own future. ​

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​P​oul Degnbol, Aalborg University, Denmark​.

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Designer ecosystems versus risk avoidance in marine policy

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