A new study in the journal Maritime Studies has looked at a chain of events that lead to overfishing. Centre researchers argue that the failures to prevent overfishing resemble a group of chained prisoners, a chain gang. Photo: S. Zeff/Azote


A chain of fools?

New article asks why it is so hard to stop overfishing

Story highlights

  • Failures to prevent overfishing resemble a group of chained prisoners, a chain gang
  • Case studies in show there are several specific, case-by-case factors that determine whether a
    fishery is sustainable or not
  • Little hope for a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to end overfishing

We fish too much, and by doing so, we threaten marine ecosystems and people’s livelihoods. But the curious thing is that we have known this for a long time, yet we continue to harvest more than what is sustainable. Why don’t we stop?

This is the existential question Centre researchers Wijnand Boonstra and Henrik Österblom ask in an article published in Maritime Studies.

They have looked at a chain of events leading to overfishing, such as the South African abalone fishery, and examples where overfishing has stopped or been substantially reduced, like the Antarctic toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

What they found was that there is no common thread that leads to overfishing but a variety of factors.

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The Chain Gang
Boonstra and Österblom argue that the failures to prevent overfishing resemble a group of chained prisoners, a chain gang.

"Imagine that the march is not performed by a drilled platoon of soldiers but by a group of chained prisoners. A chain gang like this is not well ordered or drilled. Some prisoners walking slowly, others faster; some lean to the right, others to the left. But all of them remain chained together at hands and feet. No one stands outside and no one is in charge."

"People often fail to comprehend the larger chains of dependence they form together"

Wijnand Boonstra, co-author

The case of unsustainable fishing
Boonstra and Österblom searched the fisheries science literature for rich case studies where fisheries went from being sustainable to unsustainable, and vice versa. One of their examples of a fishery turning unsustainable is the spectacular change of the abalone fishery in South Africa. It went from a 30-year sustainable stint between 1950 and 1980 to being closed down due to excessive overfishing in 2008.

The end of Apartheid in 1994 affected the abalone fishery in a number of ways.

First of all, it lifted the international trade embargo which greatly improved the possibilities to sell abalone on global markets and increased its price. Secondly, coastal communities previously barred from commercial trade due to Apartheid policies where now expecting formal access and user rights to harvest the valuable abalone. Third, the large profits that were made from the abalone fishery attracted Chinese crime syndicates that had already established extensive South-African networks, trading shark fins, drugs and people.

Taken together, these factors helped create a major illegal fishery for abalone in the 1990s and 2000s. Nature played its unsustainable part as well. The West Coast rock lobster moved southwards and preyed on juvenile abalone. This hampered the abalone recruitment and consequently contributed to the stock decline.

A number of government interventions in the early 2000s only aggravated the situation. Attempts to stop poaching backfired for a number of reasons and the final closure of the abalone fishery in 2008 did not end the illegal fishery.

From unsustainable to sustainable fishery
Toothfish fishery currently represents the most profitable fisheries in the Southern Ocean. An initial boom in the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of the tooth fish in the 1990s nearly led to the collapse of the stock.

A number of unique management measures and combined efforts from governments, the fishing industry and environmental NGOs, led however to a substantial reduction of non-compliance and improved prospects for sustainable management.

The efforts to stop the illegal fishing also included "hard core" operations conducted by the Australian coastguard in collaboration with various national and international institutions.

A limited number of illegal vessels are still operating in the region but the reduction of non-compliance in the Southern Ocean is substantially improving the prospects for recovering fish stocks.

So can overfishing be stopped?
The case studies in Boonstra and Österblom’s study show that there are a number of specific, case-by-case factors that determine whether a fishery is sustainable or not.

"There is little hope for a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to end overfishing because any policy solution first needs to understand overfishing as an outcome of specific developments. However, the knowledge generated over time and the various case studies can be used to stimulate thinking that can anticipate overfishing and related stock collapse," says Wijnand Boonstra.

To show how change can happen Boonstra and Österblom return to the chain gang metaphor and explain how the prisoners who form the chain gang have to adapt their walking to each other to avoid tripping. Such an adapted walk is called a 'convict shuffle'. This shuffle requires that no one can hit or trip into another when pace or direction suddenly changes.

Boonstra and Österblom believe that much the same holds true for fisheries management that aims to halt overfishing.

"Just as for walking in a chain gang, it requires readiness to adapt to changes in overcapacity and non-compliance stemming from more remote ecological, social, economic and political causes. If we fail to adapt to the causal complexity of overfishing, we’ll remain chained as fools," they conclude.

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Published: 2015-07-03



Boonstra, W.J., Österblom, H. 2014. A chain of fools: or, why it is so hard to stop overfishing. Maritime Studies, 13:15

Wijnand Boonstra is particularly interested in understanding how individual use of ecosystems aggregates to form so-called regimes of ecosystem use. Describing and explaining the complex set of social and ecological conditions and their interaction at micro and macro scales that cause these regimes to shift, is a key research objective.

Henrik Österblom is Deputy Science Director at Stockholm Resilience Centre. He holds a position as senior lecturer in environmental sciences with a particular focus on ecosystem-based management of the Baltic Sea. His primary research interests are 1) Social-ecological dynamics of the
Baltic Sea, 2) International marine governance and 3) Seabirds and
ecosystem change.

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