Article by Davis Jacobson
I saw a bit in the Telegraph regarding the problems surrounding all the mackerel in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Yes, the mid-latitude Atlantic fish, and yes, the smallish island countries between Scandinavia and Greenland. Plus Russia.
A lot of science comes together here: climate science, biology, political science, economics…. (Today I’m using “science” in a broad sense like the German Wissenschaft, but not debating ‘soft’ vs. ‘hard’ sciences.) Let me explain.
What’s Going On?
The details are complicated, but Iceland, Russia, and the Faroe Islands have the opportunity to catch a lot of mackerel that they didn’t formerly have accessible. The mackerel are migrating farther north in the summer than they used to, because of warmer waters in the the North Atlantic.
That’s great for Iceland, but between them Norway and the European Union, in a legally binding way, had claimed 90% of the mackerel catch deemed safe by fish experts.
Neither Iceland nor the Faroe Islands nor Russia is subject to those agreements. They’ve collectively and unilaterally awarded themselves 355,000 tons of mackerel catch beyond the amount that was deemed safe by the fish experts and agreed to by all the other state parties to the Northeastern Atlantic mackerel catch.
So, it’s a problem.
Here’s the Science Part:
I’m not making an anthropogenic claim about the ocean warming today. (Not that I couldn’t.) Scientists are figuring out what fraction of the North Atlantic warming is due to humans and how all that might end up. So, I would say smart people are working on that, but certainly the waters are warmer than in recent history, and there are more mackerel in the north Atlantic these days for reasons that relate.
Which brings us to the fish: Their biology influences their migration in a number of relevant ways which are still subject to scientific debate. So that’s another thing that should be understood in more detail. But no matter: the fact of the change in their migratory patterns is not apparently open to much debate: Icelanders didn’t formerly catch mackerel, and now they do. The bottom line is that when the temperatures change, so do the migratory habits of the fish.
What Does it Mean?
The economics of supply and demand are also very much in play here.
In the immediate term, the new availability of mackerel for fishing in the northeastern Atlantic means that more fish can be caught in total. The presence of mackerel now corresponds with the fishing ranges of several major fleets previously excluded from that game by the paucity of mackerel in their regions. In the short term, the price of mackerel crashes because more suppliers are now able to dump mackerel on the markets. This bankrupts small mackerel fishers immediately.
In the long term, though, overfishing of the mackerel could diminish their ability to replenish their numbers, depleting the mackerel stock on a long-term basis — or even exposing the mackerel to a risk of extinction (Hall, Millner-Gulland, and Courchamp, 2008). On that timescale, the depletion of mackerel could put major economic sectors of the Atlantic, European, and Russian nations in the tank — especially if they’ve committed significant capital to the mackerel catch.
What to Do?
Finally, the politics are not at all clear, here. We have a situation where technological development has empowered people to take fish at rates scarcely distinguishable from annual, regional natural disasters. (More background on that.) Clearly this is an issue whose consequences transgress national boundaries. Whence policy that protects everyone’s food supply, then, if there’s no transnational law that binds the players?
Since some players in the fish catch seem exempt from regulation and willing to fish beyond reasonable limits, the immediate-term incentive for all the fishers is to take fish as rapidly as possible before they’re extinct or the laws get changed. Which may cause the extinction of the fish. Everybody loses forever in this regime, but short of war, complicated international agreements, or self-sacrificing restrictions voluntarily adopted by a controlling fraction of the players, there’s no obvious logic that stops it.
Except, of course, scientifically responsible and sustainable fishing practices endorsed by all.
Why Do I Care?
In sum, while there’s some material that’s open for discussion, what’s clear is that this is a problem set that needs resolution quickly, and science informs both the problem and the solution from all sides. So, think about that during the next school board meeting.
But back to my original source, I couldn’t have said it better than the Scottish Fisheries Secretary:
“If some countries act unsustainably then we are all losers.“
There are no isolated players in a global environment.