Human Stories

Fishing and Marine Conservation | Can We Have Both?

When we began our careers at the interface between science and policy, one of our biggest challenges was navigating the grey lines between fisheries and conservation. Over the course of our education and career, we were led to believe that the differing agendas between fisheries and conservation groups could never be reconciled. In light of this, we had to ask ourselves: how do we navigate the often contradicting messages that can come from both sides? And how can we dismantle the dichotomy we were taught, that fisheries management is an industry against conservation - and vice versa?

A culture of polarization

Fisheries is a prime example of a field where interdisciplinary thinking is necessary, yet difficult in practice. For example, how should we prioritize ending hunger and poverty while preserving the ocean and its ecosystems when so many communities depend on fish for their economy and livelihood? Adding to the complexity for decision-makers, fisheries and marine conservation narratives have become marred with sensationalist messaging and notorious stories that can heavily influence public perceptions. 

Take the 2021 viral sensation Seaspiracy, for example. What puzzles us is how a film released today can still spread outdated and inaccurate information. The issue with media touting doom on global fisheries is that it introduces a new generation of minds to this perceived dichotomy between fisheries and conservation - the 'good' vs 'bad', and as a result, vilifying one side with little regard to the social and economic struggles faced by many fisherfolk and coastal communities. We, the authors, sincerely hope that we can refrain from stepping back to a time where the “my way or the highway” attitude dominated much of marine conservation and fisheries work. Surely, we have gone beyond damning an industry to now being able to understand that sustainable fisheries equally support nature and people?

Is there a commonality?

In this article, we explore the idea of a common goal. We individually interviewed fishers (active and retired) and environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGO) employees in our professional networks to try and understand their perspectives on fisheries and conservation. In listening to the views of different stakeholders, we found a silver lining: both ‘sides’ share a commonality, as both groups want healthy and sustainable oceans. 

What does sustainable fisheries mean to you?

“It means I have to pass it to my generations, to my son, my children, because this is the best in life.” Fisher, Philippines 

“One doesn’t take all one can, but maybe saves more than one must. It is not just for us humans, it is also for the whole - all of earth.” Fisher, Norway 

“It is better to harvest fewer fish for a good price than it is to harvest a lot of fish for a lower price.” Fisher, Norway 

“Sustainability is all about taking care of the system, the fisheries, that provides for us.” Retired fisher, UK/Norway 

“It’s about ensuring there is enough stock and spawning biomass to support the stock long-term. But it is also that people are able to fish, and not waste too many resources on fishing.” eNGO employee, Philippines 

“Fishing should occur on stocks with scientifically based environmentally sustainable limits, without having too high of an environmental impact on bycatch species and habitats. There needs to be effective regulations and a holistic management approach” eNGO employee, Norway  

What does conservation mean to you?

“Conservation is allowing people to live in harmony with nature. We are not conserving nature for people only or only for itself. We have to balance the need for people to fulfil their livelihoods and sustain resources for the long-term.” eNGO employee, Philippines 

“Conservation is about conserving the life support system, which is the planet we have. If we humans are going to live on our planet, then we are completely dependent on the natural world we have around us.” eNGO employee, Norway

Is there a future for the fishing industry?

“There has to be a future. It’s not necessarily the future we would like to see – for example, the industry itself will be smaller. It’s dependent on us getting our head around it now.” Retired fisher, UK/Norway 

“There has to be a future for the fisheries industry because millions of people rely on it.” eNGO employee, Philippines

“The willingness to see it holistically is the most robust way of building conservation and sustainable management.” eNGO employee, Norway 

The importance of conversation

Despite a diverse demographic in age, geographic location, background, and occupation, the common thread was an overwhelming appreciation for the oceans and the services it provides us, and a sense of urgency that we are running out of time to sustain our way of life. These people from both fisheries and conservation groups all recognize the importance of sustaining fish for the future while also recognizing the fragility of the resources it depends on and the subsequent need for holistic management. Their individual motivations for sustainable fisheries might vary from a holistic view of the planet to a more place-based perception of individual people and their livelihoods, but the underlying message is the same and focuses on people and nature. 

So then, is the dichotomy between marine conservation and the fisheries industry just an illusion? The dichotomy certainly exists, as long as there is an absence of open communication and mutual understanding in this space. To move away from this dichotomy towards our common goal, we need to speak with and not at each other across all levels of society - from fishers and their communities to scientists, policymakers, NGOs, civil society organisations, and even consumers.

Everyone has a role 

If our goal is to have sustainable fisheries that support people and nature, we each need to be responsible for our own role in the system. The fisheries industries still have immense problems that need to be addressed, but we need the support of all stakeholders to drive us forward - that includes the support of consumers. As consumers, we can demand change from fishers, suppliers and policymakers and steer products towards more sustainable standards. But we, as the two authors entering the science-policy interface, have realised that we also have the responsibility to communicate clearly and openly between these different stakeholder groups. If we are forthright about what we are trying to sustain and who we are trying to sustain it for, we will avoid many of the common pitfalls created by dichotomies. 

We believe these challenges are not unique to us as early-career researchers in this field of fisheries and conservation, and we hope that this article can encourage others to embark on some self-reflection to answer the most critical questions in the sustainability debate: what are you trying to sustain and who are you sustaining it for? 

Banner and article illustrations by Erica Moriconi.

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