A new ocean ethic is one of compromise

Communion of the Commons

by Jennifer Bender Ferré

Communion of the Commons

Martin Gee

Part Two coming in ‘12: The solution would be to manage our ecosystems for resiliency.  

As we turn towards fall, we think about the bounty of the harvest and all the abundance this planet has to offer us on a daily basis. In no place has this bounty been more pressured than our ocean, as it has provided us with a seemingly endless source of fish for hundreds of years. We are now at a crossroads on many places on this planet that will require compromise of ideas and ideals, of economies of scale, and most importantly, compromise between people.

The problem is continuing intense pressure on ocean resources from multiple stakeholders is unsustainable. There is no system on this planet that can be used to its maximum potential and maintain itself. In any system, whether it is an ocean or an agricultural field, compromises need to be
made. Not every stakeholder can be happy without hindering another. Consider Garrett Hardin’s seminal work Tragedy of the Commons, published in 1968. The crux of Hardin’s article focuses on the concept that when a common resource is available for use by all, ultimately that resource will be destroyed. “Freedom in a common brings ruin to all.” This metaphor argues that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource like our fish populations temporarily or permanently reduces the resource through over-exploitation. Hardin asserts that this happens because the benefit of exploitation to individuals or to groups motivates people to maximize any given resource. The dilemma is that the traditional model of commonly pooled resources cannot be sustained.

Take herring, for example. Herring is a name that is applied generically to Atlantic or sea herring, menhaden, alewife, blueback and American shade. All herring species eat zooplankton in the open ocean and together, form a critical link in the marine food web. Herring are deemed a ‘keystone species’ that is, they are crucial species that help keep an ecosystem in balance, and provide resiliency to a system. Herring are forage and food for cod, haddock, puffins, whales, bluefin tuna and us (according to Les Kaufman, professor of evolutionary ecology in the Boston University Marine Program).

When it comes to the relationship between groundfish (such as cod) and herring, commercial fisherman Frank Mirarchi (Scitutate) says it is a bit more complicated. There are plenty of disagreements between stakeholders over annual catch limits. But in some instances perception doesn’t match reality. Groundfish are adaptable, but localized abundances are affected depending on the distribution of food. Cod distribution can shift according to where prey species are. Herring can be one of those fish that literally drive localized distribution of cod.

Come May or June, the waters are choked every year with foot-long herring heading upstream to reproduce from way out in Massachusetts Bay. Inevitably, endangered alewife and blueback are caught accidentally in dangerous numbers by the sea herring fishery as bycatch. The fishermen who chase herrings end up angering their brethren who are after cod and bluefin tuna, as herring are food for these groundfish. These interconnected relationships illustrate both conservation impacts and opportunities present.

Herring are caught at sea in huge quantities for salmon farms, human dietary supplements, and lobster bait. According to herring dealer data, 80 percent of the Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus) catch is used as bait, primarily for the lobster industry. However, as these stocks begin to get depleted, some lobstermen are beginning to come up with alternatives, such as purchasing discards from fish houses. In a sense, the bait isn’t coming from a stock, but from another source. The source of lobster bait is forced to shift because of availability, not because of choice.

Using herring as an example helps to illustrate the balance that must be struck in managing our ocean and food resources. Compromise is a complicated idea, but quite effective in execution. According to Peter Baker, Director of the Pew Environment Group’s Northeast Fisheries Program,
“Groundfish, herring, and lobsters are all part of the same ecosystem, and you can’t fish for one species without taking the other species into account. New England’s waters were once teeming with life that supplied the nation with seafood. If we are to recover that heritage, we need to manage all of the fisheries with an understanding that they are interdependent, not stand-alone businesses.”

Compromises must be reached across all stakeholders–fishermen, regulators and consumers, in order to avoid ‘the tragedy of the commons’ by altering our values and changing the way we live. The oceans bring us together. It is my hope that we can have a communion of the commons, and avoid the tragedy.