Risky Business: Maintaining Economic and Ecological Balance in the Fishing Industry

Risky Business: Maintaining Economic and Ecological Balance in the Fishing Industry
Photo by John Liu - Copper Rockfish (Sebastes caurinus) August 2020

Written By: Jenna Quan

As you gaze down at the piece of salmon sitting atop the sushi roll you just ordered, you may wonder: Where did this fish come from? Who caught it? How are there enough fish being caught to feed all of the other people who ordered a salmon sushi roll today? Will there be enough tomorrow as well? Despite pondering these questions for a few seconds, you probably shrug it off and delve into your delicious meal, not to think of it again until the next time you arrive at a sushi restaurant.

Dr. Matthew Reimer
Dr. Matthew Reimer

Fortunately, Dr. Matthew Reimer, an associate professor at UC Davis, didn’t shrug off these questions when they came to him -  in fact, he’s dedicated his research to digging deeper into the economics of questions like these by investigating how we manage natural resources in coastal environments to support both sustainable fisheries and economies. While traveling around the world after finishing high school,  he was intrigued by the differences he noticed in the development of coastal communities and their use and conservation of natural marine resources - he then set out on a path to learn more about these differences and about sustainable resource management strategies. Now, he designs and evaluates management policies with the goal of reaching a balance between resource conservation, healthy economies, and the happiness of fishers and their communities.

Minimizing risk factors for commercial fishers

Globally, fishing and aquaculture comprise a multi-billion dollar industry that employs millions of people - an estimated 10% of the world’s population is reliant on fisheries to support their livelihood. However, increased demand for food has, in some cases, pushed fisheries well over their sustainable limits, resulting in high rates of fish stock decline. This fluctuation of fish stock from year to year puts fishers and other people in coastal communities who rely on fisheries as their main source of income in an increasingly risky position.

A Canary Rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) being lowered back into the ocean after being caught offshore of Bodega Head for research purposes.
Photo by John Liu - A Canary Rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) being lowered back into the ocean after being caught offshore of Bodega Head for research purposes. August 2020

So, how can different management policies be applied to fisheries to remove some of these physical and financial industry risks? Through the lens of bioeconomics (a study at the intersection of both biology and economics) and policymaking, Dr. Reimer hopes to understand the tradeoffs involved in the implementation of different management strategies. One aspect of the industry that Dr. Reimer believes can be improved is the management of fishing permits. Currently, fishing permits give the holder access to a particular stock of fish (subpopulation of a fish species), but the amount of fish an individual is allowed to take fluctuates each year in response to stochastic returns of the stock. Recent years have shown a decrease in the stock of many economically important species; this could be a result of differences in recruitment between years, geographic range shifts (both of which could result from climate change), or from chronic overfishing and mismanagement of the fishery. Fishers whose livelihoods depend on stock returns from permits each year are thus put in a vulnerable position. Dr. Reimer, in collaboration with other researchers in the CMSI department, are working to reduce this risk for commercial fishers by redesigning the management of fishing permits. Some ideas they are pursuing include risk sharing mechanisms (similar to crop insurance for farmers), permits that would allow more flexibility for the fisher so that they can spread their risk without threatening average stock return, and more. 

Mussel beds in the intertidal region of the Bodega Marine Reserve
Photo by Jenna Quan: Mussel beds in the intertidal region of the Bodega Marine Reserve. August 19, 2020.

Bioeconomics: How math is solving the poverty problem

One project that Dr. Reimer is undertaking examines the link between natural resource management policy and poverty traps in coastal communities highly dependent on fisheries in Ghana and abroad. Most members of these communities are extremely dependent on local fisheries to earn their livelihoods. However, overfishing and the increasing depletion of local fish stocks can result in the formation of a poverty trap, which refers to any reinforcing mechanism that keeps people stuck in poverty. Dr. Reimer intends to use mathematical modeling tools to understand what kinds of policies can be set in place to break the cycle of poverty in these communities and shift their economy to a healthy, sustainable state. Once he creates a model that links fish stock with poverty risk, he can run simulations with that model by changing different variables in the equation to determine what kinds of policies would lead to a sustainable outcome and which would lead to a poverty trap outcome. 

An accompanying question that he hopes to dive into further involves the occupational choice and options of fishers; that is, why do people choose to fish instead of partaking in a different industry? He hopes to use similar methods in conjunction with field studies in the future to determine how many other career options exist in coastal communities that traditionally earn their living off of the fishing industry, as well as how transferable skills from fishing are to other industries. Answering these questions may predict how fishing communities will respond to the increasing threat of climate change on fisheries worldwide. Similar to the concept of ecological redundancy, the availability of jobs in other industries would help communities retain their good economic status even in the event that the fishing industry tanks due to the effects of climate change on fisheries.

Imagining a more sustainable future

Dr. Reimer’s work in bioeconomics is just getting started -  he is continuing to innovate new ideas to improve both ocean sustainability and the livelihoods of those who depend on it. In order to understand the consequences of managing our ocean and coastal environments, we must first strive to understand how humans behave and contribute to the environment as a whole system. In his own words - “economics explains everything!”


Meet the Author: Jenna Quan

Jenna Quan is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in evolution, ecology, and biodiversity and minoring in education. She has a passion for ecology and biology, especially in marine systems. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in ecology and continue on in academia. When Jenna is not working on research projects at BML or in a genetics lab, she is co-captaining the UC Davis Dance Team and working on her knitting projects!

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