Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Seneca again: the collapse of the UK fishing industry



Image from a 2010 article by Thurstan, Brockington, and Roberts. It describes the cycle of the UK fishing industry, which collapsed because of overfishing in the late 1970s.


The two graphs above (from a 2010 article by Thurstan et al.) speak by themselves. We have here a real life example of the overexploitation of natural resources; that is, of the tendency of people of destroying their own sources of wealth. Other classic examples can be found with the 19th century whaling industry and with the Canadian cod fishery.

Overexploitation typically generates the "Hubbert curve," the name given to a bell-shaped production cycle best known for the case of crude oil, but affecting all the resources which can be exploited faster than they can reform by natural processes. This behavior can be explained by means of mathematical models, but, qualitatively, it is the result of the falling profits generated by the diminishing resource stock. In the long run, lower profits discourage investments and the result is a general production decline. A particular case of this mechanism is when the industry initially reacts to diminishing returns by aggressively increasing the amount of capital invested. In this case, the stocks of the resource are depleted very fast and the result is a crash of the production rate; we still have a bell shaped curve, but skewed forward. The rapid decline that occurs after the peak is what I called the "Seneca Cliff."

There are several historical examples of the Seneca cliff; in the case of fisheries, it is especially evident in the case of the Canadian cod fishery and for the Caspian Sturgeon; but it is evident also in the case of the UK fishing industry. Note, in the figure above, the steep decline of the landings of the late 1970s, it is significantly steeper than the growth of the left side of the curve. This is the essence of the Seneca mechanism. And we can see very well what causes it: the start of the decline in production corresponds to a rapid growth of investments. The result is the increase of what the authors of the paper call "fishing power" - an estimate of the efficiency and size of the fishing fleet.

The results were disastrous; a textbook example of how to "push the levers in the wrong directions", that is, of a case when the attempt to solve a problem worsens it considerably. In this case, the more efficient the fishing fleet was, the more rapidly the fish stock was destroyed. This is a classic mechanism for falling down the Seneca cliff: the more efficient you are at exploiting a non renewable (or slowly renewable) resource, the faster you deplete it. And the faster you get into trouble.

This case, as others, is such a staggering disaster that one wonders how it was possible at all. How could it be that nobody in the fishing industry or in the government realized what was happening? In their article on this subject, Thurstan and his colleagues don't comment on this point, but we can cite an article by Hamilton et al. on the Canadian Atlantic Cod fishery, where they say "Some say they saw trouble coming, but felt powerless to halt it." That seems to be not describing not just the fishing industry, but our entire civilization.






15 comments:

  1. Ugo - I live beside England's largest fishing port. You wouldn't know it as there are only a few boats in the harbour now! How did this happen? Short term interests trumped sustainability at every turn. Any mention of 'conservation' was met with angry denouncements by fishermen. Yes, they were sawing off the branch they were sitting on but they were persuaded that conservationists were the enemy. They didn't care, and now most of them are either unemployed, addicted to alcohol and drugs, or dead.

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    1. Absolutely true. When people see their source of livelihood disappearing, they search for an external enemy. They don't seem able to realize that the enemy is themselves - Actually, "ourselves", it happens to all of us

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    2. Read "The Great Deception" by Booker & North which gives an account of how Britain's fishing grounds were literally given away by traitor Heath [& Rippon] in 1971 when Britain's fishing industry comprised 80% of Europe's fishing.

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  2. I scratch my head when thinking about the economical intelligence of the people doing the considerable investment in the fishing equipment. They took a risk and lost. Has happened 1000s of times before, but this time it was pretty foreseeable, wasn't it? The conflict between cognitive and emotional part of the decision process.

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    1. I was scratching my head on these data, too. How can it be that these people kept investing in an enterprise that was returning less and less every year. It is a task for psychologists, I figure

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  3. How can anyone be surprised at the predicament we are in ? Humans have gotten much better at hunting down & catching fish & each year there are more of us. Now with so many people fishing & taking ever more fish, the fishery was certain to collapse. In addition to overfishing, we polluted the water, dumped our wastes into it, hunted sea mammals to the brink of extinction. We are at a point where resources are in decline even though demand continues to grow. We have to expend more energy & wealth while getting less & less for our efforts.
    Our beliefs in endless resources have met with the reality of limits, that no amount of technology can solve.
    Being dragged back to a time before abundant energy will be very painful & the result will be far fewer of us. People saw this possibility decades ago but our "leaders" refused to listen, they found it enriched them more by listening to industry, the very wealthy & military leaders. The result was exponential growth that would lead to collapse.

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  4. Like you both, Jason and Ugo, I scratch my head – it is in the realm of psychology, but I look at context – first the coal-fired machines and then the more versatile petroleum versions. Everybody was doing it – and demonstrably increasing the utility and profit from their labour. And the physical supply chains to urban markets still beckoned. So, why was fishing going to be different? The lesson of the Passenger Pigeon was not understood – the exuberance of natural abundance was deceptive: “the Silver Herring”. The ‘derring-do ‘of these heroic communities is legendary. In Britain these were isolated, extremely poor, (in living memory) self-contained working class communities, maintaining highly skilled social structures living with high-risk environments.

    Parts of our farming communities were very similar and highly adapted, given the chance, to further skill-acquisition and to the challenges of modernisation – and individuals sought personal affirmation in modernisation. British farming had not been able to compete with imported food for the century to 1940 but, given war-time necessity was able to double mechanisation and inputs/ output in 3 years. Successive waves of technical input since then have just about maintained competitive levels. But I see the end of that road round me now.

    The farming ‘business plan’ has favoured larger hi-tech machine units driven ever faster by part-time members of the family. The incremental advantage reaped by these high cost units seriously looks to be close to limits of self-justification measured by returns. Maintenance of legacy field infrastructure – drainage and soil structure (carbon) becomes an increasing cost – world prices of inputs have raised. But for more than 70 years the ‘next step’ has always been obvious. Now for the first time, this is no longer true.

    The legend of Progress – universally adopted in our culture and maintained despite colossal wars –has provided the same context for fisheries and coal mining and now our farming in Britain. British coal mining, well-down from Peak Coal in 1913/1920, nevertheless raised production significantly in the 1960s using mechanisation, but is now almost non-existent. Seneca Cliff indeed: I remember it well, as I lived on the edge of a mining community right up to the point of its sudden demise.

    At that time meanwhile I was living my ‘modern’ life in a parallel universe in a laboratory piloting new biotechnology techniques to make better use of our crop disease diagnostic and other allied ‘economic’ skills. All the while, the ‘primary base’ is what actually needed our real attention.

    best
    Phil

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  5. The collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery (Northwest Atlantic) is very Senecan:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse_of_the_Atlantic_northwest_cod_fishery#mediaviewer/File:Surexploitation_morue_surp%C3%AAcheEn.jpg

    How did this happen? The Wikipedia article leaves off what I consider to be a major consideration: It is far easier to lay off workers than it is to lay off Bankers (a.k.a. Banksters). If you own a big sophisticated fishing boat, loaded with expensive equipment, you don't hold off from fishing, even if you can make a deal with the other fishermen who graze their herds in the commons (in this case, fish in the Grand Banks) because of resource depletion. If you don't keep paying the Banksters, you lose your boat and gear, and when (IF) the fishery recovers, you won't be able to start fishing again. It's not like just pulling a few nets and lines out of storage and fixing them up.

    This is a problem with Capitalism as practiced, and I am no leftist. Capitalism, generally speaking, tends to develop/evolve mechanisms to handle/fix its nonfunctionalities. Not in this case!

    Oh, the Govenment (of Canada, mostly) bailed out the banks, of course. And the fishermen were helped; in general, they moved away. The cod haven't made out so well...

    David Collins

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  6. I just had a great fish and seafood dinner with my wife last night at a nice inexpensive seaside restaurant nearby (in Thailand NOT in Europe or the U.S.A.) where one also could see and select the fish and etc. to be prepared and served, and I wondered when the entire world fishing industry was going to collapse and disappear...since I assume millions of people were also enjoying a nice fish dinner somewhere last night. Or will the collapse continue to occur only SOMEWHERE ELSE ?

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    1. Max, you remind me of our great leader, in Italy, Mr. Berlusconi, known to have said "Restaurants are full, then the economy is in good shape"

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    2. Ugo, I certainly feel HONORED that I should somehow remind you of our great leader. Perhaps he too was having a nice fish dinner the other night? ...maybe by romantic moonlight with Ruby on one of his smaller and more cozy yachts sailing in one of the least dead zones of the Adriatic?

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  7. a solar energy car made by amateurs have crossed Australia. Why car´s factories do not want to know that?, petroleum´s economic interests. Shame politicians

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  8. ...global warming ("good" no longer spend cold)... the discharge of pollutants into the air with its greenhouse effect is melting the Poles. This large amount of freshwater to the ocean could stop deep sea currents which depend on a delicate balance between fresh and salty water and temperatures. Heat from the Sun reaches the equator and currents distribute it throughout the Planet, then...goodbye to our warm climate. The horizontal oceanic currents produced by winds and some others by the rotation of the Earth, rotating all by the Coriolis effect, will continue...but the vertical currents produced by the sinking of horizontal currents of dense salty water that reaches the Poles where the water is sweeter, less salty, and form deep currents would stop (why are the Grand Banks fishing in cold latitudes?...because over there is the polar ice, freshwater, different sweet/salty density, salty dense water arriving and sinks in a little salty water environment, nutrients that are removed from the bottom and rise to the surface, phytoplankton that feed on nutrients, zooplankton that feed on phytoplankton, fish that feed on zooplankton)... No polar ice over there will be no vertical currents...could reduce the rise of nutrients to the surface and therefore PHYTOPLANKTON SHORTAGE MAY DECREASING ITS VITAL CONTRIBUTION WITH OXYGEN TO THE ATMOSPHERE (90 %)...fish...winds in some places of more warm latitudes carry out the surface hot water permitting the outcropping to surface of water and plankton (the upwelling) from the bottom cold current coming from the Pole, forming other Banks fishing... Without polar ice the sea it could almost stratified into horizontal layers with little energetic movement of water masses in vertical which is what removes fertilizer nutrients from the sea bottom... Besides lowering salinity of the sea, for that great contribution with freshwater to melt the Poles, will increase evaporation (ebullioscopy: the less salt has, more evaporates) producing gigantic storm clouds as have never seen, that together with altering of the ocean currents, could cool areas of the Planet causing a new ice age... Warming...invasion of tropical diseases carried by their transfer agents, already without the "general winter" containing them would fall upon the World like a plague... can produce a cooling, a new ice age, like living at the North Pole...and less oxygen in the Atmosphere... Is not known to be worse... Go choosing.

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  9. ...the beginning of the End of the World (no polar ice: the countdown has already begun)... the World is silenced by politicians and their armies and their control of the media by the religious. They are leading the Planet to catastrophe worrying only of the economy, "their" economy. Politicians do not want to know anything about climate change, even bothers to talk topic, do not care about anything other than "utilize" their way through the power to... ((The scientist say: "...Examining 20,000 data points, the researchers showed that the Southern Ocean surface has freshened during the last 60 years. They also found that vertical gradients of salinity and density have increased in the Southern Ocean, suggesting that mixing has been reduced. Seven of the models suggest that increased freshwater in the Southern Ocean could stop the convection from occurring altogether by 2030, and most models show strong decreases in convection during the 21st century, reducing the Antarctic Bottom Water´s formation. The absence of polynyas in recent decades could mean that heat is getting trapped in the deeper ocean, possibly contributing to the recent "hiatus" in global atmospheric warming and the increase in Antarctic sea ice extent that have been observed in recent years.""))... Scientists checking that there can be NO and CONVECTION in 2030 in the stratified ocean with almost freshwater surface...the beginning of the End of the World...and the expert interested in Laws POLITICIANS not even know what it is and looking elsewhere unsigned serious international protocols that IMMEDIATELY STOP AROUND THE PLANET POURING OF CONTAMINATION. It´s the economy...

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  10. very nice blog,,,,,


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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)