An Interview with Carl Walters

Carl Walters is a Professor Emeritus at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. His area of expertise includes fisheries assessment and sustainable management, and he has several years of experience advising public agencies and industrial groups on fisheries assessment and management. He has been a member of a number of NSERC grant committees since 1970, and received the AIFRB Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in 2011.

Misuse of the precautionary approach in fisheries management

We spoke with Carl Walters of the University of British Columbia about the misuse of the precautionary approach by risk-averse scientists and conservation advocates. His concern arises from the application of the precautionary approach to Western Canadian salmon fisheries, which he believes has negatively impacted Canadian salmon fishermen and resulted in “virtually, an economic collapse.”

He began by first differentiating between the precautionary principle and the precautionary approach, the former he claimed to be “a perfectly sensible statement that I think almost everyone would subscribe to about the need to avoid irreversible harm when possible…in the management of any system. There’s a different creature that has arisen in fisheries policy…called the precautionary approach to management” – this is the one that upsets him (00:35).

According to Carl, there are two problems with the precautionary approach (PA). First, it was concocted intuitively by highly risk-averse biologists and managers. “Those people are not the ones who bear the costs of having such a policy. It’s really easy for a highly risk-averse manager to recommend a very conservative policy because it’s not his income and economic future that’s at stake” (03:18). In fact, fishermen are seldom consulted about what harvest control rule they would prefer. Fishermen are often perceived to be relentless natural resource extractors that demand to keep fishing until it can be proven that the stock is collapsing. “That’s not the way fishermen behave” Carl says. “It turns out that most fishermen are risk-averse. They’re not pillagers, they’re not gamblers willing to take any risk at all in order to just keep fishing. They are concerned about the future and they are generally willing to follow some kind of risk-averse harvesting policy” (04:40). “Fishing is a risky business, and fishermen in general are far less risk averse than the people who end up in government and academic jobs.  But that does not mean fishermen are willing to take high risks with the productive future of the stocks that support them.”

So if both fishermen and managers are risk-averse, what’s the problem? The issue is that the interests of only one of these stakeholders is truly accounted for when designing precautionary harvest policies. In Canadian fisheries, there has been “a deliberate exclusion of fishermen in the development of these critical harvest control rules. They have no say in it. The decision rule should be based, at least to some degree, on patterns of risk-aversion that fishermen have since it’s the fishermen who bear the burden of the regulation” (09:48).

Carl recommends that we do away with the precautionary approach, and instead focus on developing and implementing ‘utility maximizing policies’ (10:35), which includes identifying harvest control rules that maximize expected utility for a risk-averse community of fishermen (17:20). Carl believes the extreme rules proposed by biologists are not the answer. “In fact, the optimal harvest control rules actually involve continuing to fish down to stock sizes that would terrify many biologists. When you shut things down you’re putting people out of business and for many of them that’s an irreversible loss of their livelihood” (06:30).

There are balanced policies that deal more sensibly with risk-aversion, represent the interests of fishermen rather than the interests of really risk-averse biologists, and are ecologically just as sustainable as more extreme policies. “Ultimately, fisheries management is about the fishermen – it’s not about a government agency staff feeling comfortable, it’s about trying to maintain the livelihoods of fishermen” (18:07).

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