Sustainable Fisheries Group Aids Companies With Environmentally Responsible Solutions

Marine ecologist and dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management Steve Gaines teamed up with professor of environmental and resource economics Christopher Costello in 2006 to form the Sustainable Fisheries Group (SFG), a team that works with the Marine Science Institute and Bren School to aid conservation-minded organizations in implementing ways of fishing without damaging the fragile ecosystems of their fisheries.

Today, the SFG works on research and applied projects across the world, involving a number of partners and sponsors such as the NCEAS, the Nature Conservancy, the WAITT Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

According to Costello, overfishing in the U.S. is regulated on both a state and federal level, with different agencies — such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — responsible for oversight, depending on how far offshore fish are caught.

“If you paddle your kayak offshore three miles, you are in federal waters. Any fish caught there by a commercial fisherman is regulated by NOAA,” Costello said. “But, when you go outside of 200 miles, that’s when you are in what’s called ‘the high seas,’ and there are no rules. Anybody can do whatever they want, and that’s where fisheries are really a disaster.”

Dan Ovando, a researcher with SFG, said he does not agree with the negative image of fisheries portrayed by popular media, arguing that work done by the SFG has shown the potential for sustainable fisheries, proving that such fishing grounds are not without hope.

“If you look around the world, you can see some really positive examples where communities, fishery managers, non-governmental organizations and scientists are really working together to create more effective solutions for fisheries management that are really showing positive trends,” Ovando said.

Within the SFG and Bren School, graduate students and other collaborators work with Gaines and Costello on projects around the world, such as those organized by the Latin American Fisheries Fellowship Program. This program has been funded by the Walton Family Foundation over the span of the past three years, with an average of four fellows admitted each year.

One such student, Isaac Pearlman, who is the program manager of the group, said the first team of graduates have already found jobs in Latin America as a way of promoting more sustainable fishing in their home countries. The teams created every year, according to Pearlman, consist of a wide variety of individuals from multiple locations throughout the world.

“Each year, we recruit some of the most promising students we can find from Latin America who have an undergraduate degree to come here to the Bren School to get their Master’s degree in Coastal and Marine Resource Management,” Pearlman said. “We’re open to applicants from all Latin American countries, but in the past years we have gotten fellows from Chile, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Spain.”

Costello said the mentality behind fishing is to fish as much as physically possible, so as to rake in the highest possible profits. However, Costello said such a tactic is not a viable long-term strategy, given its tendency to quickly deplete fish populations.

“The best way to make money fishing is not to go catch all the fish today, take the money and stick it in the bank,” Costello said. “The best way to make money fishing is to catch a small amount today, let the fish reproduce and be able to do that forever.”

These more sustainable methods of fishing are much more efficient, as they have been proven so by research, according to Costello. He said managing a fishery with the involvement of property rights usually makes landowners more accountable for the fisheries they can potentially deplete.

“That’s something we’ve proven, and it’s a great insight because what it means is that there is a role for managing a fishery in a way that gives property rights to people so that they have an incentive to do that in a sustainable way over time,” Costello said.

Despite the negative effects climate change will have on fisheries, Costello said there is much to be positive about in terms of the progress made in fishery management over the past several years.

“If you look globally, I would say that the tide has turned. We are on an upward trajectory for fisheries, not a downward one,” Costello said. “Five years ago we couldn’t say that. There has been a big change in the world.”

Ovando said the research work done by SFG and similar groups should be more widely utilized in order to educate people to make better consumer choices.

“Fisheries are a really exciting avenue, both for food security and for conservation,” Ovando said. “I think there is a tremendous amount for people to learn about the ways that we can use marine resources to benefit both people and ecosystems.”

According to Costello, California has shown good work in the management of its fisheries to prevent overfishing, especially in Santa Barbara.

“Fishermen in Santa Barbara are really committed to sustainability so they actually see themselves as stewards of the resource and want to work with scientists, us at UCSB, and the guys who manage the fisheries in Sacramento,” Costello said. “The fisherman here are really dedicated to working with all those groups to try to make the fisheries sustainable.”


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Thursday, February 20, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.