25 Feb 2014

President’s Commentary—January 2014

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Reductionism versus Natural Rights or Why Is Effective Natural Resource Management So Difficult?
Bob Hughes, AFS President

Photo of American Fisheries Society AFS President, Bob Hughes (Robert Hughes)

Although many North American fish populations and stocks are considered healthy or recovering, many others are not, and an ever-increasing number are considered vulnerable, threatened, or endangered (Nehlsen et al. 1991; Musick et al. 2000; Jelks et al. 2008). I believe that many of these declines are driven by scientific and management reductionism in our profession or the failure to consider fully the effects of human culture (e.g., ethics, economics, demographics) on fish and their immediate environments. Our profession tends to focus on hatchery production, harvest, habitat improvement, and occasionally land/water use. However, external drivers, cultural ethics, and provincial/state and federal policies regarding land/ water use, resource consumption, and economic/population growth ultimately determine the structures and processes of the resources we study and manage (Hughes 1997; Hughes et al. 2014; Limburg et al. 2011; Czech 2013). Although we certainly can produce more fish products via aquaculture, we should not expect to be able to feed an ever-expanding human population in perpetuity. Therefore, classic scientific and management approaches that focus only on fish and their habitats are likely to be unsuccessful in protecting those resources over the long term (Lackey et al. 2006).

So what can we do about such disconnections? As I discussed previously, it helps to study and manage across large spatial extents and engage multiple scientific disciplines—including the social sciences (Hughes 2013). Similarly, fishery agencies would be wise to collaborate more closely with the forest, range, agriculture, mining, and water management agencies that directly and indirectly alter fish habitat and fisheries. But fishery scientists and managers will also need to contribute more to socioeconomic and environmental policy development and decisions at all governmental levels. Fortunately, university fisheries programs are increasingly requiring coursework in such areas by their students, and some employers are seeking such expertise.

Another area for continued improvement is environmental ethics. As one would expect, human ethics are homocentric and utilitarian—little different from any species that has evolved to maximize its reproductive fitness and numbers. The long-term consequences of such a narrow focus are periodic collapses (Ponting 1991;  Marsh 2003; Diamond 2011). However, I remain optimistic about the future of fish species and fisheries because in the past we have periodically recognized the need for expanding the rights of humans and non-humans (Table 1). Table 1 in Bob Hughes' President's commentary: Natural Rights Development western culture Nonetheless, such revolutionary changes typically involve considerable disruption of the privileged and the underprivileged, as well as reversals in the original intent of the mandates because of other economic drivers (e.g., Post and Hutchings 2013).

In summary, if we are to do a better job of managing fish and fishery resources, we must do a better job of relating to the public how ethical, economic, and demographic policies affect fish, fisheries, and their environments. We now have the data and analytical expertise to begin documenting those linkages, as indicated by climate change science, for example. As with climate change science, we can also expect considerable resistance to public acceptance of those scientific linkages because they threaten the status quo—just as the expansion of natural rights did for other underprivileged entities outlined in Table 1.


Czech, B. 2013. Supply shock: economic growth at the crossroads and the steady state solution. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Diamond, J. 2011. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin, New York.

Hughes, R. M. 1997. Do we need institutional change? Pages 559–568 in D. J. Stouder, P. A. Bisson, and R. J. Naiman, editors. Pacific salmon and their ecosystems. Chapman & Hall, New York.

Hughes, R. M. 2013. Thinking and acting globally and locally. Fisheries 38:479.

Hughes, R. M., S. Dunham, K. G. Maas-Hebner, J. A. Yeakley, C. B. Schreck, M. Harte, N. Molina, C. C. Shock, and V. W. Kaczynski. 2014. A review of urban water body challenges and approaches: 2. Mitigation and research needs. Fisheries 39:30–40.

Jelks, H. L., S. J. Walsh, N. M. Burkhead, S. Contreras-Balderas, E. Díaz-Pardo, D. A. Hendrickson, J. Lyons, N. E. Mandrak, F. Mc- Cormick, J. S. Nelson, S. P. Platania, B. A. Porter, C. B. Renaud, J. J. Schmitter-Soto, E. B. Taylor, and M. L. Warren, Jr. 2008. Conservation status of imperiled North American freshwater and diadromous fishes. Fisheries 33:372–407.

Lackey, R. T., D. H. Lach, and S. L. Duncan. 2006. Policy options to reverse the decline of wild Pacific salmon. Pages 1–12 in R. T. Lackey, D. H. Lach, and S. L. Duncan, editors. Salmon 2100: the future of wild Pacific salmon. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.

Limburg, K. E., R. M. Hughes, D. C. Jackson, and B. Czech. 2011. Population increase, economic growth, and fish conservation: collision course or savvy stewardship? Fisheries 36:27–35.

Marsh, G. P. 2003. Man and nature. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Musick, J. A., M. M. Harbin, S. A. Berkeley, G. H. Burgess, A. M. Eklund, L. Findley, R. G. Gilmore, J. T. Golden, D. S. Ha, G. R. Huntsman, J. C. McGovern, S. J. Parker, S. G. Poss, E. Sala, T. W. Schmidt, G. R. Sedberry, H. Weeks, and S. G. Wright. 2000. Marine, estuarine, and diadromous fish stocks at risk of extinction in North America (exclusive of Pacific salmonids). Fisheries 25:6–30.

Nash, R. J. 1989. The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Nehlsen, W., J. E. Williams, and J. A. Lichatowich. 1991. Pacific Salmon at the crossroads: stocks at risk from California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Fisheries 16(2):4–21.

Ponting, C. 1991. A green history of the world. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Post, J. A., and J. R. Hutchings. 2013. Gutting Canada’s Fisheries Act: no fishery, no fish habitat protection. Fisheries 38:497–501.



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