Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Sea Changes in Marine Fisheries Policy

Bonnie J. McCay


A sea change refers to a slowly developed, barely visible change with some profound consequences. Among such changes I see in marine fisheries policy are

• increased attention to the conservation of biodiversity and ecological health in marine systems;
• recognition of the importance of human communities, in terms of their dependence on marine systems, the impact of their activities on those systems, and their roles in managing and restoring the values of marine systems;
• a trend toward reliance on market-based allocation of fishing rights, as in individual transferable quotas (ITQs) and private leaseholds and concessions; and
• a humbler role for science, given high levels of uncertainty and variability.

I suggest that these changes are reflected in the new paradigm of “ecosystem management” and that ecosystem management involves a different conception of science than in the past. Some people use the term postnormal for what I have in mind (Tognetti 1999); postmodern is another term that fits (McCay 2000a). In addition, although ecosystem would seem to focus solely on biophysical dimensions, in practice, ecosystem management reflects a much stronger emphasis on the social and economic dimensions of fisheries than in traditional fisheries management.

First, I outline some of the sea changes in marine policy (McCay 2000b, 2001a; Table 1) from the perspective of social science contributions. Then, I compare “traditional” with “ecosystem” management to indicate the interconnections among many of these changes and the possibility that fisheries science and policy is on the verge of a major change.

Social scientists and the messages of their work have influenced marine fisheries policy in several ways (McCay 2000b). One is the emphasis on the democratization of policy processes, giving greater voice to fishers and to members of fishery-dependent communities (McCay and Jentoft 1998), including an effort to provide a manual to help people participate in management policy (McCay and Creed 1999).

The second is a stronger emphasis on community-level impacts, at least in the United States. In 1996, the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was amended to include a requirement that the needs of fishery-dependent communities be taken into account when devising management plans. This stipulation, combined with a surge of judicial activism, has given greater force to efforts by anthropologists and other social scientists to make social impact assessment a meaningful part of management planning. Signs of this sea change were evident in 1995, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (an interstate agency) created a committee that has worked toward improving the collection of social and economic data, and in 1998, when the New England Fishery Management Council created the Social Science Advisory Committee to improve its ability to provide social and economic impact assessments. Slower in coming, but within sight, is improved incorporation of related issues such as gender in impact assessment, given the often-slighted roles of women as fishers, fish processors, marketers, and wives and kin left to worry as direct links to the community.