The Problem Is Maximum Sustainable Yield

December 21, 2007

Contact: Christina S. Johnson,, 858-822-5334

As the saying goes, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

So, what then is the historical lesson to be learned from the collapse of the West Coast groundfish fishery?

Many would say that it was the classic example of a tragedy of the commons – too many boats chasing too many fish, a mad dash to grab as much fish as possible before somebody else does. The explanation is deeply instilled in the psyche of many resource economists, fisheries managers, fishers, biologists and environmentalists.

Carmel Finley

Carmel Finley. Credit: Robert Crum

But is it right?

Carmel Finley, a Sea Grant Trainee who earned her doctorate in history at UC San Diego studying the historical roots of American fisheries policy, says “No.”

In her recently published 500-plus-page doctoral thesis, she paints a picture of American fisheries management as being a tragedy of politics, one that was born in the 1940s and 1950s, and which has repercussions today. Exhibit A: the abysmal failure of the West Coast groundfish fishery.

“I had always been told that West Coast fishery management was some of the best in the world,” said Finley, who prior to becoming a mid-career graduate student was a freelance journalist covering environmental issues for The Oregonian newspaper and National Fisherman magazine.

“We were told our fisheries management was scientifically sound,” she said. “The plan was to fish down to MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield). The fisheries would then glide along forever there.”

That, at least, was the theory. The reality, however, was that in 1996 six stocks of West Coast groundfish collapsed. In 2000, the Secretary of Commerce declared the West Coast groundfish fishery a federal disaster.

“The collapse affected every single fishery on the West Coast,” said Finley, whose husband Carl Finley is a commercial salmon troller.

What went wrong?

After examining piles of dusty State Department records and obscure documents kept in Rome at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Finley and UC San Diego science historian Naomi Oreskes have identified what they believe has been the single most disastrous flaw in U.S. and international fisheries policy: the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield and its implicit assumption that stocks have surplus production. Substantiating this claim is the focus of Finley’s thesis. (Her thesis is available through the University of California library system.)

The U.S. High Seas Fisheries Policy, announced in 1949, established the goal of making possible “the maximum production of food from the sea on a sustained basis year after year.” “Between 1949 and 1955, the U.S. maneuvered to have MSY declared the goal of international fisheries management,” she said.

MSY was advocated, she argues, because of Cold War foreign policy objectives, not because it was scientifically tenable to identify that tightrope that is implicit in MSY doctrine.

She argues that MSY was used to further America’s “open seas open skies” agenda. America wanted to be able to send its planes and Navy anywhere in the world to prevent communism from spreading, she said. “We were concerned that restricting fishing boats in Latin America could be used as a precedent to restrict non-fishing boats off other coasts,” she said.

The international MSY treaty that was eventually adopted in 1955 gave foreign fleets the right to fish off any coast. Nations that wanted to exclude foreign boats had to first prove that its fish were overfished.

“The practical effect of MSY was that wealthy nations were able to fish unhindered off the coasts of poorer nations, taking as much fish as possible, until these countries began expanding their Exclusive Economic Zones during the 1970s,” she wrote.

The legacy of what were essentially Cold War policies is that science remains subservient to politics. “MSY froze fisheries science,” she said. The West Coast groundfish collapse is a prime example.

“The first papers on rockfish aging were published in 1979,” Finley said. “Through the 1980s, researchers were looking at West Coast rockfish and discovering that the fish were older than had been thought. The management implications were known in the early 1980s. The scientists knew the harvests were too high.”

“Why wasn’t this evolving scientific picture built into the management plan,” she said. Minutes of Pacific Fisheries Management Council meetings show that the council was aware of the aging research, but it was ignored. “Environmental groups eventually sued the council for not using the best-available science,” Finley said.

The original groundfish management plan, written in 1979, assumed that 65 percent of the groundfish stock could be harvested without a problem. “This is the problematic part of MSY,” she said. “It assumes that fish have a surplus production that can be safely harvested. The idea of surplus production was not tested before it was adopted. It should have been a scientific decision not a political one.”