What Trump Can Learn From the Canadian Cod

(Bloomberg View) -- How can governments responsibly balance the interests of industry and the environment? For at least part of the answer, it's worth considering the case of the Canadian cod.

Just a couple decades ago, the Northern Cod population of Newfoundland and Labrador appeared to be on the brink of vanishing. Overfishing had brought it to less than 1 percent of historical levels, leaving roughly 40,000 fishermen out of work in the process. To at least mitigate the ecological disaster, the Canadian government banned large-scale commercial cod fishing in the region.

Now the cod is coming back. Although it remains well below the historical norm, measured biomass has increased more than tenfold over the past decade. The fish has proven much more capable of recovering than anyone thought just a decade ago, when some experts were predicting that essentially all major marine fisheries could soon be exploited into extinction.

This has naturally raised the issue of whether Canada can once again allow commercial cod fishing. To that end, the government recently accepted a proposal from the industry -- and from the aligned Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union -- to allow smaller operators access to an expanded area of waters for a longer period of time.

The arguments in favor are plausible. The FFAW says its aim isn't a return to heavy industrial offshore fishing. Rather, it wants a smarter and more sustainable industry focused on quality, not quantity. The proposal envisions a gradual, incremental increase in fishing that would allow scientists to monitor the population along the way and spot any trouble before it got out of hand.

Still, there's ample reason for concern. One leading expert on the cod population, biologist Sherrylynn Rowe of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, says that the new management plan will “take too much, too fast.” She estimates that the population would have to be five times larger to be resilient to fishing and other environmental shocks. In a recent scientific article, she and colleague George Rose also reported evidence that the cod resurgence may have recently stalled.

One big problem is that scientists don’t know enough about fisheries -- or marine ecology in general -- to be certain that they can support, in a safe way, precision harvesting from such a vulnerable population. Population dynamics within such a complex food web are highly unpredictable, depending on things ranging from climate variations to phytoplankton blooms influencing the cod's prey. Overconfidence in the possibilities of close management played a major role in the cod's collapse in the first place. For these and other reasons, I think it’s still too dangerous to expand cod fishing. It risks setting back recovery of both the fish and the industry.

That said, I'm impressed by the way the Canadian debate has developed. Both sides are following the best available science in making their arguments. Both sides appear to be genuinely trying to find the best way to balance the interests of commerce and the environment, rather than pursuing their own interests at any expense. This is the way negotiation is supposed to happen.

Moreover, the current policy -- called a stewardship fishery -- has indefinite duration, recognizing that the stock still needs close monitoring and time to grow. All parties accept that only detailed annual surveys of the population -- looking at overall numbers, the structure by age and the fraction able to spawn -- can provide any real confidence concerning its health.

The Canadian approach contrasts sharply with the situation in the U.S., where the administration of President Donald Trump has chosen to ignore science on everything from coal mining to climate change, and where many executives still believe -- despite abundant evidence to the contrary -- that their single goal should be to maximize profits, whatever the longer-term consequences. If only they heeded the lesson of the Canadian cod, we would all be better off.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."

To contact the author of this story: Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com.

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