Past decisions in seafood management portend future actions, Rutgers study finds

A study led by Rutgers University has shown that the choice to conserve or overharvest renewable resources such as fish is often due to habits and past decisions, which could help fisheries discover why some succeed at conservation and others fail. 

The study, "Path-dependent institutions drive alternative stable states in conservation," was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that conservation is significantly easier to continue once it has already been started. 

According to lead author Edward W. Tekwa, those who start conserving can often continue with it, but when conservation is not being practiced, the opposite is true. 

“We found that people often get trapped by their past decisions,” Tekwa said. “If they start out overharvesting, they tend to continue overharvesting. But once people start conserving, this behavior is also self-perpetuating and gets amplified. Policies change slowly.”

The study featured models built by scientists from Rutgers, as well as Princeton University and Yale University, which explains global fishery decision patterns better than any theories that have preceded it.  

The scientists used data that included maximum sustainable yield and harvest rate data for 217 fisheries, managed by almost two dozen national and international institutions from 1961 to 2009. The fishes harvested by these groups make up the majority of the developed world’s catch. 

The study found that 35 fisheries were strongly affected by histories of conservation or overfishing and only one of them transitioned (the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as the Chilean sea bass) from overharvesting to conservation.

Photo courtesy of NOAA


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