Is Maximum Sustainable Yield a Tool of Science or of Diplomacy?

9780226249667For the world’s fish populations, the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) has stood for years as a working blend of economic goals and conservation principles. The word “sustainable” lends it a particular respectability in our environmental age. It purports to answer the burning question about how many fish can reasonably be taken from the sea when their numbers are dwindling and many vessels, from many different nations, all want a piece of the action. MSY suggests that scientists possess the expertise to predict the largest catch that can be taken from a species’ total stock without threatening its survival.

Despite this so-called “sustainable” practice, there have been numerous crashes in marine life populations. Many scientists have criticized MSY for providing an unrealistic view, not taking into account important variables in fisheries management. Yet the concept continues to stand at the core of contemporary American management practices.

In All the Fish in the SeaCarmel Finley is unambiguous: Maximum Sustainable Yield is policy, masked as science. It dovetailed extremely well with the goals of the United States Department of State in the aftermath of the Second World War, as American fishing interests tried to find a scientific basis for extending their dominance in waters all over the world. Using MSY as a guide, they were able to justify fishing far in excess of what some scientists recommended and what many other states wished.

Our first commentator is Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, the Dunlevie Family Chair of History at Rice University . Like Finley, she has explored the connections between fisheries and the history of international affairs, specifically in the Pacific Region. In her book Creating People of Plenty, Guthrie-Shimizu examined trade policy in the immediate postwar period to demonstrate how the United States sought to turn Japan not only into a Cold War ally, but a nation whose economic foundations were distinctly pro-capitalist.[1]

Arthur F. McEvoy, the Paul E. Treusch Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School, is well-known to environmental historians of the oceans because of his 1986 book The Fisherman’s Problem. While studying Californian fisheries, McEvoy told a tale of repeated failures of public agencies to take useful steps to stop the depletion of fish. His analysis focused on the interplay between ecology, economics, and the law. Like Finley, he saw serious flaws with the concept of MSY, particularly because it rested on the assumption that stocks of fish existed in isolation from their environments, with little thought devoted to more complex ecological relationships.[2]

Bo Poulsen is Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark. He brings to this roundtable not only a European perspective but also expertise on fisheries politics in the North Atlantic. As an environmental historian, Poulsen has used historical scientific data to investigate how changes to the natural environment may have influenced fish in the distant past, particularly North Sea herring stocks in the early modern era.[3]

Our final commentator, Michael J. Chiarrapa, is Associate Professor of History at Quinnipiac University. Much of his work blends marine environmental history with architectural history. He has pointed out that fisheries architecture and fisheries landscapes deserve greater scrutiny by scholars, because of what they reveal about cultural values. In a recent essay in Environmental History, for example, he called upon historians to integrate buildings, boats, and other fisheries infrastructure more substantially into their work, because these are spaces at the threshold of the land-water continuum where discourse about nature is created.[4]

The full roundtable is available here.

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

[1] Sayuri Shimizu, Creating People of Plenty: The United States and Japan’s Economic Alternatives, 1950-1960 (Kent State University Press, 2001).

[2] Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980 (Cambridge, 1986).

[3] Bo Poulsen, Dutch Herring: An Environmental History, c. 1600-1860 (Amsterdam University Press, 2008).

[4] Michael J. Chiarappa, “Dockside Landings and Threshold Spaces: Reckoning Architecture’s Place in Marine Environmental History,” Environmental History 18:1 (2013), 12-28.