Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: Managed Annihilation, An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse

On July 2, 1992 the Canadian government closed the northern Cod fishery to commercial fishing, putting 30,000 people out of work and signaling the end to what had been for 500 years the world's most productive fishery. By 2003, following more than a decade of rotating moratoria and other attempts to resuscitate the fishery, the spawning stock biomass was less than 1% of its historical level. Atlantic cod were placed on the Canadian endangered species list, shifting the specter of concern from commercial extinction to biological extinction.

In 2006 an article,Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services, appeared in Science suggesting that 30% of fish species had already collapsed and the remaining species of ocean fish would suffer a similar fate by 2050 (see chart at left). Studies of the Atlantic cod collapse identified a wide variety of causal factors, some of which were generic and potentially responsible for the collapse of other fish species (the logic of industrial capitalism, foreign fishing ships, greed, technology, incompetence), while other accounts adduced factors unique to the particular situation (the combination of merchant capital and location, Canada's failure to exert political control over the entire continental shelf, unusually cold water resulting from the North Atlantic Oscillation).

One group who appear in many accounts are the fishery scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the individuals charged with calculating the Total Allowable Catch used to define the size of the annual catch and aimed at managing the fish stock for perpetuity. As someone who has studied the estimates of another unseen resource (undiscovered oil), I'm particularly fascinated by this and highly recommend Chris Finlayson's excellent analysis of DFO fish stock assessments, Fishing for Truth.

But, while lots of people have dumped on the management practices leading up to the collapse, relatively little has been published about the practices of the past 18 years. That is, until the publication of Dean Bavington's Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse.

Bavington's account is heavily informed by concepts taken from the work of Holling and other members of the Resilience Alliance, particularly the critique of command and control natural resource management and the concept of socio-ecological systems. However, Bavington is an environmental historian while the major conceptual roots of resilience thinking come from ecological science. Thus, while both groups have a similar view of traditional natural resource management, the systems they would replace it with are markedly different.

Garry Peterson, from the Resilience Science blog, has provided the following description of adaptive management from a resilience perspective. (An listing of relevant resources can be found here.)
Adaptive management seeks to aggressively use management intervention as a tool to strategically probe the functioning of an ecosystem. Interventions are designed to test key hypotheses about the functioning of the ecosystem. This approach is very different from a typical management approach of 'informed trial-and-error' which uses the best available knowledge to generate a risk-averse, 'best guess' management strategy, which is then changed as new information modifies the 'best guess'. Adaptive management identifies uncertainties, and then establishes methodologies to test hypothese concerning those uncertainties. It uses management as a tool not only to change the system, but as a tool to learn about the system. It is concerned with the need to learn and the cost of ignorance, while traditional management is focused on the need to preserve and the cost of knowledge.

There are several processes both scientific and social which are vital components of adaptive management:

1. management is linked to appropriate temporal and spatial scales
2. management retains a focus on statistical power and controls
3. use of computer models to build synthesis and an embodied ecological consensus
4. use embodied ecological consensus to evaluate strategic alternatives
5. communicate alternatives to political arena for negotiation of a selection

The achievement of these objectives requires an open management process which seeks to include past, present and future stakeholders. Adaptive management needs to at least maintain political openness, but usually it needs to create it. Consequently, adaptive management must be a social as well as scientific process. It must focus on the development of new institutions and institutional strategies just as much as it must focus upon scientific hypotheses and experimental frameworks. Adaptive management attempts to use a scientific approach, accompanied by collegial hypotheses testing to build understanding, but this process also aims to enhance institutional flexibility and encourage the formation of the new institutions that are required to use this understanding on a day-to-day basis.

In contrast, Bavington argues for a total rejection of the managerial impulse and its replacement with a new philosophy aimed at living within the limits of existing ecosystems. Bavington's argument is nicely summarized by Graham Wynn in the book's preface:
... the book argues that when this untoward (albeit unintended) outcome became clear, in 1992, neither politicians nor fisheries scientists questioned the fundamental tenets of the managerialist impulse that had brought them to this point. Instead, they simply ushered in a new phase of managerial ecology, emphasizing risk and uncertainty in place of “the confident forecasting and control-oriented approach associated with [earlier] single-species scientific management” (p. 83).

According to Bavington’s thought-provoking account, for the last two decades, fisheries managers and the governments they represent have been abandoning their former roles as researchers and regulators seeking to ensure stability in the fishery in favour of encouraging fishermen to manage themselves. To this end, they have considered two substantially different approaches.17 Turning away, in one direction, from what have come to be regarded as the industrial, capitalist, state-led, and abstractly scientific shortcomings of earlier forms of management, they have acknowledged the value of Local Ecological Knowledge (without denying the worth of formal scientific understanding), recognized the importance of the fishing economy to the (generally small and scattered) places in which fishing families live, and envisaged the possibilities of effective community stewardship. Communitarian at its base, this approach seeks to empower local people and to reduce the socioeconomic inequities that are said to have resulted from the former management regime. Much discussed, it has not been widely implemented.

More effective, as an action strategy, at least, has been a second approach that (in Bavington’s words [p. 9]) seeks to achieve “‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ through the self-organizing disciplinary power of the market’s invisible hand.” In pursuing this option, fisheries scientists and managers have discarded their conviction “that the conditions for manageability exist in the nature of cod and fishing people as natural laws passively awaiting discovery” (p. 114) and have re-envisaged managerialism “as a condition that must be actively engineered into the very nature of cod and fishing people” (p. 114). To put Bavington’s point bluntly, fisheries managers turned from attempting to manage wild fish to domesticating fish and managing fishermen. As a corollary, fishermen are encouraged to “act more like corporate ranchers and farmers than hunters” (p. 89). Rather than pursuing wild fish in the depths of the untamed ocean, they are now expected to become careful harvesters of marine biomass (or fish conceptualized as living property even before they are caught [p. 11]) from a sea that is ever more like the land – enclosed, owned, and fenced about with laws and limits. Conveniently, these strategies proved entirely congruent with prevailing neoliberal economic doctrines emphasizing the challenges of complexity, conflict, and uncertainty in economic systems: “As centralized, state-led command and control, bureaucratic rule-following, and proceduralism ... [fell from] favour, flexibility, coping, experimentation, and learning ... [rose] to take their place” (p. 107).

In practice, the line between these seemingly discrete courses of action has blurred. As Bavington notes, “participatory management under neoliberal influence has stressed the importance of using local ecological knowledge and achieving ‘buy-in’ from resource users to achieve consensus, avoid conflict, and permit ongoing economic growth” (p. 107). More to the point, however, is Bavington’s view that neither of these strategies, the communitarian or the neoliberal approach, is truly a significant step forward, because neither questions the ultimate “need for, or the usefulness of, management” (p. 10). And this is the crux of the matter. Managed Annihilation argues that both the colossal failure of natural resources management that became evident in 1992 and subsequent efforts to manage the fishery hold wider lessons for people too much given to framing the world as a set of problems that they have the capacity to fix. Managed Annihilation pleads for renunciation of “the holy grail of manageability,” the belief that all problems (including environmental ones) can be solved merely by exerting more effort, and obtaining greater efficiency, within the status quo order of advanced industrial societies. In the end, this book urges a new view of human-environment relations, one that would replace Western society’s long-standing drive to manage nature with a commitment to living within the limits of the ecosystems of which we are part.


  1. Thank you very much for this information. is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.

  2. Great post. I read it twice. If you read it closely and think about it makes a lot of sense.