Human factors top fisheries risk list

Rapidly changing cultural values have emerged as a high risk for the future of the fishing industry, not so much for the fish, says Western Australia’s Rick Fletcher

Photo of Rick Fletcher Rick Fletcher: helping new research staff to develop their own scientific skills, and especially their ability to translate research results into sound advice for management, is very satisfying.

By Catherine Norwood

Fisheries management is not as much about fish as it is about people, says Rick Fletcher, research leader for the Western Australian Department of Fisheries. And while good data supports better decisions, it is the governance systems – managing the way people behave – that make or break the sustainability of a fishery.

Governance has been an ongoing theme in Rick Fletcher’s career, from his first project assessing coconut crab stocks in Vanuatu, to recent risk-management workshops in developing countries as part of his work with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Risk management is an approach he helped to pioneer in fisheries management in the early 2000s, following the introduction of Australia’s landmark Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

“The government signed off on the Act, and we had to come up with a practical way to implement it. That’s when we first started working with risk-assessment techniques, as a way to implement ‘ecologically sustainable development’,” he says.

“It represented a significantly different approach to fisheries management – looking at all the things that might be directly or indirectly affected by a fishery, not just the target species. And then assessing whether those impacts were likely to be acceptable or unacceptable.”

As leader of the FRDC’s ecologically sustainable development research subprogram for more than a decade, Rick Fletcher has helped to embed these principles into fisheries research.

What risk is that?

Initially most of the risks are related to environmental and biological factors, such as the effect of different fishing methods on habitats or the impact on bycatch species from specific fisheries.

Rick Fletcher says when a risk has an ecological basis it is possible to come up with reasonably consistent views or standards of acceptable impact that are based on the inherent vulnerability of the stock or habitat and the management controls being applied.

“Prawns, for instance, are highly fecund, broadcast spawners whose population rebuilds annually. From a biological risk perspective, you can harvest a relatively high percentage of the spawning stock each year and this could still be considered acceptable,” he says.

“But to harvest the same high percentage of a long-lived species that produces only a few offspring each year would generate an unacceptably high risk to the species.”

However, risk-management decisions now take greater account of social and cultural values, and these sometimes change more rapidly than the fishing industry can respond.

“In Western Australia, whales occasionally get entangled in lobster pot ropes,” Rick Fletcher says. “From an ecological perspective, this has a negligible impact on whale stocks. But, from a public perception standpoint, it is a major issue. For some people, even the capture of a single whale is unacceptable."

“Therefore, what we are often dealing with now are moral or social objectives, not just environmental or biological objectives. And this is harder, because there are no absolutes; values can change."

“What was acceptable 20 years ago from a social perspective is not acceptable any more, and that is hard for industry to effectively deal with, because there is often no biological-science-based solution.”

Make a start

He says this is also why an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management that explicitly takes human considerations into account when assessing risks is so crucial.

Working with the FAO, he has helped to develop a web-based toolkit that any fisheries manager can use to assist in the implementation of an ecosystem-based approach in any situation – from a two-person fishery on a remote island, to the largest fishery in the world.

He says when it comes to assessing risks and setting priorities, it does not matter whether that just involves shuffling sticky notes around on a wall or using complex modelling. The important thing is to start, and not to wait for ‘more data’ before beginning the process.

“In most cases you know when there’s a problem in a fishery,” he says. “More data may tell you more precisely how much of a problem you have, but this alone won’t help you fix it.

“The ecosystem-based approach tries to identify the real risks. In most cases when I’ve done workshops in developing countries, the highest risks they identify are in the governance area. Not the lack of information or risks to the environment; it mostly comes from their lack of systems and capacity to manage effectively.”

This latest work with developing nations brings his career almost full circle. His first position after completing his PhD was with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) on the remote islands of northern Vanuatu.

Counting coconut crabs

The initial focus of the ACIAR project was to assess stocks of coconut crabs, with the aim of designing a management strategy to ensure their sustainable harvest. In the Pacific, Vanuatu was one of the few places where there were significant populations of reasonable-sized crabs. In most other places they had already been fished to low levels.  

In the 1980s, coconut crabs were one of the few cash crops available in the more remote regions of Vanuatu. These large nocturnal land crabs can grow up to five kilograms and crack open coconuts with their claws and were considered a unique culinary delicacy at restaurants in Port Vila.

Rick Fletcher says the challenges included learning to speak Bislama (pidgin English) to communicate, hard physical work (often at night) and irregular transport to the remote field locations, which sometimes led to limited access to food and water. He had to learn how different cultures affected decision-making, and how to work with the local people to come up with practical management systems.

“Every village has a chief, and you have to get permission from the chief, and also from the people on whose land you were going to sample the crabs."

“The advantage was that because there are multiple small islands, and each island has its own governance structure you could deal with each one independently. But, if the chief didn’t agree, it didn’t happen.”

By determining the growth rate of the crabs and developing simple techniques to evaluate local crab populations, he was able to come up with effective management regimes that still operate in some of the northern islands.

Originally from Melbourne, Rick Fletcher completed his Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne. As a keen diver he was initially drawn to underwater research. But after diving three days a week in Port Phillip Bay during winter as part of his honours research project, in water of 10ºC, diving lost its appeal.

Research legacy

At the University of Sydney he studied the impact of sea urchins on sub-tidal algal and limpet communities in New South Wales for his PhD thesis supervised by Tony Underwood, who has had a lasting influence. “He was a pioneering marine ecologist who introduced proper experimental design to Australian marine science, which is a major legacy,” Rick Fletcher says.

It is from this perspective that he sees ensuring scientific objectivity as one of the greatest challenges for the future of fisheries, and for science generally. “We need to reverse the apparent trend for science to be more focused on proving hypotheses rather than testing them. Science only advances by being sceptical, not by being an advocate.”

After the ACIAR project he joined the Western Australian Department of Fisheries for the first time. Using innovative egg-based methods, he established the levels of biomass for pelagic fish stocks such as sardines and whitebait across the south-west regions of WA. In 1996 he moved to the NSW Department of Primary Industries as director of fisheries research.

“This gave me an opportunity to work on a larger number of issues and to assist in developing department-wide initiatives rather than just focusing on one particular science area,” he says. “I like to work with others to establish practical systems that can then be ‘handed over’ for implementation. Helping new research staff to develop their own scientific skills, and especially their ability to translate research results into sound advice for management, is very satisfying.”

After five years in NSW he returned to WA, first in a policy role and, in 2005, as director of fisheries research. He also continues to lead the refinement of risk assessment and ecosystem-based management strategies.

“In WA we not only undertake assessments of individual fisheries but we now look collectively at the overall impact of all fishing within each of our ‘bioregions’. We use the regional-level ecological, social and economic risks associated with the 80 ‘ecological assets’ identified across WA’s 13,000-kilometre coastline as the basis for determining departmental priorities.”

Public perceptions

Rick Fletcher says managing public perceptions will be a major ongoing challenge for the fishing industry and the government in general.

“There is a rising, but ultimately unrealistic, expectation in the community that all activities, and especially those like fishing, should generate no impacts. I think this is coming from the increasing disconnect for most of the population with how activities such as fishing and food production in general actually work.

“This is combined with the media’s prevalence to sensationalise and generalise specific extreme events and infer they are widespread. So with only reports of the fisheries that have collapsed around the world, the public assumes this is happening, or will happen, in Australia.

“The scare tactics often used in access allocation debates between fishing and other non-fishing sectors, but also between different fishing sectors, are also part of the problem. It is much easier to sell a fear to the public than to sell an assurance.”

It is these issues Rick Fletcher highlights as high priorities to deal with for the future – they have nothing directly to do with the fish or the biological sustainability of fisheries. They’re all about the way people behave. 


Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD)

includes ecological, economic, social and governance components, and expands fisheries reporting beyond the traditional focus on specific species fished. ESD is now accepted as the foundation for natural resource management in Australia.

More information

Fisheries ESD


More information

Rick Fletcher, rick.fletcher@fish.wa.gov.au