In the last few decades, the diet of an average United States citizen has changed drastically. Salmon from Scotland, tuna from Hawaii, and halibut from Alaska can be found in just about any corner of the country and usually on the same menu. This change in consumption patterns has far reaching effects for the ecosystems around the world that supply these foods. The pressure of increasingly globalized food consumption, specifically of seafood, creates stress for marine ecosystems across the globe. Fisheries almost everywhere are on the path to becoming overfished, if they are not already. Almost 90% of large predator fish have vanished from the world’s oceans and only about 12% of fish populations are not experiencing one form of decline or another. This is one example among many of ecosystem collapse due to unsustainable food systems. However, policy makers and ecologists are increasingly turning to cooperative ecosystem management plans to address these issues. This form of resource management may change the way humans interact with their environments, with their food, and with each other, but is it always effective?
Ecosystem based management entails devising landscape-scale plans in collaboration with relevant stakeholders and then restructuring programs based on the results. One prime example of this sort of program is the Chesapeake Bay Program. The Chesapeake Bay area, which supplies tons of oysters, crab, fish and other seafood for human consumption, was experiencing serious decline in the 1980s. Grasses that act as nurseries for countless marine species were disappearing due to fertilizer runoff from farms, poor sewage treatment, and suburban water runoff. Overfishing was further contributing to ecosystem decline, and the health of one of the nation’s most ecologically diverse and bountiful ecosystems was at serious risk. In 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Agreement was enacted to help return the ecosystem to its former state. This regional partnership brings together states, federal agencies, academic institutions, businesses, and non-profits to address the failing health of the Chesapeake Bay. While this program experienced many hiccups initially, in 2015 the Bay Program reported its best water quality since 1985.
The failing and heavily depleted fisheries of New England underwent a similar management plan with less success, however. Foreign fisherman and improved technology that allowed for massive catches severely depleted fish stocks along the Atlantic coast by the 1970s. In 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Act created 8 regional councils that would work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create fishery management plans to reverse the damage that overfishing had done to fish populations. Sector based management was implemented and required fisherman to work together with bureaucracy to develop quotas and other tools to reduce overfishing. While some fish populations have rebounded, many more populations are still dangerously low. In fact, in the past few years, bans on fishing for cod have had to be implemented in order to preserve those that still remain.
So what makes cooperative ecosystem management successful in some places and not so successful in others? Fikret Berkes from the Canadian National Resources Institute says, “Successful co-management is a knowledge partnership. Different levels of organization have comparative advantages in the mobilization and generation of different kinds of knowledge. Bridging knowledge and bridging different levels of organizations are closely related processes.” The Chesapeake Bay Program relied on a far more varied group of stakeholders when collaborating than the New England fisheries did, which could have led to more knowledge sharing. Instead of including non-governmental organizations and academic institutions into the planning process, the New England fisheries management plans were largely confined to government and fishermen input. Furthermore, the fishermen did not trust the fishery managers or scientists supplied by the governmental agencies overseeing the program. Jennifer Behnken, from the Department of Forestry at Southern Illinois University, mentions that stakeholder capacity and motivation for collaboration is key to whether a cooperative plan will work or not. Perhaps the New England fisheries were doomed from the beginning, as trust between parties was never established.
It is evident that cooperation between multiple stakeholders can be effective in addressing large-scale environmental issues. These sorts of issues are transnational and intimidating, so cooperation is a necessary piece of any solution. However, as we have seen, there are right ways to encourage stakeholder participation and cooperation as well as wrong ways. Establishing trust and transparency is key from the very beginning of any joint venture. Furthermore, inviting a wide array of organizations and people to the table is necessary to fully capture the available knowledge to create the best solutions. Ecosystem management cooperatives can change the dynamic of our food system by encouraging solidarity between government, farmers, and consumers. However, implementation must be thoroughly discussed and cooperation needs to be honest and legitimate.