ability. As a result, I believe we have slowed significantly the process of learning about the ocean, defined scientific uncertainty and precautionary acts in a way that may turn out to be highly risky, and created dysfunctional management institutions. This chapter suggests we are more likely to find ways to align individual incentives with ecosystem sustainability if we begin to view these systems as complex adaptive systems. This perspective alters especially our sense of the extent and kind of control we might exercise in these systems and, as a result, has strong implications for the kinds of individual rights and collective governance structures that might work.


When ocean fisheries management began after World War II, practical scientific and political concerns dictated a large-scale, single-species approach to management. International fisheries management institutions were given very large geographical jurisdictions, few resources, and little real governance authority. Yet they were asked to develop regimes for the conservation of ocean resources. The scientific problem these institutions and the scientists working for them confronted was extraordinarily difficult, especially given the problems and costs of observation and the relatively undeveloped state of ecological theory at that time.

Consider how one might have started, at that time, to conceptualize a complex system that can be perceived only in the most indirect, costly, and occasional way. The fisheries scientists of that time chose a reductionist approach that emphasized sophisticated mathematical modeling of individual populations. It was consistent with scientific understanding of natural systems, with their (hoped-for) ability to measure and quantify, and with the authority given to the agencies for which they were working.1 In particular, the conception was to concentrate on area- and species-specific populations (stocks) located within broadly identified fishing areas or ecosystems. The International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF), for example, broke its enormous jurisdiction into numerous smaller, but still very large, statistical areas that were thought to correspond with major ecological or fishing areas, such as, Georges Bank, the Gulf of Maine, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the Scotia Shelf, and so on. Its scientific efforts concentrated almost exclusively on the commercial species of interest to the parties of ICNAF (Halliday and Pinhorn, 1990).

From both a scientific and institutional perspective, it is difficult to argue that these early approaches were “wrong,” given the constraints and the complexity of ocean ecosystems. Nevertheless, a scientific pattern was established—a kind of intellectual path dependency that persists today.2

With the advent of extended national fisheries jurisdiction in 1977, both the United States and Canada adopted with almost no changes the single-species scientific perspective and scale of application that had developed under ICNAF.3 In

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement