12 November 2018

“Sufficiency” Economics – Could it work for West Cork?

During the 30 years since his death I can honestly say there are few days when I have not thought about my father, Pa as we all called him. Such was his legacy that most of my achievements in life result from his influence and guidance. A successful man by many standards who enjoyed a long and happy marriage, he managed to raise a family through the inflation ridden 70’s and was a gifted and practical man with his hands. In business however, he was considered a failure. Not because of dissatisfied customers, a poor work ethic or a discontented workforce. No, ahead of his time, he committed the cardinal business sin of being a dedicated exponent of “low growth economics” or as he often called it “sufficient growth economics”. In the face of abject criticism he rarely swayed from his firmly held beliefs on environmentally sustainable economics; important issues he believed were society’s obligation to future generations.

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As a teenager, focusing more on girls than Gross Domestic Product, Pa described to me how growth in Gross World Product was unsustainable year on year and could not continue unchecked without catastrophic environmental and social cost. Now, as I read reports of how key countries are wrestling with devastating environmental decline and poverty fuelled by an unsustainable economic growth model, his words echo across the decades like a biblical prophet.

As we collectively enjoy the outwardly pristine environmental beauty of our West Cork paradise, whether born here or drawn here, we could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing that our dominant, consumerist, unsustainable economic growth model is in a state of crisis. A crisis that if unchecked may negatively impact the regional economy of West Cork through environmental degradation, reduced tourism revenues, unemployment and lower quality of life. We should never try to view environmental or economic issues in isolation but at significant risk from this unsustainable economics model is one of our most vulnerable and unique ecosystems, the West Cork marine environment.

As one of the most precious elements of our cherished maritime heritage it is now under enormous threat from damaging and unsustainable fishing practices. Now our beleaguered fishermen have received their fair share of negative press but ongoing lasting marine conservation is not about apportioning blame. The brave men who take to our frequently inhospitable seas in order to supply West Cork and other national and international markets with seafood, are no more culpable than the politicians, bureaucrats, fisheries scientists, retail outlets and consumers that fuel an expanding demand for fish – all within an unsustainable economic model that exploits a renewable resource that is being consumed faster than it can regenerate. We collectively need to shoulder the responsibility for an array of ineffectual and sometimes damaging fisheries management strategies, inconclusive science that has lacked conviction, a continual drive to reduce on-the-shelf prices and a lack of willingness to acknowledge, not only the material price but also the environmental and social cost of putting fish on our plates.

Irish fisheries scientists have estimated that many, if not all of the species targeted by West Cork and other Irish fishing fleets are seriously over fished and therefore at risk. Over the last 35 years increasing sophistication in acoustic and navigation technology have resulted in more boats taking more fish over a wider area. As stocks have become depleted boats have exploited new ecosystems, the most notable of these are the vulnerable seamounts, fragile marine ecosystems that many believe will never recover from current fishing pressure. We may reasonably enquire of our fisheries managers how we have reached the point where many of the once vast fish stocks that sustained our forebears have been reduced, in just a few short decades, not just to commercial non-viability but in many cases to population levels where there is serious concern for species recovery.

To be fair to our fisheries managers, gathering accurate information on the population dynamics of any fish species is difficult. Much of the information they rely on comes from scientists using stock assessments based on biological sampling and total catch volumes. Accurate estimates of total catch numbers have been affected by under reporting of catch sizes and the obscenity of bycatch – the incidental catching of non target species that are thrown back into the sea dead. Conservative estimates are that bycatch amounts to a stunning 25% of the total catch volume. This has lead to uncertainty in stock estimates and antagonism and mistrust between the fishing fleets and fisheries management officials.

In defense of our fishermen, who have been subjected to national mesh size controls, species quotas, the total annual catch limits of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and more latterly the European Union’s fleet contraction initiatives, they now view the fisheries management procedures over the last few decades as having largely failed. Commercial fish stocks continue to decline with knock on effects on those species further down and further up the food chain. The great irony is that unfettered marine environmental degradation will further negatively impact our already hard pressed local fishing economies to a point where the eternal striving to make a living from fishing, based on current unsustainable competition based economic models, will likely accelerate environmental deterioration in a difficult to break downward spiral.

Moving forward fishermen need and deserve our support and encouragement to see themselves increasingly as stakeholders in the marine environment. Joint custodians with the consumer, who acknowledge conservation at the ecosystem level and learn to accept sustainable exploitation at levels far below those of today. Politicians need to appreciate that the voting public requires long-term policies that support and complement our collective responsibility to the marine environment; policies that reflect the economic and social importance of sustainable fisheries resource use. Fisheries science, with all its limitations, needs to carry more weight with recommendations and subsequent decisions erring on the side of caution and sustainability. Retail outlets should slow the drive to supply the best quality at the cheapest price and consumers need to be prepared to pay a price for fresh fish, which includes the full cost of environmental protection within a “sufficient” economic growth model.

Some governments, like Thailand, are already exploring a move away from a conventional growth economy. They are investigating the viability of what they call a “sufficiency economy” where the focus is towards targeted growth through poverty reduction, monetary self-reliance and most importantly conservation of renewable resources, especially their marine resources.

We in West Cork may need to acknowledge that not all growth is good and that it frequently has a detrimental effect on the marine ecological systems on which our local economies and social well being depend so greatly. If more countries embraced the “sufficiency” economic model we might see a move away from the unsustainable and outdated belief that economic growth can be measured by infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. Left unchecked and fueled by wider environmental issues such as climate change and sea level rise we could see Ireland’s economic growth plummet catastrophically. Without doubt we risk a significant economic decline if unsustainable fisheries resource use is not addressed and reversed.

Were he alive today Pa would be both elated and subdued. Subdued because global estimates put two thirds of marine species in the category “depleted” or “at risk”. Elated because his belief in “sufficient growth economics” have finally come of age.


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