Two recently released studies offer new insight into the problem of harvesting wildlife, and perhaps even a solution.
This story originally appeared on EarthTrends.
Capturing and eating fish and rainforest wildlife, including large primates, for human sustenance has been practiced for generations. Bushmeat can include any non-domesticated animal harvested for food such as wild pig, deer, snake, turtle, elephant, gorilla or other primates.
However, as human populations have grown and demand for these resources has increased, species in coral reefs and tropical rainforests–the most diverse ecosystem types on the planet–have been put in jeopardy.
Though both ailing fisheries and dwindling wildlife populations have received much attention and attempted remediation, these problems have been difficult to tackle because of competing interests among conservationists and fishermen/hunters who base their livelihood on harvesting wildlife.
The first new report, released by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), found that harvested tropical wildlife, referred to as ‘bushmeat,’ is a major protein source for forest communities in developing countries in central Africa. As a result of these findings, the report discourages placing a total ban on bushmeat to protect wild populations. Rather, it is suggested that wildlife should be managed as a renewable resource with individual rights to use, similarly to catch shares in the fishing industry.
The second report, published in Science days after the CIFOR report was released, affirms that the use of catch shares is a successful wildlife management tool. The Science report found that catch shares, which give fishermen a financial stake in the health of fish populations, can stop and even reverse the decline and predicted collapse of fisheries.
Often referred to as the ‘cap and trade’ of fisheries, the system of catch shares—also known as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ’s)—allocates individual fishing quotas or shares to fishermen that add up to the overall catch quota for an entire fishery. If a fisherman’s total catch for the season is below his quota, he may decide to sell his additional catch shares to other fishermen. The overall quota each season is determined by the government and is based on scientific assessment of the health of fish populations.
Using this system, fishermen become financial stakeholders in the long-term health of the fishery because their share of the season’s catch will proportionally increase as the fish population grows and the overall fishing quota for their fishery increases.
Implementation of catch shares has been particularly effective in the Alaskan halibut fishery. When the catch share program was put in place in 1995, the halibut fishing season had been decreased to only a few days due to the poor health of halibut populations. During the few days of open season, fishermen would race, often in unsafe weather conditions, to maximize their catch. When halibut reached the docks, the market for these fish became flooded and halibut prices would crash.
Today, more than 10 years after the implementation of catch shares, the Alaskan halibut fishing season lasts as long as eight months which allows fish to be sold at more stable prices. Other changes in this fishery include larger fish being caught, a seventy percent decrease in search-and-rescue missions, and a fifteen percent decrease in deaths of fishermen.
While the new Science study demonstrates the success of catch share programs over a broad range of troubled fisheries, some scientists have stated that catch share programs may not always suffice; total fishing bans will be necessary in some locations for the most devastated populations to recover. Additionally, fishermen have voiced concern over the possible domination of a fishery by a wealthy shareholder, and the problem of enforcement.
An ITQ system has been suggested to improve wildlife conservation in central Africa and allow for the sustenance of forest communities. The CIFOR study reports that between thirty and eighty percent of protein in local diets is supplied by bushmeat, and that four of the five central African countries examined in the study don’t produce enough non-bushmeat protein to feed their populations. Since developing countries in central Africa are already home to some of the most undernourished populations in the world (see Figure 1), extinction of bushmeat wildlife or hunting bans would only increase food scarcity and undernourishment in these areas.
Figure 1: Percentage of Population that is Undernourished
This grave conflict between disappearing wildlife and human needs demonstrates that ecological sustainability is not a one dimensional concept, but is complicated by economic and social factors. A system similar to catch shares in the fishing sector may offer a solution to the bushmeat crisis, as it was designed to improve the livelihood of fishermen in addition to maintaining the health of wildlife populations.
However, establishing an ITQ system for effective wildlife management in central Africa is no simple endeavor because of several important differences between the fishing sector and bushmeat hunting in central Africa. One major difference is that governing capacity in central African countries such as Cameroon, the Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo is significantly different from that of the United States, Australia and New Zealand where most ITQ fishery programs have been established. Local governments, in particular, in central Africa may not have the means or credibility to establish and enforce quotas.
Additionally, the potential problem of domination of the bushmeat market by one wealthy shareholder is exacerbated in small central African countries where there exists massive disparity between rich and poor. One wealthy share-holder, for instance, has the ability to corrupt the ITQ system by buying up all the shares and monopolizing rights to wildlife which were once common property. Finally, though catch share programs have been proven effective in the fisheries sector, a regulation that is successful for governing the occupational behavior of fishermen may not necessarily be as effective at regulating the amount of bushmeat harvested by a hunter to protect his family’s health and stave off starvation.
The crucial differences between fisheries and bushmeat should be carefully considered in order for an ITQ system in central Africa to attempt to achieve the kind of success this management scheme has seen in Alaskan fisheries.