A significant shortcoming of most existing approaches to sustainable fisheries management is the narrow definition of sustainability. Although in theory sustainability should include social, cultural, institutional, and ethical dimensions of fisheries, too often the scope of sustainability in fisheries is limited to a small set of biological and economic considerations (Stephenson et al. 2018, also see Barnett 2018, Foley et al. 2018). This is true in spite of more than 40 years of practical and academic work on integrated systems of management in fisheries (see Charles 2001 for a comprehensive overview of systems approaches to fisheries). For more than two decades, the promise of a more holistic and full spectrum treatment of fisheries systems—consisting not just of fish, fishermen, and managers, but also fishing communities, ecosystems, governance institutions, markets, social networks, and belief systems—has remained unfulfilled. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September 2015, demonstrate the overwhelming emphasis placed on the environment when considering the ocean and fisheries (UN 2015). The SDG goals, of which there are 17, cover a wide range of issues including health and well-being, poverty, decent work, and inequalities. SDG 14 is specific to the oceans and includes seven targets of which six are primarily concerned with conservation issues. Although the SDGs are meant to be implemented together, this has not prevented the consideration of oceans through SDG 14 in isolation from the broader social, economic, and institutional lens offered by the full suite of SDGs (see Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert 2015 as an example).
Although these failures can be reasonably attributed to the challenges in integrating across a wide array of considerations, there are practical reasons to support a genuinely comprehensive and full spectrum approach to sustainability in fisheries. The current context of climate change, increasing environmental uncertainty due to anthropogenic activities, and stronger societal values related to conservation, coupled with widely held expectations for sustained economic growth and equitable treatment, places enormous pressures on fisheries managers to demonstrate to a wide range of interested parties that they are following sustainable practices. A narrow definition of sustainability that focuses on abundance of single species that are of economic interest fails to satisfy the concerns of environmental activists, indigenous rights-holders, fishing communities, and recreational and commercial fishers. It is in the interest of fisheries managers to adopt a broader and more fully realized approach to sustainability and, perhaps more importantly, it is vital that there be wide recognition and acceptance that adopting a more complete approach to sustainability is a priority within the management system.
Indicator-based frameworks are a tool that, if used appropriately, can support management in the progression toward sustainable fisheries. A framework with indicators consists of two main components: a structure that defines the categories of interest, for instance, habitat, or economic impacts, accompanied by a list of indicators, e.g., annual landings in tonnes of a particular fish species, that can be used to help evaluate what is occurring within a category. The framework itself can be a single level, with one or more categories that each contains a set of indicators, or it can be a hierarchical structure that attempts to model the system with greater complexity. Indicators can be quantitative or qualitative, although many fisheries frameworks exclusively use quantitative indicators because they can easily be summarized and related to reference points using modeling and statistical analyses. The argument has been made that indicators must be nonsubjective and quantitative to match with targets that must be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bounded (Cormier and Elliott 2017). Although the importance of qualitative measures has also been noted, especially given the limits of quantitative approaches (Shore 2008, Busch et al. 2012, Davis et al. 2012). Indicators can range from highly specific to very general and may or may not be linked to one another in an attempt to produce an aggregate assessment of sustainability within a system.
Sustainability frameworks have proliferated in academic and policy contexts since the second wave of environmentalism in the 1990s. In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were established (UN 2019). The MDGs link eight areas of interest (poverty, education, environment, etc.) with quantitative indicators as a way of measuring progress toward sustainable development on a global scale. The forestry sector pioneered the development of market-based certification schemes for natural resource use (Maser and Smith 2001, Cashore et al. 2004). Within fisheries, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has devoted substantial resources to the development of sustainability frameworks and indicators (FAO 1999, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, Garcia et al. 2000, 2003, Tietze et al. 2001, Gréboval 2002). The interactive governance approach proposes an assessment framework that is question-driven and views fisheries systems through the lens of governability (Kooiman et al. 2005, Chuenpagdee et al. 2008, Bavinck and Kooiman 2013, Kooiman and Bavinck 2013). Market-oriented sustainability frameworks in the fisheries sector, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing, and competing initiatives have gained a higher profile in the past 20 years (see Leadbitter and Ward 2007, MSC 2011, Foley and Hébert 2013, Faught 2016, Foley and Havice 2016). In a few national jurisdictions, notably Australia, management agencies have developed and implemented comprehensive framework-based approaches to sustainable fisheries management (Chesson et al. 1999, Ward 2000, 2014, Fletcher 2006, Fletcher et al. 2002, 2003, 2005, 2010, Begg et al. 2014, Brooks et al. 2015, Triantafillos et al. 2014).
Canada, in spite of being an important fishing nation (FAO 2016) with a long tradition of fisheries science research (Ricker 1975, Hubbard et al. 2016), has lagged behind countries like Australia (see above) and the USA (Busch et al. 2003, Pollnac et al. 2006, Clay et al. 2014, Breslow et al. 2014) in the move toward comprehensive approaches to sustainability in fisheries management. Canada has committed in legislation to an ecosystem approach to fisheries (Oceans Act, S.C., 1996, c.31). Although ecosystem-based management (EBM) conceptually includes consideration of humans as a component of the larger ecosystem, critical human factors are frequently missed in the application of EBM (Arkema et al. 2006, Long et al. 2015) and the emphasis within EBM research has primarily been on ecological and oceanographic aspects (Ommer et al. 2012, Epstein et al. 2018). The federal fisheries management agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), released a “Sustainable Fisheries Framework” (SFF) in 2009 that is not a framework in the sense discussed above, but rather a collection of loosely connected policy and management documents dealing with topics such as the protection of benthic habitat, managing bycatch, decision making following the precautionary approach, and forage species (http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/reports-rapports/regs/sff-cpd/overview-cadre-eng.htm). A recent (2015) “sustainability survey” based on the SFF focuses entirely on questions related to biological and ecological sustainability, which reflects the nature of the policy documents that comprise the DFO framework (http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/reports-rapports/regs/sff-cpd/survey-sondage/index-en.html). In a similar vein, the DFO and Canadian Coast Guard 2017-2020 Departmental Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS; http://waves-vagues.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/40749782.pdf) identifies “healthy coasts and oceans” as one of its goals. To accomplish this, there are continued efforts to implement the SFF and further policies on it. Although the FSDS states that it will work in accordance with the Federal Sustainable Development Act (Government of Canada 2008) to integrate environmental, social, and economic sustainability, the SFF remains focused on ecological and biological considerations. The sustainability survey and FSDS reinforce the impression that the SFF has limited value as a practical tool to comprehensively evaluate the sustainability of fisheries under the jurisdiction of DFO.
The Canadian Fisheries Research Network (CFRN) was a six-year research network intended to move Canadian fisheries management closer to the goal of sustainability on a number of fronts. One of the major initiatives within the CFRN was Project 1.1, which focused the efforts of an interdisciplinary team of academic, industry, and government experts on the development of a comprehensive framework for evaluating fisheries in Canada (Stephenson et al. 2018, 2019). As an offshoot of that effort, a subgroup within the CFRN developed a framework for use in several of the case studies that were being undertaken by the network. Intended to support the identification of fisheries management objectives while linking objectives directly to indicators, the evaluation framework for sustainable fisheries (hereinafter the sustainability indicator framework), as it was named, went through several iterations that resulted in different versions being developed (for one such iteration see Stephenson et al. 2019). The focus of this paper is on the development of an iteration of the sustainability indicator framework that supports a comprehensive, full-spectrum evaluation across three domains: governance, ecological, and social and economic. The framework is intended to be widely applicable to fisheries in Canada as well as in other jurisdictions that have a similar governance structure, i.e., established and functioning democratic institutions, and high level of institutional capacity, e.g., for data collection, science, management, and enforcement. Descriptors and indicators for each element were also developed to provide guidance in the application of the sustainability indicator framework, in particular to support practitioners to assess multiple domains, even those outside their areas of individual expertise.
The CFRN was formed in 2010 with the purpose of bringing together industry, academics, and government to collaborate on priority research issues contributing to ecological sustainability, viability, and improved management of Canadian fisheries. With federal funding through the Government of Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the majority of projects related to the natural sciences. The major exception was Project 1.1 which was tasked with investigating the nature of sustainability in fisheries and the range of objectives driving fisheries management in Canada. In a departure from the usual practice in natural science research networks in Canada, the CFRN Project 1.1 research team included several social scientists working on fisheries in Canada who represented a range of disciplines: fisheries economics, maritime anthropology, sociology, management, and marine governance. Working closely with industry and government representatives, the academics in Project 1.1 adopted an evaluation framework approach to the question of fisheries sustainability.
At the same time, a number of research projects within the network included the assessment of outcomes through structured decision-making approaches, e.g., management strategy evaluation (MSE), and were challenged with the identification of performance metrics as indicators to assess a range of objectives that extended beyond those typical of most MSE applications. In the interests of drawing from a common pool of indicators grounded in a theoretically robust framework that would also support interfishery and interproject comparisons, a group of researchers adapted the Project 1.1 evaluation framework to more closely correspond to the requirements of their individual projects. This led to the creation of a comprehensive, tiered sustainability indicator framework with candidate indicators that became a foundational element for a number of research projects within the network.
The sustainability indicator framework uses a three-level hierarchical structure: (1) domains, (2) dimensions, and (3) elements. Domains refer to the three primary, high-level fields of study and interest (governance, ecological, and social and economic). Dimensions are the broad subject headings within each domain that are used to organize conceptually similar elements, which comprise the third level of the hierarchy. Domains, dimensions, and elements provide an organizing framework and do not denote inherent or assumed values or goals. The term element was chosen to replace goal, which was used in the first iteration of the sustainability indicator framework because the directional quality associated with the concept of a goal was problematic since it prescribed a desirable end state. The purpose of each level in the hierarchy is to identify, with increasing specificity, the subject matter that should be evaluated in relation to fisheries sustainability. Goals and objectives exist outside of the hierarchy, and are addressed later in the discussion of indicator selection. The hierarchical structure within each of the three domains is represented in the diagrams that follow (Figs. 1, 2, and 3).
The components of the sustainability indicator framework were identified through consideration of hundreds of models and theories that underlie different elements, ranging from carrying capacity of freshwater lakes to the degree to which there are mechanisms in place to recognize and allow for conflict and conflict resolution (for a case study on the latter see Parlee and Wiber 2018). As a result, we conceptualize the sustainability indicator framework at the domain and dimension level as atheoretical and descriptive, with no single overarching theory that connects the domains and dimensions or relates the elements across domains to one another.
We hypothesize an underlying logic for the governance domain (Fig. 1). Mindful of critiques that have been made of the term governance (Offe 2009), we nevertheless chose that label to communicate that this domain is broader than institutions. The first dimension, institutional arrangements, provides the structural support for the next dimension, decision making, by defining the purpose and scope of the institution, the rules that structure interactions in an institutional setting, and the resources available to support these interactions. The decision-making dimension is about the process of making decisions, and invokes core principles of good governance: collaboration, transparency, inclusivity, predictability, flexibility, and accountability. The output of these processes, the decisions, can be evaluated individually and as a whole in terms of their effectiveness and their legitimacy. By effectiveness we mean the degree to which decisions help to carry out the mandate, the purpose of the institution. Legitimacy we define as the willingness of those affected by the governance institution to accept and abide by the decisions it produces, whether or not they are in agreement.
In this manner, the elements within each dimension function as the foundation for the next dimension and the next sequence of elements (see Table 1 for short definitions of the elements within each dimension). For instance, without financial support (part of the resources element), collaboration by participants in decision making is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Without goals and objectives (part of the purpose and rules elements), accountability is impossible to assess. Without open and informed decision making (part of the transparency element), the legitimacy of the governance institutions is thrown into question (for an example of how these criteria can be applied see Parlee 2016, Parlee and Wiber 2018)
The ecological domain (Fig. 2) also has an internal logic to it. In this case, the dimensions reflect a sequence of expanding scale and complexity. The first dimension, population and species, focuses on single species processes, which is the traditional focus of fisheries management. This dimension includes the elements that are typically used to determine sustainable harvesting levels for intra-specific groups, e.g., stocks, populations, and contingents, as prescribed by classic fisheries science and management literature (e.g., Beverton and Holt 1957, Hilborn and Walters 1992). The habitat and environment dimension was designed to encompass all physical biotic and abiotic structures of the ecosystem that interact with the intra-specific groups of interest within the first dimension. The third dimension, ecosystem structure and functionality, is intended to capture all the ecosystem interactions across species and within habitats. The ecosystem dimension is the integrative dimension within the ecological domain, akin to the ecosystem approach that informs DFO management (Jamieson et al. 2001, Gavaris 2009). The elements and indicators within this dimension (see Table 2 for short definitions of the elements) rely on syntheses of the information gathered across earlier elements within the domain.
Unlike with the other two domains, the dimensions within the social and economic domain (Fig. 3) represent relatively distinct and discrete aspects of the domain. Although there is a reasonable case to be made to treat social and economic issues as separate domains, a deliberate approach was taken to combine social and economic aspects based on the argument that economics and the economy as a whole fit within a larger social realm (Polanyi 1957, Granovetter 1985). Not all relationships are market ones; nor should they be. The frequent claim that economics speaks for society, and that efficiency is conducive to social welfare in general, is a political and ideological assertion, not a law of nature. Efficiency as a concept has been particularly problematic in fisheries, being widely assumed to be a goal in itself, and in direct conflict with equity and employment through a false choice arising from a misapplication of the concept (Bromley 2009). We thus treat the social and economic as a joint system and constrained the classical emphasis on efficiency by adding in the concepts of viability, sustainability, and equity in the economics and finances dimension (see Table 3 for short definitions of the elements in this dimension). Furthermore, as previously mentioned when introducing the domains, dimensions, and elements structure, the framework provides an organizing structure to help identify goals and objectives. It does not provide or assume goals or objectives, nor does it replace or otherwise eliminate the important step of identifying fisheries appropriate goals and objectives when conducting an evaluation. The dimensions and elements should not be assumed to represent goals or objectives and their application within an evaluation should be considered with respect to the goals and objectives of the fishery under consideration.
The health and well-being dimension reflects a recent development in theory on fisheries that starts with the binary distinction between material and subjective well-being common in the economics literature (Helliwell and Barrington-Leigh 2010) and adds a third component, relational well-being (Weeratunge et al. 2014).
The social justice dimension is a seldom mentioned addition to sustainability frameworks. The purpose is to explicitly account for cross-cutting issues that are important in fisheries but often neglected or difficult to address in management contexts (Coulthard et al. 2011). The underlying logic is that there are groups that are particularly vulnerable to ecosystem change, social and economic pressures, and management actions, but receive less attention within conventional management frameworks. The adoption of the social justice dimension resolved, or at least provided a way to deal with, one of the major tensions in the process of developing the sustainability indicator framework, which was how to give prominence to particular perspectives without creating an impossibly cumbersome framework structure.
Another critical motivation that drove the development of the sustainability indicator framework discussed here was the need for a comprehensive and systematic approach to identifying objectives for fisheries management in specific contexts. The approach adopted by the larger Project 1.1 group in the CFRN was to identify objectives in a top down manner, guided by Canadian and international legal, policy, and regulatory documents. As we worked through the process of identifying objectives in individual case studies, we posited a counterview that goals and objectives should be fishery specific and defined by the participants in the fishery: managers, stakeholders, rights-holders, and other interested parties. Goal and objective identification is a critical step in conducting an evaluation, whose purpose is to define the desired end state against which the system is to be evaluated. The sustainability indicator framework provides a structure to facilitate the process of identifying goals and objectives through a bottom-up approach. With that in mind, we put a strong emphasis on designing a sustainability indicator framework that would be reasonably easy to explain to a wide range of interested groups, avoiding overly technical language where possible and including short definitions of all the elements (Tables 1, 2, and 3). Two of the authors, Edwards and Hawkshaw, tested the sustainability indicator framework as a tool for identifying objectives in workshops with fishermen and refined it based on the feedback received.
At the same time, we were concerned that the selection of indicators needs to be directly tied to the identification of objectives. It quickly became obvious that without the specific objectives, there is an enormous range of potential indicators for each element. As soon as you begin to consider questions of scale (spatial, temporal, procedural, organizational and so on) a single indicator like fish landings turns out to be a list of dozens of potential individual indicators. For most indicators, there are a number of different ways in which the indicator can vary (e.g., by scale, by function, by type). We adopted a systematic approach to recognize the ways in which the indicators can vary while containing the quantity of indicators being developed. For example, if an indicator about fish landings is being applied to a multisector fishery it needs to be repeated to reflect the different gear types. This was achieved much more efficiently by replacing each reference to the gear type with a gear-type variable that could hold different values: hook and line, troll, dive, purse seine, and so on. We refer to these variable values as attributes.
The indicator-attribute structure should be implemented for indicators in all domains (see the examples in Tables 4 and 5 below). Rather than dictating specific indicators to be used, we provide example indicators that contain attributes that can be defined within a particular fishery context. The indicators in the sustainability indicator framework are formulas that can be used to produce fishery-specific indicators. The indicator-attribute approach has a specific syntax and the attributes are variables within this syntax. The flexibility and nonprescriptive nature of this approach means that fishery appropriate indicators can then be established in order to reflect the specific objectives of a fishery. These two aspects of the sustainability indicator framework, the comprehensive structure and the indicator-attribute format, are thus linked in a way that enforces comprehensive and routine methods for identifying objectives and relating these to specific indicators.
Although report cards and summary rating systems are a commonly used tool in fisheries evaluation, justified as a means to make sustainability assessments more accessible (Pitcher and Preikshot 2001), the rigor of the techniques used and veracity and value of outcomes are questionable, particularly when dealing with system level attributes as complex as sustainability (Jacquet and Pauly 2007, Froese and Proelss 2012, Foley and McCay 2014). Therefore, we argue that the sustainability indicator framework should not be used to derive a final number or letter, a quantitative rating, or a grade as in a report card.
Alternatively, we suggest that the sustainability indicator framework as described in this paper can assist users to monitor, assess, and understand ecosystem status, the impacts of human activities, and the effectiveness of management measures in achieving management objectives. It can be used as a facilitation tool and organizing structure to identify and define management objectives. It can also be applied to discuss and debate inevitable, yet often only implicitly addressed issues such as trade-offs, cumulative impacts, the governance of governance (Kooiman and Jentoft 2009), and the interaction among policies (for interaction among policies see Murray et al. 2010, Barnett 2018, Carruthers et al. 2019). The sustainability indicator framework does not tell managers what the sum of all activities will be or how to make trade-offs. It does however, integrate many different criteria into a single mental model and can encourage management to explicitly think about their choices and the consequences those choices might have. This sustainability indicator framework was created to contextualize these issues and empower managers to examine their decisions and assess whether they are working.
The sustainability indicator framework is also a research tool that could, potentially, find a wide range of uses. Within government, indicators developed through the sustainability indicator framework might be incorporated into integrated fisheries management plans (IMFPs; for a theoretical application see Barnett 2018). It could be used to complement and supplement ecosystem-based management approaches, particularly in ensuring a comprehensive and integrative approach that is inclusive of social, economic, and governance issues related to ecosystem management. It could also be used by stakeholders, e.g., management advisory committees, to monitor and assess marine protected areas, national marine conservation areas, and other similar management arrangements. An essential part of management effectiveness is the evaluation of outcomes of a specific protected area against specific objectives. This requires that specific, context-relevant objectives be identified, and then that appropriate indicators for various objectives be monitored to determine whether those objectives are being met (DFO 2005). In time, this could help to develop a common vocabulary amongst stakeholders that would support advisory and consultation processes (Brand and Jax 2007). Industry might find the sustainability indicator framework beneficial in engaging with policies and articulating the types of participatory processes they envision. For communities and regions where fishing is important, a potentially valuable function of the sustainability indicator framework lies in how it can be used to structure dialogue around the components of a fishery that should be monitored at the local level.
Notwithstanding efforts to develop a sustainability indicator framework that was generally applicable to a wide range of situations, it is important to point out that the sustainability indicator framework is only suitable for application in democracies with advanced economies and established fisheries management regimes. It is primarily designed for commercial fisheries, although it could be adapted to noncommercial contexts such as recreational, subsistence, or indigenous fisheries, or even beyond fisheries to other marine sectors such as aquaculture and potentially even to terrestrial systems. The governance section in particular precludes the use of the sustainability indicator framework in countries without the basic structures of democracy: periodic free elections, universal suffrage or something close to that, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, conscience, association, assembly, and so on. Elements in the sustainability indicator framework such as accountability, transparency, or legitimacy may be challenging to realize in democracies; they are likely unattainable in authoritarian regimes or dictatorships.
The framework should be adapted, as necessary, to ensure an appropriate fit for the fishery and the intended use of the framework. The first step in using the sustainability indicator framework should be to identify the goals and objectives for the fishery, followed by a consideration of the purpose for using the framework and then the adaptation of the framework to meet the purpose. The higher level categories of domains, dimensions, and elements are meant to be applicable across a wide range of contexts. However, the framework is not static and is expected to evolve over time and with use. Adaptation can extend beyond the selection of fishery-appropriate indicators and attributes to also include adjustments to the structure. Although the framework is meant to be adapted, particularly at the indicator level but potentially also within the higher level category structures, it is not meant to be used selectively. A full-spectrum approach requires integration across all domains and domain components, including the social and governance aspects that are often underrepresented or ignored (Cuthill 2010, Boström 2012). An evaluation using the framework should always include the full spectrum of domains, dimensions, and elements, even where no data are available to report on the outcome. The absence of data is itself information to be considered and can help ensure that data-deficiency issues are brought to light. The refocusing or removal of dimensions or elements should be well considered and justified based on the context of the fishery system, and never due to data, time, or similar logistical limitations.
In this paper we provided a detailed account of the work undertaken to develop a comprehensive, full spectrum, sustainability indicator framework. The sustainability indicator framework is assembled in a hierarchical subject matter structure, which comprises domains, dimensions, and elements. For each domain, instead of prescribing specific indicators, a procedure for generating fisheries specific indicators with the insertion of attributes is described. The dimensions go beyond the narrow scope of biological and economic considerations to include social, cultural, institutional, and ethical dimensions of the fisheries. And, for each element a descriptor is given. This approach allows users of the sustainability indicator framework to do three things: (1) comprehensively and routinely identify relevant objectives and indicators; (2) systematically address each of the three domains without prioritizing any one domain over another; and (3) integrate multiple domains outside their areas of expertise, into a specific management program, project, or scheme. Finally, we illustrate that the sustainability indicator framework is both specific and flexible enough to be used across a range of fisheries management contexts.
This research was supported by the Canadian Fisheries Research Network, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NET GP 389436-09). C.Parlee was also funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Award (Ref #752-2013-1817). We would like to thank a group of researchers that contributed to early development of the framework (listed in last name alphabetical order):): Allan Debertin, Aaron Greenberg, Andrea Haas, Mike Hawkshaw, Robin Messenger and Dan Mombourquette. We also would like to thank Dr. Melanie Wiber and Dr. Robert Stephenson for their support and feedback throughout the writing process.
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