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The Dangers of Imprecise Language in Fisheries Management

February 18, 2013

The eminently intelligent and witty George Orwell.

The words we use to discuss fisheries management – or any other issue for that matter – can deeply impact the way we individually think about problems and the way we collectively organize to address them. Or so that’s my belief ever since I read and so deeply agreed with George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”.

Two terms I’ve increasingly found frustrating are IUU fishing, which stands for “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing, and MCS measures, which stands for “monitoring, control, and surveillance” measures. If Orwell had been a marine conservationist, he might have criticized these terms for their lack of precision and their proponents for inappropriate use. And where his original essay blamed ideology and imitation for unclear political language, he might have similarly blamed bureaucracy and imitation for the use of the terms IUU and MCS.

What do I mean?

First, both terms illogically are umbrella terms whose sub-component definitions partly or fully overlap, thereby permitting terminological confusion. With respect to IUU, unreported fishing is illegal fishing. This is by the definition provided in the FAO’s International Plan of Action on IUU Fishing. This creates a definitional problem as, logically, the fishing occurring within an unregulated fishery would typically be unreported..but the soft law definition of ‘unreported’ does not allow for legal unreported catches.

As for MCS, common sense would suggest that surveillance is one type of monitoring, that of monitoring the compliance with rules and regulations. The original definition from the MCS Conference of Experts in 1981 backs this up. It defines monitoring as the “measurement of fishery effort characteristics and resource yields” and surveillance as “observations required to maintain compliance”. Oddly though, the FAO webpage dedicated to MCS suggests that surveillance falls partly under monitoring and partly under control:

A comprehensive suite of MCS activities includes:

Monitoring the collection, measurement and analysis of fishing activity including, but not limited to: catch, species composition, fishing effort, bycatch, discards, area of operations, etc…

Control involves the specification of the terms and conditions under which resources can be harvested…

Surveillance involves the regulation and supervision of fishing activity to ensure that national legislation and terms, conditions of access, and management measures are observed.

Lovely, no?

Second, the common usage of IUU and MCS has over time engendered the terms with new definitions. In the case of IUU, it is now widely used to refer to illegal fishing alone. The U.S. and EU have both adopted “IUU policies”, yet they practically have little to do with reducing the import of fish products from unregulated fisheries and everything to do with reducing import of illegally-caught products. Just take a look for yourself at the EU regulation (see article 3) or the specific cases of IUU fishing identified in the last U.S. biennial report (see pp. 18-19). And the policy field is doing the same. Take a look at the agenda of an “IUU workshop” held by CCAMLR in 2012. It focused entirely on enforcement; there was no discussion of expanding fisheries management to unregulated fisheries. One colleague in particular has taken to regularly reminding others in the field that IUU fishing includes unregulated fisheries.

And in the case of MCS, the term is now synonymous with ‘enforcement’ in ordinary usage in the marine community. The ‘monitoring’ of biological information has been forgotten entirely. And further, apprehension and prosecution are now considered to be MCS activities, yet the original definition suggested none of this and logical  consideration of the M-C-S components would find little room for apprehension or prosecution. Again, this is exactly how I hear colleagues in the field using the term. And if you don’t believe me, just look at objectives of the International MCS (IMCS) Network posted here.

Ultimately, I think these confusing terms and their improper usage deeply impact the way we individually think about problems and the way we collectively organize to address them. In my view, I think the imprecision of the term IUU has allowed this definitional shift to illegal fishing and as a result, we too infrequently discuss unregulated fishing. And similarly the imprecision of the term MCS and the need for a term including surveillance along with other enforcement has led to reduced discussion of how we need to improve biological monitoring while at the same time hindering discussion in diverse fora on the need for legal systems reform to combat illegal fishing.

This is not to say that those organizations operating campaigns against IUU fishing or organizations promoting MCS aren’t doing a good job, but it is to say that we are limiting our view of all the problems in fisheries and creative thinking on solutions.

How might we do better? Orwell gave very simple and sound bits of advice, one of which works quite well here:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

You can expect that I will from here on no longer use the terms IUU and MCS, but far simpler terms. Illegal fishing and unregulated fishing and monitoring measures and enforcement activities are good replacement terms that come to mind. This may still not qualify as ‘everyday English’, but it is far simpler.

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