Ask Oceana’s Dr. Pauly: What is Sustainability?

Nowadays, everything is supposed to be or become “sustainable,” and sustainability is viewed as inherently good. Indeed, the term sustainable has become so widely used that it has gradually lost most of its original meaning.

Sustainable means (or meant) that something can be maintained at a given level for a long time. Humans usually want to do more of the things they view as positive and fewer of the things they view as negative. Thus, the term “sustainable growth” was coined, which has various complex definitions (Google it!), but is irreparably oxymoronic because nothing in this world can grow for a long time and remain what it is.

Fisheries science and management has a concept of sustainability – called Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – which has been surrounded by controversies. MSY was built on the notion that a fish population exploited by a fishery can, in principle, support a relatively high catch provided that its biomass (or abundance) is not reduced to less than half its unfished level. On this condition (and taking environmental fluctuations into account), a sustained yield can be taken, just as one can in principle, given a reasonably large sum in a bank, live off the interest forever.

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