There's no question that the world's fish are in trouble. Fishermen are pulling fish out of the seas far faster than these populations can grow back. Some fisheries are heading toward collapse or even extinction. But a major new analysis of this grim picture shows that fisheries aren't doomed. In fact, some are on the mend.
A commercial fishing boat pulls in its net near Seattle. Strict federal fishing laws have cut back significantly on overfishing in the United States.
A commercial fishing boat pulls in its net near Seattle. Strict federal fishing laws have cut back significantly on overfishing in the United States. S.Froebe/iStockphoto.com
This new study grew out of a raging controversy. Three years ago, Boris Worm and his colleagues at Dalhousie University in Canada sent shock waves through the world of fishing and fisheries science. They published a paper in Science magazine showing that if current trends continued, the oceans would be essentially fished out by the middle of this century.
The conclusion was enormously controversial, both for its methods and for its conclusions. But the controversy didn't just generate heat — it has generated light, Worm says.
"Coming out of that controversy, some of the critics and myself and some of my co-workers — and a lot of other people interested in the topic — got together to do what is probably the most detailed assessment of world fisheries to date."
Some Solutions Are Working
Worm says this new analysis relies on much more scientific data to assess the state of the world's fisheries. And it is still not an upbeat report.
This map shows 10 ecosystems examined by the researchers, categorized by how sustainably they are currently fished. All areas except Alaska were overfished in the past, but now some of them, marked in dark blue, are recovering.
This map shows 10 ecosystems examined by the researchers, categorized by how sustainably they are currently fished. All areas except Alaska were overfished in the past, but now some of them, marked in dark blue, are recovering. Liz Neeley/COMPASS
"This trend in increasing species collapse that we found in the previous paper still persists," he says. The researchers find that 14 percent of the 170 species they studied are now at less than 10 percent of their original numbers. That's how they define a fishery "collapse."
The study then goes a step further.
"What this paper shows is there are solutions, and those solutions are beginning to work in a number of places," Worm says.
Some of the good-news stories come from the United States. Strict federal fishing laws have cut back significantly on overfishing. And some stocks, such as haddock off New England, have rebounded so well, they are actually as healthy as they've ever been. Iceland, too, has rebuilt some of its fisheries.
Good News From Kenya
There's also a good-news story from Kenya. There, fisheries scientists have been working with the traditional fishermen, "and the solution they have found was to ban a certain fishing gear, which was very unselective — and it was catching a lot of the fish before they could grow and reproduce," Worm said.
This net is called a beach seine. And in addition to getting rid of the beach seines, the fishermen also agreed not to fish in one area. Fish reproduced in the closed areas safely, and then spread out to repopulate the overfished areas.
"That has worked exceptionally well, and over a period of less than 10 years, the income of individual fishermen from the fishery has actually doubled in areas that had both the net removed and the closed area in place," Worm says.
In Europe, Overfishing Persists
But for every hopeful example, there are many depressing ones. The worst one they document is in Europe. There, fish managers are letting fishermen drive the majestic bluefin tuna toward extinction.
According to the study, bluefin tuna like these are among the most overfished creatures in the ocean.
According to the study, bluefin tuna like these are among the most overfished creatures in the ocean. Chris Park/AP
"Our analysis actually shows that eastern bluefin tuna is the most overfished of all the species we looked at, meaning that the rate it's captured is about 10 times higher than what would be sustainable," Worm says.
Overall, 80 percent of Europe's fisheries are being overfished. China is also overfishing in the high seas, though the data about that are sketchier.
A Realistic Look At The Issue
Steve Murawski, chief scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, says this new research is a more realistic look at the issue, compared with the original study. It shows that fisheries aren't in fact doomed to extinction.
"In the majority of cases, in fact virtually all the cases where fishery rates have been cut substantially, we've seen a positive response," Murawski says. "And that is a pivotal result of this paper. It basically says that fishery management works."
The issue is getting over what can be a painful transition from overfishing to a lower, but sustainable rate of fishing. That often means short-term pain as fishing boats and fishermen are forced into retirement.
"It's up to us. If we want sustainable fisheries, we can achieve them," Murawski says.
And as the new research makes clear, that's a question of political will, not a lack of scientific knowledge.