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Scientists Say Some Fisheries Are Recovering

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A new report in the journal Science, crediting good management, says some over-fished ecosystems are improving and fish numbers are up. Marine biologist Boris Worm — who in 2006 warned that without action many fish populations could be gone by 2048 — describes the study's findings.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. A little bit later, a look at who owns your digital data - just when you think you might. We'll talk about that, but first, you may remember this headline from way back in 2006: Most of the seafood we like to eat will be gone by 2048 unless we change the way we fish.

Well, break out the tartar sauce because new research in the journal Science says there is some good news. Some of those overfished ecosystems are on the mend. In fact, one of the authors, who was also the author of that 2006 paper, mentioned he was thinking of possibly hosting a seafood party in 2048, and he's here now to tell us what will be on the menu.

Boris Worm is assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. That's in Nova Scotia. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. BORIS WORM (Assistant Professor, Marine Conservation Biology, Dalhousie University): Hi, pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: So you're celebrating now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WORM: I'm celebrating my 40th birthday today, but it's - I have to say I am somewhat more optimistic than I have been in 2006. Not so much because the problem has gone away but because I think we have a much clearer understanding, now, of the scale of the problem, and at the same time, we have a range of solutions that have been proven to work, and that's really important.

I mean, when you just hear things are collapsing, and you can't do anything, that leaves you helpless, right? But I think now we have a clear understanding of where we want to move towards.

FLATOW: Tell us, what were some of the successes here and some of the failures in this report?

Dr. WORM: So the 2006 report was based on world catch data, and as you may be aware, world catches of fish in the oceans have increased five-fold since about 1950, and since late '80s, they have stagnated and then slowly declined for food fish. And so things are not getting better, and at the same time, we're seeing an increasing trend of collapse of seafood stocks, and the new study supports that trend.

So it says yes, in 2007 or 2008, there have been more collapses of fish stocks than ever before. So that's the bad news. The good news is that a number of places around the world have lowered their exploitation rate gradually. That means, year after year, they're trying to take fewer fish out of the ocean relative to waters there, so a smaller proportion, if you wish, and that's managing for a recovery rather than managing for overexploitation.

FLATOW: And in the places that have been recovering, what have they don't differently so that the fish are returning?

Dr. WORM: So first of all, not all places that have lowered their exploitation rate are yet seeing recovery. Broad recovery we're seeing in three places: California, then some in New England and also in Iceland.

Those have been managed for recovery for a while, meaning a decade or two. So it takes some time. At the same time, we're seeing that it's important to employ a range of management measures. So there's no silver bullet. There's not the one thing you do, and you're fine. It takes a concerted effort that uses, among other things, restrictions on fishing gear, a total reduction of catches, large, closed areas and a reduction in fishing capacity.

Then there's other tools, such as the certification of sustainable fisheries and catch shares, where fishermen take a more long-term view because now they own part of the catch, they're guaranteed a part of the catch, and they don't have to compete with other fishermen anymore.

And then finally, community co-management has been really important in developing countries, which we also took a look at, where it's very hard to enforce solutions from the government, and you need to work directly with fishermen to come up with solutions that work in that particular location.

FLATOW: Now, we've seen lists of endangered fish not to order in a restaurant or buy in a food store. Has that changed any, in your mind, or do we know what to eat?

Dr. WORM: We have a good idea of what to eat, and those lists, I use them myself. A lot of my colleagues use them. I think they're excellent. They give consumers a choice, and they basically give you a choice of whether you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution because a lot of those fisheries that are certified as sustainable, they're now fetching a premium because people have restrained themselves, and they've brought down catches to a level where the fish stocks can rebound.

Some species are still being grossly overfished. The most - the crassest example in our analysis was eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is fished 10 times harder than what would be sustainable, and in fact, it has just been proposed for a listing as endangered species - worldwide.

So those examples still exist, and you should absolutely refrain from consuming those endangered species, the same way you wouldn't eat a tiger or a panda bear.

FLATOW: What area is suffering the most and really needs our help, or are some areas so depleted that they're not coming back?

Dr. WORM: Well, there's a bit of both. So I live in eastern Canada, which is the area that is most depleted from the data we looked at. The biomass of fish is just so low that it takes a very long to recover, and although the rate of fishing has dropped here, at least on those species that have collapsed, the recovery is very slow or nonexistent.

In some cases, the ecosystem has changed so much that it does not support those recovering fish stocks anymore. So that should come as a warning that you can't wait too long. You need to implement those management measures before you have broad, sweeping changes in the ecosystem, and again, that's been done in at least two places - that's not a lot, but it's a start - in Alaska and New Zealand, we're seeing that proactive management happening.

FLATOW: But the cod are really suffering out there.

Dr. WORM: Oh, the cod are certainly - in my area here in eastern Canada, some cod stocks are below one percent of what they used to be, and the chances for recovery are just very dim because people have waited too long to protect them.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

Dr. WORM: Pleasure to talk to you, thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming back. We're talking with Boris Worm, who is assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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