ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The world's fish are in trouble. Fishermen are pulling them out of the sea far faster than the fish populations can grow back. Some fisheries are heading toward collapse or even extinction. But a major new analysis shows that fisheries aren't all doomed. In fact, some are on the mend, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Three years ago, Boris Worm and his colleagues at Dalhousie University in Canada, sent shockwaves to the world of fishing and fishery science. They published a paper showing that if current trends continued, the oceans would essentially be fished out by the middle of this century. The paper was enormously controversial, both for its methods and its conclusions. But the controversy didn't just generate heat — it has generated light.

Professor BORIS WORM (Marine Biology, Dalhousie University, Canada): Coming out of that controversy is some of the critics and myself and some of my co-workers, and a lot of other people who were interested in the topic, got together to do what's probably the most detailed assessment of world fisheries to date.

HARRIS: Worm says this new analysis relies on much more scientific data to assess the state of the world's fisheries. And it's still not an upbeat report.

Prof. WORM: This trend in increasing species collapse that we found in the previous paper still persists.

HARRIS: But this paper, which is published in Science Magazine, then goes a step farther.

Prof. WORM: What this paper shows is there are solutions, and those solutions are beginning to work in a number of places.

HARRIS: Some of the good-news stories come from the United States. Strict federal fishing laws have cut back significantly on overfishing. For example, haddock off New England have rebounded so well, they're actually as healthy as they've ever been. Iceland, too, has rebuilt some of its fisheries. There's also a good-news story from Kenya. There, fisheries scientists have been working with the traditional fishermen.

Prof. WORM: 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 - it's called a beach seine. And then the second solution was to implement closed areas.

HARRIS: Boris Worm says fish reproduced in the closed areas safely, and then spread out to repopulate the overfished areas.

Prof. HARRIS: And 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 those areas that had both the net removed and the closed area in place.

HARRIS: 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.

Prof. WORM: 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.

HARRIS: Overall, 80 percent of Europe's fisheries are being overfished. And China is also fishing unsustainably on the high seas, but the facts there are sketchy. Steve Murawski, chief scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, says this new research is pretty realistic. It shows that fisheries aren't in fact doomed to extinction.

Dr. STEVE MURAWSKI (Chief Scientist, National Marine Fisheries Service): In the majority of cases, in fact virtually all the cases, where fishery rates have been cut substantially, we've seen a positive response. And that is a pivotal result of this paper. It basically says that fishery management works.

HARRIS: 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.

Dr. MURAWSKI: It's up to us. If we want sustainable fisheries, we can achieve them.

HARRIS: And as the new research makes clear, that's a question of political will, not a lack of scientific knowledge.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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