Fish Stocks at Risk of Collapse, Study Says Researchers say the world's fish and seafood populations could collapse by 2048 if current trends continue. In an analysis of scientific data going back to the 1960s, researchers found that marine biodiversity has declined dramatically. But the study has attracted criticism from experts.
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Fish Stocks at Risk of Collapse, Study Says

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Fish Stocks at Risk of Collapse, Study Says

Fish Stocks at Risk of Collapse, Study Says

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's disturbing news about the state of the world's fisheries today. Scientists today say the variety and number of fish in the ocean are plummeting, along with the plants and animals they live with and depend on. While there has been a lot of bad news about fish stocks in various corners of the world, this latest study summarizes years of research on fisheries around the planet.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that it's also attracted quite a bit of criticism from experts who say it overstates the threat.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It's not a debate with the high profile of, say, climate change, but the argument over how bad off the world's fisheries are is nonetheless one that's got scientists in a snit.

The newest (unintelligible) comes from a large and well credentialed group led by Boris Worm, a biologist at Dow Hauser University in Canada. He says the rate of decline in the world's fisheries could mean no more seafood by the year 2048. Several scientists immediately scoffed at that idea. Warren sticks by it, sort of.

Mr. BORIS WORM (Dow Hauser University): I am comfortable with it if it's seen as a projection which is different from a prediction. A prediction will say, I have a crystal ball and I can say what's going to happen in 2048. Nobody can because we can't predict human behavior.

JOYCE: What Worm projects is that if overfishing and pollution continue unabated, based on trends in the past fisheries will collapse.

But Warren and his colleagues acknowledge that many fisheries are actually doing well. Alaska, for example, where fish stocks are healthy and in some cases improving. Others, such as the North Atlantic, are not. He says he actually expects the overall trend to improve as people change the way they fish. In some places, fishing quotas are helping. He also points to marine reserves, parts of coastal waters where fishing is banned or sharply curtailed and where the number and variety of marine animals has rebounded.

Mr. WORM: So that's the good news here. It's not too late. We can turn this around, and locally people are doing it and they're seeing the benefit.

JOYCE: The research teams says the key to rejuvenating fish stocks is improving the biodiversity of their waters - that's the number of different species, from grasses to mussels to big food fish. Stocks of commercial fish simply do better where there are lots of other species around.

At least that's what Worm and his colleagues believe. Worm acknowledges that it's hard to prove that raising biodiversity directly raises commercial fish stocks. These conclusions have their share of critics, especially the no fish by 2048 projection.

Professor KYLE WALTERS (University of British Columbia): It's extremely misleading and it's wrong.

JOYCE: Kyle Walters is professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia. Other experts have even harsher words. Walters says there's not enough information now to predict what will happen 45 years in the future. He also disputes the idea that commercial fish stocks rebound simply because biodiversity goes up.

Professor WALTERS: Absolutely not. They're rebounding because of reduced fishing mortality done deliberately because of knowledge that they were already over fished.

JOYCE: The debate has been playing out on the pages of scientific journals - in this case the latest issue of the journal Science. The authors and their supporters say they're hoping to get the public to pay more attention to the state of the world's oceans.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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