BIODIVERSITY: Tight Controls Could Save Global Fisheries

  • by Stephen Leahy (berlin)
  • Inter Press Service

However, since 80 percent of global fisheries are already fully or overexploited, similar actions to reduce fishing pressure and improve management are urgently needed if the seas are to have commercial quantities of fish left by 2050.

'Across all regions we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing [fish] stock collapse,' said Boris Worm of Canada's Dalhousie University, one of the world's leading fisheries experts.

But in half of the 10 fisheries studied in detail by Worm and 20 top fisheries scientists and ecologists, the exploitation rate – the ultimate driver of depletion and collapse – is decreasing and some fish populations are rebounding. Their study was published Friday in Science.

'This means that management in those areas is setting the stage for ecological and economic recovery. It's only a start, but it gives me hope that we have the ability to bring overfishing under control,' Worm told IPS.

In 2006, Worm and colleagues shocked the world by declaring overfishing would put every single commercial fishery in the world out of business before 2050 and the oceans might never recover based on their four-year scientific investigation, the most extensive ever done.

The truly frightening revelation in the 2006 study was it showed that when too many species in a region become extinct or are too low in numbers, the ecosystem itself unravels, leading to further loss of species until little is left but jellyfish. And indeed there are already parts of the oceans where fish stocks have not recovered even after decade-long fishing closures.

At that time, Worm was pessimistic about the likelihood of slowing or reversing this self-destructive race by foreign fleets from the EU, U.S., Japan, South Korea and China to catch the last fish.

University of Washington fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn challenged that view, offering evidence that several fisheries in parts of the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand were recovering.

'These highly managed ecosystems are improving,' Hilborn said in a press conference Thursday. Hilborn is one of the main co-authors of the Science paper.

'Yet there is still a long way to go: of all fish stocks that we examined, 63 percent remained below target and still needed to be rebuilt,' he added.

The current study only looked at one-quarter of the world's fisheries because there isn't enough data available elsewhere to do the proper in-depth analysis. Still, Worm calls it 'a quantum leap, in terms of scope, depth, and representation of different disciplines,' and it may bring us a big step closer to ending overfishing, he believes.

The study makes it quite clear that if fishing pressure is reduced significantly - cut in half or more - then stocks will rebound, though not all stocks, cautions Michael Fogerty of the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

A court-ordered closure of fisheries off the coast of New England in 1994 did indeed lead to major population rebounds for haddock, red fish and scallops. But cod, flounder and other species have not recovered, Fogerty said at a press conference.

Reducing ecosystem pressures by closing some fisheries, creating protected areas, setting catch limits, and changing equipment also means there are short-term economic costs to get the long-term benefits of more fish in the future.

'Fisheries management is largely political, not science,' Fogerty said

While most of the fisheries that showed improvement are managed by a few wealthy nations, there are some notable exceptions.

In Kenya, for example, scientists, managers, and local communities have teamed up to close some key areas to fishing and restrict certain types of fishing gear. This led to an increase in the size and amount of fish available, and a consequent increase in fishers' incomes.

'These successes are local, but they are inspiring others to follow suit,' said Tim McClanahan of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya.

However, local management efforts in Africa and Pacific are threatened by long-range fishing fleets from the EU, Japan, China and elsewhere that have depleted their own local stocks and have moved on to exploit fisheries there.

'Some stocks have already collapsed off Africa and can't recover,' McClanahan said.

Large foreign seafood companies offer lucrative contracts to cash-strapped African governments with little regard to the sustainability of the local fisheries. Countries where such companies are based must take responsibility for their industries' actions overseas and assist African and other countries to properly manage their fisheries, he said.

'At the moment the prognosis for African fisheries is not good,' he said at a press conference.

Overall, the global picture stills looks grim, according to Worm, adding: 'I am somewhat more hopeful than I was in 2006 because it is clear there are fisheries management tools to solve the problem.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service