July 30, 2009
Some Fisheries Recovering From Overfishing

Maybe the oceans won't all get wiped out by overfishing.

An international team of scientists with divergent views on ocean ecosystems has found that efforts to rebuild many of the world’s fisheries are worthwhile and starting to pay off in many places around the world. Their study puts into perspective recent reports predicting a total collapse of global fisheries within 40 years.

In a paper published in the July 31 issue of Science, study co-author Mike Fogarty of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) of NOAA’s Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, Mass. and 20 co-authors say that efforts made to reduce overfishing are succeeding in five of ten large marine ecosystems studied. Some of the successes noted are in U.S. fisheries.

Despite some good news, the researchers found that 68 percent of the worldwide fisheries examined by the team need rebuilding and that even lower rates of fish removals are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species. Based on the available data, the team estimated that lightly fished and rebuilding ecosystems account for less than 10 percent of world fisheries area and catch, but represent examples of opportunities for successfully rebuilding marine resources elsewhere.

Will the successes off the US West Coast and New Zealand be repeated elsewhere? I see these as best case areas and I'm not surprised these areas experienced such recoveries ahead of many other areas. A single sovereign nation controlling a large area is going to have more incentives to manage for the long term.

“Sometimes small changes have a big effect. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ management approach since each fishery has its own unique circumstances,” said Fogarty, who helped provide data from the U.S. and worked on the analyses that helped shape the report. “Many of the world’s fisheries have a long history of overexploitation. Different management tools are needed, depending on the situation, to restore marine ecosystems and rebuild fisheries. It takes time. There have been successes in New Zealand and on the U.S. West Coast, and there are promising solutions in other areas, but rebuilding efforts have to be done on an ecosystem basis and from a global perspective.”

Are some fisheries harder to save because they fall outside of national sovereign waters?

Scientists who previously disagreed found common ground in this research report.

The new study follows a controversial prediction that wild caught fish will disappear from the oceans by 2048. That statement, contained in a 2006 Science article that focused on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services in the oceans, was made by marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington in Seattle and others disagreed with the prediction, and a debate ensued between fisheries scientists and marine ecologists about the status of the world’s ocean ecosystems. But the two researchers soon met to discuss the issue through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, Calif.  Fogarty and scientists from various disciplines around the world were asked to work with Worm and Hilborn to find common ground on which to assess the prospects for restoring depleted fish populations and their ecosystems.

Hey, these guys used their disagreements in a productive manner. How inspiring.

An assortment of restrictions on fishing together can enable a recovery.

The 21 study authors, led by Worm and Hilborn, found that management tools can pay off in the long run. A combination of traditional approaches, such as catch quotas and community management, coupled with strategically placed fishing closures, more selective fishing gear, ocean zoning, and economic incentives hold promise for restoring marine fisheries and ecosystems. Laws that explicitly forbid overfishing and specify clear rules and targets for rebuilding were seen as important prerequisites.

This is a lot easier to do on continental shelves where a single large area is controlled by a single country. The US can do this for a pretty big area. So can New Zealand or Australia or Russia. But think of Central America or West Africa where each country has a far shorter run of ocean frontage. The pressures for a Tragedy of the Commons are much greater. Deplete the resource swimming past your ocean frontage before the fish reach your neighbor's territory and get wiped out there.

Iceland is also doing a good job. But will that continue if Iceland joins the European Union?

It's good news for several regions in the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand. "These highly managed ecosystems are improving" says Hilborn. "Yet there is still a long way to go: of all fish stocks we examined, 63 percent remained below target and still needed to be rebuilt."

"Across all regions we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse," adds Worm. "But this paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause.

"The encouraging result is that the exploitation rate--the ultimate driver of depletion and collapse--is decreasing in half of the ten systems we examined in detail. Management in those areas is setting the stage for ecological and economic recovery. It's only a start--but it gives hope that we have the ability to bring overfishing under control."

European countries are doing poorly at managing fisheries.

Fisheries in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and off the coast of the UK and Ireland, however, tend to face continued declines in stocks.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 30 10:59 PM  Trends Bio Resource Usage

Shay said at July 31, 2009 9:05 AM:

I'd like to know how, as a consumer who wants to eat fish, I can make helpful choices at the grocery store. Should I buy farm raised only? For that matter, are the farms bad for the environment too? Maybe organic farmed?

wcw said at July 31, 2009 10:15 AM:

If you want, sure, buy farmed fish, but all that's going to do is help you feel good about yourself.

If you want to do something helpful, you have to engage the political process. If lots of people care about a future in which tuna still exists, if as luxury and not staple, then politicians are more likely to do something that might help.

Full disclosure: I avoid buying the most exploitative fish (orange roughy, say) because I want to feel good about myself. However, I am too lazy to engage the collective-action process. I am comfortable not being a hero myself, but I don't delude myself that my choice not to eat some fish makes a difference.

Randall Parker said at August 1, 2009 10:09 AM:


My guess is that eating farm-raised fish is much better. However, some farm-raised fish are fed fish for food. Really. It is not clear to me which types of farmed fish are better on that score.

What we need: genetically engineered land crops that have lots of omega 3 fatty acids and are otherwise more suitable to feed to farmed fish.

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