New hope for fisheries to curb overfishing

A two-year international study shows that steps taken to curb overfishing are beginning to succeed in some fisheries of the world.

Fish stocks are starting to recover in five of the 10 large marine ecosystems scientists examined. Led by Boris Worm of Dalhousie University and Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, the study included 19 scientists from around the globe. The team’s paper appeared in the July 31 issue of Science.

It’s good news for several regions in the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand. A National Science Foundation press release quotes Hilborn as saying, “These highly managed ecosystems are improving. 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.”

The release also quoted Worm, who noted that scienitsts are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse across all regions, but the new study “shows that our oceans are not a lost cause.”

The study had two goals: to examine current trends in fish abundance and exploitation rates (the proportion of fish taken out of the sea); and to identify which tools managers have applied in their efforts to rebuild depleted fish stocks.

The team also found success in Kenya and off the northwest coast of Australia. The lesson: Less can be more in the fishing industry.

According to the press release, “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.”

So you can’t just indiscriminately catch as much as you can. Instead, you have to let some fish grow up and reproduce to replenish the population.

Overall, the scientists found that a combination of approaches, such as catch quotas and community management, coupled with strategically placed fishing closures, ocean zoning, selective fishing gear and economic incentives, offer promise for restoring fisheries and ecosystems — according to the press release.

Several U.S. fisheries were among the five recovering or recovered ecosystems. The Alaskan marine ecosystem was the only region identified as “not overfished,” out of 10 regions studied. Fish abundance numbers were above the long-term average in the Northeast U.S. Shelf and the California Current.

Even though the 10 ecosystems reviewed in the study represent less than 25 percent of the world’s fisheries’ area and catch — and the healthy and recovering ones less than half of that — this study is important because it shows we can reverse the decline in fish populations, if we put our minds to it.

I also liked this story because it features some good news about an environmental issue. Too often, environmental news is all gloom and doom. Indeed, I heard one public radio station describe this study as showing that 63 percent of fisheries are still overfished. But the fact that many fish stocks are in trouble is no longer news; the revelation that some are recovering, or have set the stage for recovery — now that’s news, and good news as well.

August 3, 2009

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