by Craig Weatherby
It’s an open secret that most of the world's commercial and subsistence fisheries suffer unsustainable pressure from over-fishing.
Ominously, a new study suggests that current trend lines converge at a doomsday date in people’s lifetimes or their children’s.
The authors warn that a “global collapse” of all commercial species could occur by 2048: an eventuality that would leave little more than jellyfish in our seafood cases and on our restaurant menus.
The Canadian-led international team reported that the numbers of almost one in three species have fallen so low—to 10 percent of previous levels—that they might never recover: a status they define as a species “collapse”.
As they wrote, “…despite large increases in global fishing effort, cumulative yields
|Much depends on dinner|
Shoppers can help by alleviating demand for threatened species.
Two credible non-profit organizations offer guides to sustainably harvested species and endangered ones:
The Seafood Watch guide by Monterey Bay Aquarium terms Alaska salmon, halibut and troll-caught Pacific albacore tuna “Best Choices” but lists farmed Atlantic salmon as a “Worst Choice.”
Ocean’s Alive Best & Worst Seafood Choices calls Pacific halibut and Alaska salmon and sablefish “Best Choices” but lists farmed Atlantic salmon as a “Worst Choice.”
across all species and Large Marine Ecosystems had declined by 13% (or 10.6 million metric tons) since passing a maximum in 1994 …collapses of LME fisheries occurred at a higher rate in species-poor ecosystems, as compared with species-rich ones.”
The international team also noted that loss of biodiversity makes marine ecosystems more vulnerable to over-fishing and less able to recover, while biodiversity loss speeds environmental degradation and loss of commercial species.
Their chief proposal was to establish more marine reserves and enforce more fishery closures, to allow ecosystems and fish to recover:
“…reserves and fisheries closures showed increased species diversity… associated with large increases in fisheries productivity, as seen in the fourfold average increase in catch per unit of effort in fished areas around the reserves.”
Fishery status worldwide: picture a checkerboard
Lead author Boris Worm, Ph.D. admitted that the press release highlighted the “global collapse” alert to draw attention, but acknowledged on National Public Radio (NPR) that a collapse in many areas of the world would have little effect on well-managed fisheries elsewhere.
Virtually all observers agree that fisheries in southeastern Asia, Africa, Eastern Canada, and
parts of Europe urgently need to enforce protection of fast-disappearing fish species and their habitats—including rivers, estuaries, and coastal ecosystems.
Despite political pressures, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and a few other nations have taken effective steps to protect the most seriously threatened habitats and their dependent species.
Critics point to positive signs; Alaska cited as prime success story
We read the study, and then heard Dr. Worm interviewed on the NPR talk show “On Point,” along with critics of the study and its conclusions.
His fellow guests agreed that the problem is severe in many regions, but found fault with the study authors’ proposed solutions and their failure to consider the impact should more countries emulate others' best practices.
One of Dr. Worm's on-air critics was Professor Ray Hilborn, Ph.D. of the University of Washington: an aquatic and fishery sciences researcher.
As Dr. Hilborn said, “The projection [of the study] is silly because it fails to recognize that some areas have reversed the trend.”
His on-air comments echoed a tart excerpt from Hilborn's interview in the Seattle Times: “It’s just mind-boggling stupid. I'm worried about some areas of the world—like Africa—but other areas of the world have figured out how to do effective fishery management.”
In support of Dr. Hilborn’s view, the Seattle Times noted that, “For example, most of the harvests in the North Pacific off Alaska—where most Seattle fleets fish—are not in sharp decline.”
This observation was endorsed by another guest on the NPR show—Maine fisherman and marine researcher Ted Ames— who was awarded a 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.
Like Dr. Hilborn, Ted Ames critiqued the author’s focus on fishery closures and marine protection reserves, such as the one created recently near the Hawaiian Islands. He noted that while reserves are better than nothing, they often fail to encompass the complete habitats needed by threatened species.
Ames said that he would rely instead on area management plans that preserve all ecological components.
He went on to point to Alaska’s salmon and Pollock fisheries as excellent examples of area management programs that regulate all regions needed to sustain each species.
In fact, Ames expressed the wistful-sounding wish that New England and Eastern Canada would adopt Alaska’s approach to their shared Northeast Atlantic fisheries.
- Worm B, Barbier EB, Beaumont N, Duffy JE, Folke C, Halpern BS, Jackson JB, Lotze HK, Micheli F, Palumbi SR, Sala E, Selkoe KA, Stachowicz JJ, Watson R. Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science. 2006 Nov 3;314(5800):787-90.
- Dean C. Study Sees ‘Global Collapse’ of Fish Species. The New York Times. November 3, 2006.
- Bernton H. Will seafood nets be empty? Grim outlook draws skeptics. Seattle Times. November 3, 2006, 12:00 AM.
- NPR on WBUR 90.9 FM Boston. The Future of Fish. Tuesday, November 07, 2006 11-12PM ET. Accessed at http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2006/11/20061107_b_main.asp.