Finding Fish

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Six experts discuss the global fisheries crisis; the economic, political, and social pressures that contributed to it; and what it will take to make fish stocks bounce back.

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The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

What will it take to make the ocean’s fisheries bounce back?
Our Panel Responds:

The new documentary film The End of the Line paints a sobering picture: Humans have perfected the art and science of the catch, using computers to help pinpoint migratory schools and nets large enough to cinch around several ocean cruise liners. The length of hook-bearing fishing line dropped into the ocean each year could be wrapped around the globe 550 times. However, those nets and lines are culling fewer and fewer fish each year.

So few, in fact, that Boris Worm—the marine biologist around whose work the film’s narrative revolves—and Ransom Myers concluded in a 2003 Nature paper that industrial fishing had reduced global populations of sharks, tuna, and other large open-water predators by 90 percent. Three years later, Worm and his colleagues went a step further: Extrapolating from current populations in collapse, they predicted that by 2048, the oceans would be empty of fish.

Almost immediately, the 2048 doomsdate came under attack by other members of the scientific community. A particularly prominent critic was fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, Seattle. Hilborn, who is also featured in the film, told the media that Worm’s analyses were “sloppy” and called the projection “mind-boggling[ly] stupid.”

The film skips over the scientific dispute rather quickly and proceeds to lay thick blame on the powerful: First, there are the faceless multinationals systematically disregarding catch quotas. Then there are corrupt leaders in developing nations who broker deals with these multinationals for fishing rights—we’re shown fishermen off the coast of Senegal, who in their dinghies must compete with some of world’s largest and most advanced fishing fleets. And there are the oddly shortsighted policymakers who, against all scientific evidence, imagine that legislation can somehow best biology. In one particularly memorable scene, European ministers gather in Luxembourg at the 2007 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas to determine quotas for bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean. Scientists recommend an annual catch of 15,000 tons a year, with a preference for 10,000 tons in order to let populations rebound. The ministers digest that information and agree on a quota of 29,500 tons.

But there is a bright edge to this gloomy portrait. Unlike the climate crisis, the global fisheries crisis appears to have a relatively simple fix. When ocean habitats are left undisturbed, they show surprising resilience—species and entire ecosystems can, and do, come back. A global network of un-fished ocean preserves, the film suggests, could be key to fending off imminent collapse. If paired with scientifically informed fishing legislation and simple labeling practices so that consumers can more easily distinguish between “sustainable” and “unsustainable” at the market, there may be hope yet for edible sea life.

Even Worm and Hilborn appear to broker a truce. They may not agree on the precise date fisheries will collapse, but neither seems to doubt that it will happen. A point not included in the film: At the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, the once-rivals have recently begun collaborating on a new project to figure out why their different data or methods yield such divergent impressions of ocean ecosystems.

Volumes have been written about this imminent crisis, and The End of the Line is but the latest attempt to bring more attention to it. If, as the film suggests, the problem has a relatively simple solution, why hasn’t the world acted on it already? Is it a lack of consumer awareness? Is it the age-old “out of sight, out of mind” predicament that bedevils ocean issues in general? How can innovative science, policy, and management strategies help us balance fishing and conservation—or should we stop eating fish altogether?

A Brief History of Collapse

Daniel Pauly is a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia. He also leads the Sea Around Us Project, devoted to documenting the impact of fisheries on marine ecosystems worldwide and proposing policies for their mitigation.

This worldwide decline of fishery catches had to happen at some time: All major countries in the north overfished their coastal water long ago—some of them at the very onset of industrialized fishing—and maintained their catch only through a feverish expansion into more southern waters. First they expanded into tropical developing countries, then into the southern hemisphere, the fate of the targeted fish thus mimicking that of the great whales.

But their distant-water fleets never achieved anything resembling sustainability and they continued to deplete one population after the other. The only new element now is that fisheries worldwide have run out of new stock to exploit—hence the global decline.

All along, though, it was clear that fisheries could be sustainable, if two goals could be achieved: the radical reduction of fishing capacity, notably by abolishing the $30 to $35 billion in annual subsidies that governments spend to keep otherwise unprofitable fleets afloat, and the strict enforcement of various gear restrictions, especially against bottom trawlers, one of the most destructive fishing method conceivable. Such measures may allow us to sustain the population we have and that which we are in the process of losing—a loss that will intensify the food security issues that shrinking per capita fish supply in developing countries has begun to create.

These traditional measures may succeed in stabilizing fish supply but will likely not be sufficient to prevent the loss of large, and hence more vulnerable, fish species. To do this, we must restore the refugia earlier fish populations enjoyed¬—the sort that made it possible for some pre-industrial fisheries to last for centuries even though they were not regulated. Some of these refugia, now called “marine reserves,” or “no-take zones,” should be inshore to protect coastal species. Some will have to be large and offshore to protect oceanic fishes. The alternative is that we lose many of the species upon which our fisheries have so far depended.

At present, less than 1 percent of the world ocean is protected from fishing. To change this statistic into one that gives fish a fighting chance, no-take marine reserves will have to be perceived not as scattered, small concessions to conservationist pressure, but as a legitimate and obvious management tool. Indeed, avoiding the commercial, then biological, extinction of species that were once inaccessible to our high-tech fishing gear should become a major goal for future management regimes. This would not only enable fisheries, for the first time in their history, to become truly sustainable, but would also address the issue of uncertainty, which was so eloquently stated in a posthumous edition of some of Rachel Carson’s rediscovered writings:

To convert some of the remaining wild areas into state and national parks, however, is only part of the answer. Even public parks are not what nature created over the eons of time, working with wind and wave and sand. Somewhere we should know what was nature’s way; we should know that the Earth would have been had not man interfered. And so, besides public parks for recreation, we should set aside some wilderness area of seashore where the relations of sea and wind and shore—of living things and their physical world—remain as they have been over the long vistas of time in which man did not exist. For there remains, in this space-age universe, the possibility that man’s way is not always best.”

Let’s Make Mackerel Sushi

Boris Worm is a professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

In a way, the fisheries situation is similar to climate change—scientists have known about it for decades, but the reality sank in with the wider public only two or three years ago. But this is changing, and with greater awareness comes the political will to change the status quo.

What will be required to solve the fisheries crisis is a range of measures that each reinforce the other. These include lower catch limits for overfished species; more selective fishing gear; economic incentives for conservation; and the zoning of the ocean into fished, lightly fished, and unfished areas. A fundamental problem is the global fishing fleet overcapacity—a fancy term for “too many boats chasing too few fish.” Many experts believe that the fishing fleet capacity should be reduced dramatically to better match the ocean’s capacity to provide fish. A second problem is that we are still catching a lot of species that are too depleted, or too slow-growing in the first place, to sustain any fishing. Large sharks such as hammerhead, mako, dusky, and bull sharks are an example. Bluefin tuna is another. In Canada, where I live, there is still a substantial bluefin tuna fishery, and the same is true in the Mediterranean. These species need time to rebuild their populations.

I believe that this must become the universal focus of fishery management: the careful rebuilding of depleted species, while concentrating our fisheries on those species that can sustain the fishing pressure. Maybe we need to try mackerel on our sushi for a while rather than bluefin tuna. Would that be the end of the world? 

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