You might remember the interview published here with journalist Charles Clover about his new documentary, End of the Line. Part of that movie reports on a study by a group of scientists led by Boris Worm at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Using world catch data, they predicted that most of the fish we eat would be extinct by 2048–a complete collapse of global fisheries.
A second group of scientists, led by Ray Hilborn at the University of Washington, doubted the study’s validity. Hilborn even called it “mind-boggling stupid.” But after a debate on NPR, Worm and Hilborn realized that they had more in common than not, and that they should join forces rather than snipe about details. So the two groups of scientists collaborated on a study of the world’s fisheries, which was published yesterday in the journal Science. (The abstract is here.) This study relied on population surveys, statistical analysis, and ecosystem data to figure out what is going on out there in the depths.
There’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is still pretty bad. According to the abstract:
…63% of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding, and even lower exploitation rates are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species.
Populations of East Coast cod and flounder are still not rebounding, despite efforts to revive them. The exploitation of bluefin tuna is just as disgusting as before, and scientists worry that, as developed nations impose stricter fishing regulations, the big fishing fleets will plunder the developing world, where regulations are generally looser.
The goods news is that implementing regulations such as lower quotas for individual fishermen, closing some areas to fishing, using nets that reduce by-catch, and limiting the number of fishing boats allowed in an area really do work.
The study found that the best-managed fisheries in the world are in New Zealand and Alaska. New England haddock is experiencing a “baby boom”–the population has rebounded back to the level it was in the 1930s, and New England scallops are at record highs.
And Kenya is a success story from the developing world–scientists and the local community teamed up to create more sustainable fishing environments by closing some areas to fishing, and restricting the use of certain fishing gear. The result is that there are now more fish, bigger fish, and fishermen’s incomes have actually gone up.
The question is whether or not more countries will implement the necessary regulations before it’s too late–and whether or not consumers will stop eating fish like bluefin tuna. If it weren’t so profitable, it wouldn’t be overfished.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2009