Science magazine

The vast majority of the world’s fisheries are in worse shape than previously believed, with half the world’s fisheries in decline, according to a new report in Science magazine.

The study is the first global population estimate for fish stocks that undergo no scientific assessments, which make up 80 percent of the world’s catch.

“We found small-scale, unassessed fisheries in the developing world are in substantially worse shape than we previously thought,” said Chris Costello, the article’s lead author who participated in a phone press conference Wednesday afternoon announcing the findings and their implications. Costello is a professor of environmental and resource economics at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Slow-growing and late maturing species like sharks tend to be the worst off in unassessed fisheries compared to small, fast-growing species like mackerel and herring that can recover more quickly.

The problem is not limited to the developing world, he added. Regardless of where they’re located, fisheries with poor data are not faring as well as those managed with regular stock assessments; small-scale unassessed fisheries in the United States, Europe and Canada also face challenges.

“Because these fisheries are unassessed it has been very hard in the past to know when you’re fishing them too hard,” said Costello.

While the news isn’t good, the authors point out it could be worse. Only a small subset of these fisheries have collapsed, meaning there is still time for a turnaround if governments and fishery managers around the world act now to implement tools that have been proven to boost depleted stocks.

“To me that’s the real value of having that assessment now, to light a fire under the global fisheries community that says, ‘Now is the time to act,’” said Costello.

Recovery will require a combination of efforts, according to the report’s analysis, which pointed to recovering fish stocks in the United States. Effective tools for recovery include having reliable data to set a total allowable catch, closing areas to allow for rebuilding, using sustainable seafood markets and giving individual fishermen a stake in the fishery so that they are invested in its long-term outcome. The report’s findings suggest that recovery efforts could increase fishery abundance by 56 percent.

“Five years ago I would have been terrified by this report but today I have hope that we can turn fisheries around and confidence we can do it,” said Amanda Leland, VP-oceans for Environmental Defense Fund, an advocate for catch shares and other rights-based management methods for fishery recovery.

“The revolution here is to empower fishermen to lead the way in recovering fish populations,” she said.

“The sliver lining here is that we have proven solutions that are described,” said Michael Arbuckle, senior fisheries specialist for the World Bank. Arbuckle works on the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans, a multi-million dollar effort by more than 100 organizations to protect fisheries in developing countries.

“The challenge, though, is to scale these sorts of solutions up to meet the global challenge,” he said.

The new report was co-authored by Steve Gaines, professor and dean at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management; Matthew Elliott, principal of California Environmental Associates; Ray Hilborn, professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington; and Sarah Lester, project scientist for the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California Santa Barbara. It is embedded in a larger study, “Charting a Course to Sustainable Fisheries,” released this week by California Environmental Associates.


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