Ray Hilborn: World fish stocks stable

Speaking at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit on Wednesday, 7 June in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., University of Washington fisheries researcher Ray Hilborn said the perception that the world’s fish stocks are declining is incorrect, and that fishing could sustainably be stepped up in areas with good management.

Hilborn pointed to figures from the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment Database that indicate that fish stocks dipped through the last part of the 20th century, but have since recovered in many fisheries.

“There is a very broad perception that fish stocks around the world are declining. Many news coverages in the media will always begin with ‘fish stocks in the world are declining.’ And this simply isn’t true. They are increasing in many places and in fact, globally, the best assessments are that fish stocks are actually stable and probably increasing on average now,” Hilborn said.

The RAM Legacy Database collects information on all the stocks in the world that have been scientifically assessed, which is a little more than half of the world’s catch. 

“What we don’t really know about is the big fisheries in Asia, in the sense that we don’t have scientific assessments of the trends in abundance,” Hilborn said.

He added that the general consensus is that the status of those stocks is poor, a result of, among other things, poor fisheries management, reinforcing surveys that have shown a direct correlation between high stock abundance and high intensity of management. 

“For most of the developed world fisheries’ management is quite intense, and South and Southeast Asia stand out as really not having much in the way of fisheries’ management systems, particularly any form a enforcement of regulations, if regulations exists,” he said.

But in much of the developed world, Hilborn said fish stocks are robust, even when they sometimes get labeled as overfished. 

“Overfished is a definition with respect to potential yield, and a stock that is overfished is not necessarily a stock that is going extinct or a stock that has in any sense collapsed. It simply means you’re getting less yield from that stock than you could get if was well-managed,” Hilborn added. 

Hilborn generally recommends lower fishing pressure that does not try to maximize sustainable yield, with a potential of up to 20 percent loss on yield. But he added that even this level of fishing will lead to overfished stocks. 

“If you really want to have no overfished stocks, you’re going to have to reduce fishing pressure so far that we would probably lose half of the global food production,” Hilborn said.


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