Scientists, industry discuss sustainability

Want to fix overfished stocks? It will take more than quotas.

Amid the collection of seafood industry players and scientists that attended and presented at the 2013 Science and Sustainability Forum’s Global Review on Friday, David Goethel was a bit of an anomaly.

Connected to the New England fisheries all of his life, Goethel is one of many cod fishermen who objected vehemently to recent decisions to reduce quotas yet again, in an attempt to protect a dwindling population in the Atlantic.

Goethel spoke last on Friday, but his voice summed up the crux of all the arguments and discussions that came before him that day: If we want to save cod, or any other species, it’s going to take more than quotas — the world needs to learn that there are many factors leading to low fish populations, some of which fishermen have no control over.

“Our ecosystem is massively out of balance outside New England,” he said.

The review lasted all day, with about 70 hardy souls braving the driving snow on Boston’s waterfront to listen to experts talk about what was being overfished and where, and what, if anything, could be done about it. The Friday presentations are part of a three-day long conference on sustainability in the U.S. seafood industry.

Thor Lassen, Ocean Trust president and coordinator of the event, said he hoped that scientists and seafood industry leaders will use the experience to learn from each other, and to develop better ways to conduct sustainable business.

“What we’re trying to do is bring a science perspective to the debate about sustainability,” he said. “There’s something here for the scientists to consider, and for the buyers to understand.”

Kicking off the event were two keynote speakers, Indroyono Soesilo, director of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s fisheries and aquaculture resources use and conservation division, and Ray Hilborn, a researcher with the University of Washington and author of the book, Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Soesilo gave a snapshot of the world’s fisheries and fish stocks today, and a prediction that by 2020, the world will demand 36 million more metric tons (MT) of seafood a year, but overfishing and illegal fishing could cause a loss of more than 40 million MT by then.

Hilborn cited studies in the 1970s that warned overfishing could lead to there being no more fish in the sea by 2048. He did a follow-up study through the 1980s that found that simply wasn’t going to happen, in part because of action taken to restrict overfishing.

Today, Hilborn said there is no danger of the world’s oceans being stripped clean by 2048, but some species, such as Atlantic cod, are still underpopulated.

“They’re still fished much too hard,” he said.

But while governments can rein in fishing, fixing the problem is not that simple. Svein Sundby, from the Institute of Marine Research, said that there are other natural factors at play that fishermen have no control over. Factors such as water temperature and even how much the sun shines can change the amount of plankton in a body of water.

In the Atlantic Ocean, he said, these factors have led to a loss of phytoplankton, which the cod eat. That is just as much a factor in the decline in population, he said, as overfishing is.

Goethel agreed, citing cutbacks in fishing as proof. In the 1980s, Goethel admitted that with a peak of 1,900 boats all fishing cod at once, it was too much.

But today, that number has shrunk to a mere 135 boats, all scattered along a 500-mile stretch of the East Coast, and still the cod numbers haven’t come back. Clearly, Goethel said, there’s more to the problem than overfishing.

“I would submit we’ve done our job in ending overcapitalization,” he said.

Goethel said he and other fishermen understand the need for quotas, and that those quotas are based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the most that can be taken from a stock per season without causing the population to go down.

The problem, he said, is that government officials have set quotas based on an MSY that assumes all the environmental factors, such as water temperature, have not changed. Goethel said a new MSY, one that takes the current environmental factors into account, would likely change the terms of the quotas, and demonstrate to fishermen that officials are living in the real world.

Svein said fisheries managers around the world must take a more holistic approach to setting quotas and other regulations. Rather than looking at one species, or one stock, they must look at the larger multi-species ecosystem picture when making the rules. That, he said, will ensure the law keeps up with science instead of lagging behind like it often does now.

“It’s a different science, so to say,” he said. “This is a moving target. It’s varying all the time.”


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