Saturday, 1 August 2009

Fisheries must conserve or collapse -- Boris Worm

UN Grid-Arendahl graph: its caption states that 3/4 of the world’s marine fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce. Bycatch (other species for which the fishing gear was not intended) accounted for a quarter of the total catch -- much of it is wasted. Click on graph to see details.
Marine biologists Boris Worm and Ray Hilborn fought bitterly three years ago over Worm's prediction in Science that world food fisheries would collapse in 2048. Hilborn called it "mindbogglingly stupid". But they have just collaborated on a review article in Science July 2009, which not only confirms the earlier warning but says the crisis can be avoided -- if overfishing can be halted.

"Two scientists who once held opposing views about the state of ocean fisheries now agree about the significance of global fisheries declines and the solutions needed to reverse these trends," says Rebecca Goldburg, director of Marine Science at the Pew Environment Group. The Food and Agriculture Organisation says 80 percent of the planet's fish stocks are already fully exploited or in decline.

The problem is rogue fleets mostly from the developed world, poaching in the waters of poor countries without coast guards or adequate regulation. Heavily subsidized by home governments and investors, these high-tech ships are capable of wiping out entire species, literally "shooting fish in a barrel". And under pressure from international finance, they must fish stocks to extinction to pay off the loans. The fleets hail from Canada, Taiwan, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Turkey and EU, China, Ecuador, Bolivia, Russia, Philippines and other states. In 2007 Greenpeace published a list of shame of vessels engaged in IUU (illegal, unregulated and unreported) fishing. See RIIA updates. It is this "pirate" fishing, Worm and Hilborn agree after an exhaustive review of scientific research, that threatens 75% of food fish worldwide.

On the other hand, there is dramatic recovery in areas with good fisheries management and coast guards (unfortunately, many are the rich countries that now send their fleets to poach elsewhere). Examples are Georges Bank between Maine and NS (where all but cod and flounder have rebounded, Iceland, southern Australia, and the US West Coast. Successful management includes controls on net size, bycatch and trawling bans, onboard inspections, scientific catch shares, managing for biodiversity rather than so-called "maximum sustainable catch", and no-take zones aka "marine protected areas".

"When you go region by region, you can see some solutions emerging," says Worm. "But when you look at the whole world, the situation still looks pretty grim." The big question is whether the rich nations will gather the political will to rein in their financiers and rogue fleets -- and thereby avoid the collapses that will inevitably occur in the waters of the poor countries, where fish is desperately needed for human survival. Will our grandchildren see a series of disasters similar to the Newfoundland cod collapse?
See Time magazine 1 Aug 2009 summary of the Worm-Hilborn Science July 2009 article, which is not yet publicly available. For scientific details see another review article by Worm et al, "Management Effectiveness of the World's Marine Fisheries", published in PLOS Biology 23 June 2009. see reports and graphs from Dalhousie University's Worm Lab which asks

  • How is marine biodiversity distributed across the globe?
  • How is marine biodiversity changing over time?
  • What are the consequences of biodiversity change?
  • What management solutions really work in preventing biodiversity loss?
  • See also Wikipedia on overfishing, IUU and marine protected areas; UNEP article and graph on overfishing. Latest news from IPS 6 Aug 09 and trailer for Rupert Murray film End of the Line.
    Update 2013 by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists: Looting the Seas.
    Update 24 June 2014: Global Ocean Commission calls for sweeping changes to save oceans 
    Update 26 June 2014: 18 countries' Fossil Fuel Subsidies add to rogue fleet pressure on fish stocks
    African fishers' report on IUU
    23 Apr 2015 Guardian article on WWF Ocean report.

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