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Research Offers Hope for Recovery of Global Fish Populations

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, Canada, July 31, 2009 (ENS) – Efforts to curb overfishing have begun to succeed, bringing hope that fish populations can rebuild if given a chance.

A new study by an international team of scientists examined global fish populations and fishing trends in 10 large marine ecosystems and found that in five of the areas where intensive management is taking place, fish stocks are beginning to rebuild.

The two-year study, published in today’s issue of the journal “Science,” was led by Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax and Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington in Seattle, along with an international team of 19 co-authors.

Dr. Boris Worm (Photo courtesy Dalhousie U.)

Global fisheries are in crisis, the authors warn, explaining that marine fisheries provide 15 percent of the animal protein consumed by humans, yet 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed.

The scientists surveyed 1,188 fisheries experts from every coastal country in the world for information about the effectiveness with which fisheries are being managed, and related those results to an index of the probable sustainability of reported catches.

“We show that the management of fisheries worldwide is lagging far behind international guidelines recommended to minimize the effects of overexploitation,” the authors write.

“Only a handful of countries have a robust scientific basis for management recommendations, and transparent and participatory processes to convert those recommendations into policy while also ensuring compliance with regulations,” they find.

“Our study also shows that the conversion of scientific advice into policy, through a participatory and transparent process, is at the core of achieving fisheries sustainability, regardless of other attributes of the fisheries,” the authors state, adding, “These results illustrate the benefits of participatory, transparent, and science-based management while highlighting the great vulnerability of the world’s fisheries services.”

Hold of a Peruvian fishing boat full of anchovies (Photo by Jose Cort courtesy NOAA)

The partnership between the two lead scientists on this study began with an argument.

“It was like Superman calling out Batman – fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn publicly criticizing the findings published by Dalhousie marine ecologist Boris Worm in 2006 suggesting the world”s oceans could run out of fish by 2048 if overfishing was allowed to continue,” writes Billy Comeau of Dalhousie University.

In questioning Dr. Worm”s projections, Dr. Hilborn “set off a media and scientific frenzy wondering how two of the most respected experts in their respective fields could be oceans apart in their views.”

“During such a public debate it would be hard to imagine a quick reconciliation between the two, but when they met during a call-in show on National Public Radio, that”s exactly what happened,” writes Comeau.

“Through our discussions we realized we were actually not that far apart,” says Dr. Worm. “We became curious to see if we could find more common ground and whether this could bring those two disciplines closer together.”

The answer is yes.

While there is hope for rebuilding, the study warns that many areas are still suffering from collapse of fisheries as a result of overfishing with some 63 percent of assessed fish stocks in need of help.

Most of the fisheries that showed improvement are managed by wealthy industrialized nations with the United States, Iceland, and New Zealand showing the most success.

This fisherman pulled in a full net. Western Indian Ocean 1984. (Photo by Jose Cort courtesy NOAA)

An exception is the developing nation of Kenya, where the Wildlife Conservation Society conducts long term fisheries research. WCS has advised local managers and communities to close some key areas to fishing and restrict certain types of gear. This has led to an increase in the size and prices of fish available, and an increase in fishers” incomes.

“This study shows that given the opportunity, the world”s oceans can rebound from over-fishing,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, director of marine programs with the Wildlife Conservation Society based at New York’s Bronx Zoo.

“When considering the myriad environmental threats facing the world”s oceans, improved fisheries management is critical to the sustainability of both marine biodiversity and human livelihoods,” McClennen said. “This is particularly true in less-developed countries where coastal peoples depend upon the health of some of the world”s most biodiverse marine ecosystems for survival on a daily basis.”

“We didn’t look only fishery by fishery, we also looked ecosystem by ecosystem,” explains Dr. Worm. “One of the novel things we did here was find out is whether the pressure we put on ecosystems by fisheries is going up or down. The good news is that the pressure on the ecosystem is decreasing overall in half of the 10 systems we have detailed data for.”

While it may seem like a glass half-empty or half-full debate, the findings give Dr. Worm a renewed hope that if proper, timely management is applied, fish stocks can be rebuilt.

“I think it gives us hope that something can be done and it”s not just an idea as we now have the results to show the world.”

Dr. Worm explains that the key to recovery lies in a diversity of solutions – reducing catches, closing certain areas, regulating fishing gear and reducing the capacity of fishing fleets, and each area will have to do things specific to that ecosystem.

An example is the current effort of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to end overfishing and rebuild blacknose sharks and other shark populations. Nine public hearings will be held on the proposal, from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, in August and September.

“Our latest stock assessment found that the blacknose shark is depleted and the rate of fishing, both directed and incidental, is unsustainable,” said Jim Balsiger, acting NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA”s Fisheries Service. “Blacknose sharks are vulnerable because they bear few young. The proposed measures would help rebuild the species, an important part of the ecosystem in the south Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.”

NOAA proposes to create a separate blacknose shark quota and allow only commercial fishermen with a directed permit to land blacknose sharks until the quota is reached.

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