Reports of Fisheries' Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated
In 2006, a paper published in the journal Science argued that fish stocks would collapse globally by 2048. The paper was widely reported on in the media and gained some currency. However, this alarmist assertion rang hollow for those of us participating in the Alaska pollock, cod, and flatfish fisheries.
Precautionary, science-based catch levels have been in place for the Alaska groundfish fisheries—fisheries which account for 40 percent of all U.S. seafood landings annually—since the late 1970s, and fish stocks have remained healthy and robust during that time. The principal Alaska groundfish fisheries have all been certified as sustainably managed under the independent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) program, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund. More than 100 other fisheries worldwide have also been certified under the MSC program since 2000 with more than 150 other fisheries currently undergoing environmental audits.
Could the "gloom and doom" crowd have it wrong? University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn thinks so. Dr. Hilborn penned an article for The Nature Conservancy's The Science Chronicles, "Apocalypse Forestalled: Why All the World's Fisheries Aren't Collapsing" that reported on the results of a project to analyze fish stock assessments collected globally. Dr. Hilborn's work, which included a collaboration with one of the lead authors of the controversial Science article, showed that fish stocks, in fact, are increasing in abundance.
Read Dr. Hilborn's article…
Federal Fisheries Chief Testifies on Sustainable U.S. Fisheries
In March 2011, Eric Schwaab, Assistant Administrator at NOAA Fisheries, testified before Congress on the improvements in fisheries management that have occurred since passage of the 2006 landmark amendments to the nation's principal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Mr. Schwaab noted that science-based catch limits will be in effect for all U.S. fisheries by the end of 2011, effectively ending overfishing.
His testimony also noted that, "Between 2000 and 2010, there have been a total of 84 stocks on the overfished list; in that same timeframe, 36 stocks have come off the list. Similarly, there have been a total of 76 stocks subject to overfishing; 36 stocks have come off that list. There are currently 48 stocks that are overfished and 40 stocks subject to overfishing." NOAA Fisheries and the eight regional fishery management councils manage 230 fish stocks.
Bering Sea Alaska Pollock Abundance Surges in 2011
Based on the results of federal fishery research surveys, fishery scientists recommended a more than 50% increase in the Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) for eastern Bering Sea Alaska pollock for 2011 above the 2010 level. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council then recommended, and the Secretary of Commerce approved, a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) level just under the ABC. In Alaska, fishery managers never set annual catch limits higher than the precautionary harvest level recommended by scientific advisory panels.
Science Illuminates That Fish Stocks Are Healthier Than Reported
In April 2011, the science journal Conservation Biology published a paper by Dr. Trevor Branch and four colleagues that determined that global fish stocks are much more robust than generally reported. The Branch paper analyzed fish stock assessment data for numerous fisheries and concluded
that 28-33% of such stocks are overexploited. While that number is still unacceptably high, it stands in sharp contrast to assertions that 70% of fish stocks are overexploited.
Those claiming that most stocks are overexploited used catch data, not stock assessment data, to support their claim. The Branch paper observes that declines in catches can be linked to appropriate quota reductions by fishery managers responding to a natural downward fluctuation of a fish stock or to implementation of a more precautionary overall approach. Linking a decline in catch amounts in a fishery to overfishing is flawed reasoning. Branch finds that stock assessment information indicates that fish stocks are healthier than reported and that the status of global fish stocks "has been fairly stable in recent years."
Nature Article Refutes "Fishing Down the Food Web" Assertion
In November 2010, Dr. Trevor Branch and seven colleagues analyzing stock assessment data versus catch data refuted a much-quoted 1998 paper that contended fishermen were overfishing higher trophic level stocks and then "sequentially going after fish farther down the food web." The Nature article finds that "on a global scale humans don't appear to be fishing down the food web."
Nature article co-author Beth Fulton states, "Catch data might be easiest to get, but that doesn't help if what it tells us is wrong. Instead we really need to look directly at what the ecosystems are doing."
Market Forces Hold the Key to Fishing Activities
Dr. Suresh Sethi joined two co-authors in publishing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that refuted the notion that the global fishing industry is "fishing down the food web." Sethi's analysis of stock assessment data collected over a three-year period by two dozen fisheries scientists shows that fishermen target fish stocks based on individual economic decisions, with some fishermen seeking lower tropic level species, such as shrimp, while others fish for higher trophic level species, such as swordfish. The analysis does not support the contention that fishermen are in any way moving sequentially from higher to lower trophic level species because fisheries are being fished out.