Research Highlight: Saving the World's Fisheries


The world’s fisheries supply more than2.8 billion people with nearly 20 percent of their annual intake ofanimal nutrition. Fisheries also contribute some $85 billionannually to the world’s economies, along with direct and indirectemployment for nearly 200 million people worldwide.

Yet, according to a recent study published in the journal Science,exploitation of the global production of seafood will lead to steepdeclines in fish stocks until seafood production ultimatelydisappears in less than 50 years. This stark prospect has increasedscrutiny and inquiries about the effectiveness of the management ofthe world’s marine fisheries and the issues they face.

The answers to those questions are troubling, according to a newstudy led by a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography atUC San Diego. Fisheries management around the globe is largelyineffective for a variety of reasons ranging from politics toinadequate scientific input, the study found.

Scripps postdoctoral researcher Camilo Mora and a team of leadingscientists developed a groundbreaking examination of fisheriesmanagement in the first global assessment of its kind. The studyfound management in developed countries suffers from politicalpressures and conditions that promote overfishing, while developingcountries are deterred by deficient scientific, political, andimplementation capabilities, among other problems.

"While countries have agreed to international initiatives toimprove management, on paper or in word, little had been knownabout the actual status or effectiveness with which governments areactually managing their fisheries," said Mora. "An even largermystery from a scientific point of view is whether improvedmanagement ensures fisheries sustainability at all."

To arrive at the results of their study, published in the journalPublic Library of Science (PLoS) Biology, Mora and his colleaguesanalyzed a set of attributes upon which country-level fisheriescould be evaluated. They pinpointed six parameters, including thescientific quality of management recommendations, the transparencyof converting recommendations into policy, the enforcement ofpolicies, the influence of subsidies, fishing effort, and the extentof fishing by foreign entities.

To quantify those attributes the Scripps-led science team developeda questionnaire designed to elicit worst- to best-case answers. Thesurvey was translated into five languages and distributed to nearly14,000 fisheries experts around the world. Nearly 1,200 evaluationswere used in the study.

The massive audit’s results show that fisheries management, despitebroad acceptance and commitments by governments to initiatives forimprovements, remains largely ineffective.

"Perhaps the most striking result of our survey was that not asingle country in the world was consistently good on all attributesanalyzed," said Mora.

In a second part of the study, Mora and his team combined the dataon management with data on the sustainability of fisheries toprovide the first ever evaluation of management matters andsustainability.

Here, the runaway dominating factor emerging from the survey wastransparency and participation in converting science into policy.Mora said he was surprised that one parameter could have such adominant influence. The study suggests that transparency and policyappear to work as a kind of "sustainability bottleneck,"single-handedly acting as a filter for fisheries management. Policycan stunt the effects of other factors—positive or negative—thestudy showed. A reversal in this trend, Mora says, is the mostdirect way to ensure sustainable fisheries.

"Our results illustrate the great vulnerability of the world’sfisheries services as well as the current limited willingness tomeet well-identified guidelines for sustainable management, andprovide a baseline against which future improvements can bemeasured," the authors noted in their report.

"The consequences of overexploiting the world’s fisheries are aconcern not only for food security and socioeconomic development butfor ocean ecosystems," said Boris Worm, a professor at DalhousieUniversity in Nova Scotia and co-author of the paper. "We nowrecognize that overfishing can also lead to the erosion ofbiodiversity and ecosystem productivity."

In addition to Mora, now based at Dalhousie, and Worm,coauthors of the paper include Ransom Myers, Marta Coll, SimoneLibralato, Tony Pitcher, Rashid Sumaila, Dirk Zeller, Reg Watson,and Kevin Gaston.

Funding for the study was provided by the Sloan Foundation; a RoyalSociety-Wolfson Research Merit Award; the Pew Fellowship for MarineConservation; the Pew Charitable Trust, Philadelphia; and theEuropean Community’s Seventh Framework Programme.

—Mario C. Aguilera

July/August 2009

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