Saving the World's Fisheries

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The numbers are staggering. The world’s fisheries supply more than 2.8 billion people with nearly 20 percent of their annual intake of animal nutrition. Fisheries also contribute some $85 billion annually to the world’s economies, along with direct and indirect employment for nearly 200 million pe0ople worldwide.

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

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

Scripps postdoctoral researcher Camilo Mora and a team of leading scientists developed a groundbreaking examination of fisheries management in the first global assessment of its kind. The study found management in developed countries suffers from political pressures and conditions that promote overfishing, while developing countries are deterred by deficient scientific, political, and implementation capabilities, among other problems.

 “While countries have agreed to international initiatives to improve management, on paper or in word, little had been known about the actual status or effectiveness with which governments are actually managing their fisheries,” said Mora. “An even larger mystery from a scientific point of view is whether improved management ensures fisheries sustainability at all.”

To arrive at the results of their study, published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology, Mora and his colleagues analyzed a set of attributes upon which country-level fisheries could be evaluated. They pinpointed six parameters, including the scientific quality of management recommendations, the transparency of converting recommendations into policy, the enforcement of policies, the influence of subsidies, fishing effort, and the extent of fishing by foreign entities.

To quantify those attributes the Scripps-led science team developed a questionnaire designed to elicit worst- to best-case answers. The survey was translated into five languages and distributed to nearly 14,000 fisheries experts around the world. Nearly 1,200 evaluations were used in the study.

The massive audit’s results show that fisheries management, despite broad acceptance and commitments by governments to initiatives for improvements, remains largely ineffective.

“Perhaps the most striking result of our survey was that not a single country in the world was consistently good on all attributes analyzed,” said Mora.

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

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

“Our results illustrate the great vulnerability of the world’s fisheries services as well as the current limited willingness to meet well-identified guidelines for sustainable management, and provide a baseline against which future improvements can be measured,” the authors note in their report.

“The consequences of overexploiting the world’s fisheries are a concern not only for food security and socioeconomic development but for ocean ecosystems,” says Boris Worm, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and co-author of the paper. “We now recognize that overfishing can also lead to the erosion of biodiversity and ecosystem productivity.”

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

Funding for the study was provided by the Sloan Foundation; a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award; the Pew Fellowship for Marine Conservation; the Pew Charitable Trust, Philadelphia; and the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme.

—Mario C. Aguilera

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