We’ve known for a few decades now that we’ve been fishing the oceans at unsustainable levels. We have also over that time developed reasonable management strategies to help overfished stocks recover. So where are we now?
A new and remarkably inclusive report on the status of over 4500 of the world’s capture fisheries – that’s about 78% of them – indicates that most of them are in poor shape, overfished and heading toward collapse. No surprise there. About a third are in tolerable biological shape – which means not collapsing toward extinction, but not necessarily in good economic shape. So the overall picture is bleak, everywhere.
There are exceptions – on the coasts of some countries such as the US and Australia fisheries are recovering under strictly enforced regulations. On the other hand, China has indicated it wants to increase fish consumption by 50% within 6 years, and it already is the most voracious of the fishing nations.
The report then asks how each fishery would fare under four distinct recovery approaches, and models the outcomes. The first is the famous ‘business-as-usual’ don’t change anything scenario that we know leads to oblivion – everything dwindles and collapses. The second is if some modest conservation practices are accepted – and the outcome here is only a little better
The third approach is also familiar, the maximum-sustainable-yield model that has been used to manage many fisheries for decades. It is certainly is a lot better than open access, unregulated fishing, but few fisheries have actually recovered very much under it.
The fourth is ‘rights based fisheries management’ – more difficult, with short-term pain, but a long-term impressive benefit. It would involve reducing fishing effort to sustainable levels, stabilizing overfished stocks, reducing or eliminating the ‘race to fish’, maximizing economic value through product quality and market timing.
Of course this 4th approach is the one we should favor – who could disagree? The model predicts rapid recovery of most stocks (again, there are exceptions, like NW Atlantic cod) – 10 years on average should be sufficient. The total global annual catch should also increase by about 17% up from the current 98 million metric tons. Because of higher product value, this should add about $50 billion to the value of the total catch. Such management obviously involves a lot of regulation, cooperation and enforcement.
In this more perfect world, illegal fishing and Wasteful bycatch would be eliminated. Fishing fleets would be smaller. The report ends with this: “Commonsense reforms to fisheries management would dramatically improve overall fish abundance along with food security and profits.”
If only commonsense existed.
Even if we do somehow change our fishing practices, recovering fish stocks will still face the additional stresses of ocean warming and the related community disruption that is underway, and we have the immense challenge of feeding the additional 4-6 billion people we are likely to share the planet with by the end of the century.
For global fisheries to be sustainable, more abundant, and more valuable, we need to achieve the same global culture change that we have recognized is necessary to convert us to using abundant renewable energy, and to radically reduce both our consumption and class inequality.
What a dream!
But if we do not achieve this commonsense dream or something close to it, then we are left with the nightmare of business-as-usual that has brought us to the brink where we now stand.