Monday, August 24, 2009

Empty ocean by 2048? Maybe not...

Even if you do not pay close attention to oceans issues, chances are good that you’ve heard some variation on the ‘scientists predict the collapse of global fisheries by 2048’ story. This theme has its roots in an article written back in 2006 for the prestigious academic journal, Science. In this article, fourteen scientists – led by Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax – presented evidence of a global trend towards widespread biodiversity loss and the resulting loss of marine ecosystem services (such as fisheries). In one sentence, towards the end of the paper, the authors identify 2048 as being the date (extraploated from trends that they identify in the paper) at which global fisheries may be collapsed.

It was only one little sentence, and it wasn't really even the main point of the paper. However, the impact of that little sentence was incredible. In fact, there's a good chance that this lone sentence has had more impact on public dialogue than any other single sentence written in any academic article over the past 10 years: the specter of seafood “disappearing” in 40 years brought fisheries and oceans issues to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, inspired at least one documentary, and lent credence to efforts to stop overfishing. However, at the same time that the popular media were picking up the ‘2048’ ball and running with it, the conclusion – and the science behind it- were being assailed by some scientists.

The unofficial leader of the scientific resistance to the paper was Dr. Ray Hilborn, a prominent fisheries scientist at the University of Washington. He had previously written a paper, “Faith-based Fisheries”, which accused Science of blindly accepting articles that reflected negatively on commercial fisheries. Now, Dr. Hilborn used fightin’ words when questioning the "2048" paper – and the authors. Finally, Drs. Hilborn and Worm met to hash out their differences – not in a back alley with bare fists, but in the substantially more refined environment of a joint interview on National Public Radio (they are respected scientists, after all).

To hear the popular press tell it, what followed seems like the academia version of a standard romantic comedy plot: during the interview, the two scientists came to realize that they had more in common than they had realized. They soon agreed to collaborate on a research project, which grew to include 19 other scientists. The result of this project is a paper published in the July 31 edition of Science. For this project, Worm, Hilborn, and the rest of the authors evaluated ten large ecosystems for trends in both fish stocks and ecosystem health. They report that while the majority of stocks that they surveyed still need to be rebuilt, there is evidence to suggest that such rebuilding is possible through the use of four key management practices:

  • Catch shares;
  • Selective fishing practices including gear modifications;
  • Fisheries removals that are managed to stay under (rather than achieve) Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), and,
  • Establishment of areas closed to some or all kinds of fishing.

So, this paper spells out the basic management measures required for ecologically sustainable fisheries. The question, then, is how to use these four management measures in a way that is sustainable for small-scale fishermen and coastal communities. What do you think? Are there ways that some or all of those four management measures can be used in a way that encourages healthy and sustainable coastal fishing communities? What are your ideas?

1 comment:

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