If the slimehead were still a slimehead, it wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble,” begins a good WashPost story today on overfishing of the Orange roughy and other fish with popular nom de plumes.

As lakes and oceans have been depleted by heavy fishing, the seafood industry tried to dress up what was left – former ‘trash’ species, and unfamiliar fish from the deep ocean – with new names to improve their popularity.

The Post story is based on a major report on the world’s seafood stocks published in Science, “Rebuilding Global Fisheries” (subs. req’d), which found that 63 percent of assessed fish stocks, species are below healthy levels.  I feel compelled to note that the lead author of this major report on overfishing is Boris Worm.  I can only imagine what he went through as a child….

Worm predicted that “if fishing continued at the same rate, all the world’s seafood stocks would collapse by 2048.”  The world’s fish catch “has grown more than fivefold since 1950.”  The result:

The depleted stocks include familiar fish such as the Atlantic cod, which has been fished so heavily that the Georges Bank population off New England is at 12 percent of healthy levels. The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper stocks are at 6 percent of what scientists say they should be.

And that has led to the makeover of previously unpopular fish:

The most famous case involves the Patagonian toothfish and the Antarctic toothfish – drab, yard-long creatures from the cold waters near the South Pole. In the 1970s, they were rechristened “Chilean sea bass,” although they are not, biologically speaking, sea bass.

The toothfish’s new name and the firm, oily meat found a huge market. In recent years, environmentalists have said both toothfish are now threatened with heavy fishing, including by “pirate” fishing boats that ignore conservation laws.

The slimehead had similar troubles. Environmentalists say they live long – 100 years or more – and reproduce slowly, so it takes a long time to replace fish that are caught.

And along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, fishermen used to toss back a toad-colored fish that looked like it was 30 percent mouth and 50 percent stomach: the goosefish. Then somebody noticed that the tail meat could be cut into tasty fillets. Then, someone thought of “monkfish.” Harvests jumped five times from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and the fish’s numbers dropped.

The Science study itself itself suggests the problem can be solved:

[Worm] said the latest study actually revealed something surprising: a reason for optimism.About half of the depleted species might actually have a chance to recover, the scientists found, if given enough protection.

All that is required for this recovery is for humanity to bear “short-term costs” and adopt a variety of proactive environmental strategies.  Now does that sound like a behavior pattern common to the subspecies homo “sapiens” sapiens?

Indeed, if the study has any flaw, it is an utter lack of discussion of global warming. A 2009 study in Nature Geoscience warned that global warming may create “dead zones” in the ocean that would be devoid of fish and seafood and endure for up to two millennia (see Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”).

Kind of hard to recover fish stocks if we wipe out the coral reefs, “put calcification out of business in the oceans,” and generally render the seas inhospitable to complex life forms.

You can read the study abstract online, so let me end with the study’s conclusions:

Conclusions. Marine ecosystems are currently subjected to a range of exploitation rates, resulting in a mosaic of stable, declining, collapsed, and rebuilding fish stocks and ecosystems. Management actions have achieved measurable reductions in exploitation rates in some regions, but a significant fraction of stocks will remain collapsed unless there are further reductions in exploitation rates. Unfortunately, effective controls on exploitation rates are still lacking in vast areas of the ocean, including those beyond national jurisdiction. Ecosystems examined in this paper account for less than a quarter of world fisheries area and catch, and lightly to moderately fished and rebuilding ecosystems (green and yellow areas in comprise less than half of those. They may best be interpreted as large-scale restoration experiments that demonstrate opportunities for successfully rebuilding marine resources elsewhere. Similar trajectories of recovery have been documented in protected areas around the world, which currently cover less than 1% of ocean area.

Taken together, these examples provide hope that despite a long history of overexploitation  marine ecosystems can still recover if exploitation rates are reduced substantially. In fisheries science, there is a growing consensus that the exploitation rate that achieves maximum sustainable yield (uMSY) should be reinterpreted as an upper limit rather than a management target. This requires overall reductions in exploitation rates, which can be achieved through a range of management tools. Finding the best management tools may depend on the local context. Most often, it appears that a combination of traditional approaches (catch quotas, community management) coupled with strategically placed fishing closures, more selective fishing gear, ocean zoning, and economic incentives holds much promise for restoring marine fisheries and ecosystems. Within science, a new cooperation of fisheries scientists and conservation biologists sharing the best available data, and bridging disciplinary divisions, will help to inform and improve ecosystem management. We envision a seascape where the rebuilding, conservation, and sustainable use of marine resources become unifying themes for science, management, and society. We caution that the road to recovery is not always simple and not without short-term costs. Yet, it remains our only option for insuring fisheries and marine ecosystems against further depletion and collapse.