More than half the world’s fisheries are overexploited, and small-scale fisheries, the kind that disproportionately feed the world’s hungry (think of reef-fish which are decimated by industrial-sized fishing vessels) have it the worst according to a new study published last week by researchers at the University of California and the University of Washington.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Fisheries are not doomed to collapse. Quite the opposite. The same study argues that simple conservation measures — from setting fishing quotas to protecting habitat — could actually increase fishery yields by up to 40 percent.
This news comes at an important time, as the world’s population is set to hit 9 billion people by 2050 and demand for protein is rising. Currently, one billion people go to bed hungry every night, and more than 400 million of them live in major fishing countries.
It might seem counterintuitive that imposing strict limits on how much we fish could actually increase the amount of fish we are able to take out of the ocean, but exactly that scenario has played out in countless fish stocks. Where regulations that set catch limits based on a species’ ability to reproduce and take into account fish that are killed and discarded, this has actually happened. Striped bass is a good example; the species was once severely overfished, but it has made a comeback thanks to good fishery management.
The current race around the world for ever more remote populations of fish with ever more technological and destructive fishing vessels — vessels that aren’t accountable for the enormous amount of fish that are caught and wasted – just isn’t working. In fact, more than 16 billion pounds of seafood bycatch is wasted every year. A recent study by the National Marine Fisheries Service revealed that some trawler boats in the northeast discard more than half of the fish they catch, and more than half of those trawlers weren’t collecting any information about their discards at all. What good is a quota if, on the side, a species is being hammered and unaccounted because it’s thrown over the side?
It was this same Northeastern U.S. fishery that the federal government recently declared a disaster, as species like cod, haddock and flounder have struggled to recover from decades of overfishing, lax oversight of bycatch and a new struggle to adapt to a warming ocean.
Clearly there needs to be more accountability, monitoring and simple common sense when it comes to safeguarding our fisheries and ensuring the security of the world’s food supply. We need to know exactly how many fish we are taking out of the ocean. This means more on-board observers, a true accounting for the billions of pounds thrown overboard and catch limits adjusted to match that reality.
The problem with our mismanaged fisheries is global in scope. That’s why at Oceana, the organization I run, we believe that an international solution is the best way forward. Just 10 countries account for more than half of the world’s catch, including Peru, The U.S., Chile, and Norway, to name a few. By working within those countries and introducing reforms at the national level which take into account more than the interests of the fishing industry, we can begin to turn the tide, so to speak, for our finny friends. After all, it isn’t just fish that stand to suffer from overfishing, but the people who depend on them for survival as well.