Fish for dinner: Overfishing is easing in some areas

WASHINGTON — Crab cakes and fish sticks won't be disappearing after all.

Two years after a study warned that overfishing could cause a collapse in the world's seafood stocks by 2048, an update says the tide is turning, at least in some areas.

"This paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause," said Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, lead author of both reports. "I'm somewhat more hopeful ... than what we were seeing two years ago."

Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington challenged Worm's original report, leading the two — plus 19 other researchers — to launch the study that led to the new findings. They're being published in today's edition of the journal Science.

The news isn't all good.

Of 10 areas of the world that were studied, significant overfishing continues in three, but steps have been taken to curb excesses in five others, Hilborn and Worm report. The other two were not a problem in either study.

Hilborn noted that 63 percent of fish stocks remain below desired levels. It takes time to rebuild after steps are taken to reduce the catch.

Rebecca Goldburg, director of Marine Science at the Pew Environment Group, commented that "two scientists who once held opposing views about the state of ocean fisheries now agree about the significance of global fisheries declines and the solutions needed to reverse these trends. If fishery managers worldwide heed these important scientific findings, then we have an extraordinary opportunity to restore ocean fisheries."

Michael Fogarty of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a dramatic recovery of haddock on Georges Bank, off New England, as well as improvements in redfish, scallop and other fish. But still others, such as cod and flounder, remain vulnerable, he said at a briefing.

"We feel confident that the tide of overexploitation can be reversed on a global basis," Fogarty said, citing such steps as exclusion areas, changes in fishing gear, assignments of rights to harvest and incentives for fishers to take a long-term view.

Two areas, Alaska and New Zealand, have led the world in terms of management success by not waiting until drastic measures are needed to conserve, the report said. These areas were not a problem in either study.

Regions where excess exploitation has halted are Iceland, southern Australia, the Northeast United States, the Newfoundland-Labrador area and the California Current, which flows south along the West Coast.

Still being overfished, the report said, are the North and Baltic seas and the Bay of Biscay region.

A newly developing problem is the movement of major fishing efforts to the developing world, with foreign fleets operating off east and west Africa under access agreements with local governments. These fleets compete with local fishers and almost all the fish they catch is taken to industrialized countries.

"The prognosis for Africa is not nearly as good as it is for wealthier areas," commented Tim McClanahan of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Mombasa, Kenya.

"Prior to this study, evaluations of the status of world fish stocks and communities were based on catch records for lack of a better alternative. Results were controversial because catch trends may not give an accurate picture of the trends in fish abundance," Ana Parma of Centro Nacional Patagonico in Argentina said in a statement.

"This is the first exhaustive attempt to assemble the best-available data on the status of marine fisheries and trends in exploitation rates," she said. The analysis includes catch data, stock assessments, scientific trawl surveys, small-scale fishery data and computer modeling results.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A separate study, also in Science, reports that researchers successfully have restored populations of native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay.