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World's fish stocks healthy and abundant, says new study

Friday 31 January 2020

Global reported fisheries catches are in good shape – the world is not going to run out of fish.

That is the finding of an international project led by the University of Washington to compile and analyse data from fisheries around the world, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is a narrative that fish stocks are declining around the world, that fisheries management is failing, and we need new solutions – and it’s totally wrong,” according to lead author Ray Hilborn, a foremost fisheries scientist who is a professor in the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

“Fish stocks are not all declining around the world. They are increasing in many places, and we already know how to solve problems through effective fisheries management.

“Given that most countries are trying to provide long-term sustainable yield of their fisheries, we want to know where we are overfishing, and where there is potential for more yield in places we’re not fully exploiting.”

“With the data we were able to assemble, we could test whether fisheries management allows stocks to recover,” said co-author Christopher Costello, a professor of environmental and resource economics at University of California, Santa Barbara, and a board member of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“We found that, emphatically, the answer is yes.

“This really gives credibility to the fishery managers and governments around the world that are willing to take strong actions.”

The project builds on a decade-long international collaboration to assemble estimates of the status of fish stocks, or distinct populations of fish, around the world.

This information helps scientists and managers know where overfishing is occurring, or where some areas could support even more fishing.

Now the team’s database includes information on nearly half of the world’s fish catch, up from about 20 percent represented in the last compilation in 2009 (Worm et al).

Fisheries New Zealand principal adviser fisheries science, Dr Pamela Mace, is among the 23 international co-authors of the updated research.

About 880 fish stocks are included in the database.

The researchers paired information about fish stocks with recently published data on fisheries management activities in about 30 countries.

New Zealand fisheries, founded on the Quota Management System, are consistently rated as among the world’s best managed.

Almost all landed fish in this country  – 95 percent – is from sustainable stocks, according to the 2019 Fisheries NZ assessment.

But while the understanding worldwide of the health and status of fish populations is now at its most comprehensive, there are still big gaps in the data.

Most of the fish stocks in southern Asia do not have scientific estimates of their status.

Fisheries in India, Indonesia and China alone represent 30 to 40 percent of the world’s fish catch that is essentially unassessed.

The research is among the most significant published in the last decade, yet has received minimal publicity.

Hilborn conceded it had been a busy time in environmental news reporting with the Australian bushfires a focus and political news was all-distracting “but I also think that perhaps a positive, feel good, progress-is-being-made story doesn’t get the clicks that a doom and gloom the-ocean-is-running-out-of-fish story does. We were hoping a paper that offers a global look at fish populations and actually has good news to report would garner a bit more press coverage.”

Now there’s a challenge for local media.

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