Water out of fish: are we overfishing our oceans?

by Joel Preston Smith

This article was originally published in July 2012

fish jumping out of ocean

The histrionic debate over whether fish stocks are healthy or on the verge of collapse has consumers lost at sea. The two most prominent scientists in the controversy stand on opposite shores.

Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington argues “we’re worrying too much and many places are managing their fisheries well.” On the other side, Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia is pleading for reduced harvests, if not outright bans on fishing certain stocks.

How bad is the divide? Trawling Google for “Pauly overfishing collapse destruction apocalypse” nets 45,000 results. A search for the same terms (but replacing “Pauly” with “Hilborn”) yields 2,110 results, but Pauly appears in 945 of them.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Should we pick a side, blindly (trustfully) throw out another line … or avoid seafood altogether?

The answer is I’m not qualified to say. Few, if any reporters could question competently the findings of either Pauly or Hilborn. To have even an inkling of the science behind their work would require an advanced understanding of statistical analysis, computer modeling, marine sampling techniques, the natural history of each fish stock under consideration, the relative impacts of purse-seining vs. trawling vs. long-line vs. trolling vs. gillnetting …

In short, the only people imminently qualified to draw us a picture cannot agree on what the picture looks like.

History of the debate

The furor and confusion started in 1998 when Pauly and co-authors published a report in Science, arguing that global fish stocks were in jeopardy. They said commercial fishing had depleted larger fish and, as a consequence, fishermen were making up the lost biomass by targeting smaller and smaller fish. Some of those smaller fish, of course, were juveniles that had not reached breeding maturity. The implication was that present stocks were overfished, and future generations of fish were being destroyed as well.

The controversy reached a fevered pitch in 2006 when fisheries biologist Boris Worm (Dalhouise University, Canada) co-authored a study in Science, arguing that if commercial fishing trends continued unabated, global stocks were doomed to collapse by 2048. Around the globe, media cited the study as heralding “the end of fish.”

Hilborn has been on an anti-Pauly, anti-Worm campaign ever since. He’s the most outspoken critic of the doom-and-gloom camp. Worm’s 2003 study finding stocks of tuna on the high seas were 90 percent depleted by 1980 “was totally bogus,” Hilborn says.

“Someone should hold Pauly’s feet to the fire,” Hilborn wrote to me recently. Hilborn says Pauly claims some fish stocks are “60 percent depleted,” but has failed to note that those “low” numbers are well within the catch limits set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In other words, “depleted” may not ultimately mean “harmed” if those reduced numbers are compared against the target goals established by NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service and the eight U.S. Fisheries Management Councils. The “low” numbers might mean we’re fishing in a way that (in essence) skims off the “surplus.”*

Hilborn says the public (and management agencies) should ignore the doom-saying Worm of 2006, harkening instead to the upbeat Worm of 2009. That year, Worm (with Hilborn and co-researchers) reported that, “In five of 10 well-studied ecosystems, the average exploitation rate has recently declined …”

That sounds positive. But in the same paper, Worm and Hilborn add, “63 percent of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding, and even lower exploitation rates are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species.”

Hilborn now says many of those fish stocks are rebuilding. Worm agrees, citing California and New Zealand as examples of coastal regions that have taken steps to manage their fisheries effectively. But overall Worm remains more pessimistic. “The loss of [oceanic] biodiversity continues at a pace that’s not slowing down,” Worm recently told Mother Jones magazine. “On average, the condition of the oceans continues to get worse.”

More research, more action

In his new book, “Overfishing: what everyone needs to know,” Hilborn concedes that even if many stocks are recovering, significant problems remain. Data collection about the status of fish stocks is poor in many countries and an estimated 20 percent of the world’s catch is landed illegally.

Almost every fisherman I know has told me tales of making a big catch by some violation of the rules,” Hilborn writes. In many places, rule-breaking “is an accepted way of business.” What rules do exist don’t apply on the high seas.

“In terms of what should be done, Pauly and I are not far apart,” Hilborn wrote in an email. “Much of the world needs lower fishing pressure and we need to reduce subsidies. These are the keys and we both agree.”

Scientists are divided on how dire the problem of overfishing is, but agree much of the world needs lower fishing pressure.

Many agencies do fear collapses, and the economic turmoil that comes from fishing closures given that many stock assessments indeed seem grim. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce for $21 million in disaster relief last November in the wake of low stock estimates for Atlantic cod and a 61 percent decline in groundfish landings between 2009 and 2010. The outlook for Chilean sea bass, sharks, grenadiers, bluefin tuna, blue ling and orange roughy also is reported to be poor.

It’s not all dire. Halibut fisherman in Puget Sound will get a four-day extension this year, partly because last year’s catch fell short of the quota by about 11,600 pounds. If you troll hard, you can find some positive numbers, but you have to use a longline and you have to be patient.

It’s an enormously complicated issue, and even fisheries scientists admit they don’t have enough information to make accurate estimates for all stocks. Rick Methot, who has been modeling ocean ecosystems for NOAA for more than 30 years, says that of the 230 most important stocks managed by U.S. fisheries agencies, NOAA only has “adequate assessments for about 57 percent of them.”

NOAA’s 2011 Fish Stock Sustainability Index notes that 237 major fish stocks “have overfishing thresholds not defined or applicable, or are unknown with respect to their overfishing status.”

It’s not for lack of willpower, or competence. Methot says it’s primarily lack of funding. The agency currently operates eight vessels to conduct fish assessments for the 18,000 square miles under its purview. NOAA budgeted $62 million this fiscal year for fish counts, says Methot, that will provide current estimates and near-future projections for an industry whose value in 2009 was estimated at $196 billion in sales, income and “value-added impacts,” according to NOAA’s 2013 budget request to Congress.

Consider for a moment the surreal nature of the dotted line: $62 million to NOAA to tell us how fish are doing, but the U.S. government outlays $162 million in subsidies for only one fishing industry sector — high-seas trawlers. And then provides disaster relief when some stocks collapse. It’s akin to getting a handout to buy a nice gun to rob the bank, then going back to the bank and filing for financial relief because the vault is empty. If you’re lost, you’re not alone.

What to believe?

They (the researchers) don’t know what to believe — not with a high degree of assurance. If you want some reasonable advice, PCC recommends turning to a living fish museum — the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Since 1999 the aquarium has maintained the Seafood Watch program, which aims to tell consumers how to choose sustainable fish. PCC sells only seafood approved by Seafood Watch. The Seafood Watch app for the iPhone has been downloaded 240,000 times to date, which, ironically, was the projected harvest of Chinook for Southeast Alaska in 2008.

“When there is scientific uncertainty,” Seafood Watch notes, “we err on the side of conservation.”

Read other seafood-related articles in this issue, including:

Joel Preston Smith is a writer and photographer living in Portland.

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