WASHINGTON -- A group of leading ocean scientists took a look at previously unstudied fisheries across the world and found grim news: declining stocks and poor fishery management threaten their future.
But there's also promise, it says.
Well-managed fisheries that have seen copious scientific study, such as the valuable pollock fishery in Alaska, can serve as a model for developing nations where fish is a vital source of protein for their growing populations.
Even collapsed fisheries can recover, said Christopher Costello, one of the lead authors of the study published this week in the journal Science. "I'm an economist, and I always think it's worth pointing out that the best way for a fishery to provide value to society is to fish that stock sustainably," said Costello, of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "You make more money doing that than, say, catching all the fish today and sticking the money in an investment."
The study, a collaboration of UC Santa Barbara, the University of Washington and California Environmental Associates, a consulting group, offers new population assessments for thousands of fisheries around the globe and takes a close look at the health of those that make up 80 percent of the world's catch.
It shows that more than half of the world's fisheries are in decline.
But fish stocks where data is plentiful are doing better than the lesser-studied fisheries, regardless of the country managing them. In the U.S., many large fisheries are beginning to recover. Their recovery, the study's authors say, is thanks to setting allowable fishing levels based on science, closing some areas to allow for rebuilding, and using catch shares.
Catch shares dedicate a secure share of fish to an individual fisherman, community or fishery association.
It's vital to give fishermen a stake in protecting the habitat from which they draw their livelihood, said Amanda Leland, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's Oceans Program. Fishermen get the rights to the fisheries, are responsible for managing their sustainability, and reap the rewards when the fisheries improve, Leland said.
She points to the recovered pollock fisheries of Alaska as success stories. "Five years ago, I would have been terrified by this report," Leland said.
"But today I have hope that we can turn fisheries around and I have confidence that we can actually do it. The revolution here is to empower fishermen to lead the way in recovering fish populations."
On a global scale, the World Bank sees the problems outlined in the report as one of food security and economic development for poorer countries with declining fish stocks.
The bank is planning programs to help developing countries build the capacity to manage their fisheries as a way of reducing poverty, said Michael Arbuckle, a senior fisheries specialist with the World Bank's Global Partnership for Oceans.
Even in the developing world, small and large fisheries that so far have not been assessed continue to decline, the study said. One of the greatest challenges of fisheries management is the cost of a formal stock assessment -- about $500,000. But scientists are working on ways to bring costs down to as little as $5,000 so they're more accessible to developing countries looking to create their own catch-share programs.
Catch shares aren't without controversy. When they're implemented, not everyone gets a share, or gets the share they wanted, which can drive them out of business. In some places, large commercial seafood interests have come to dominate the citizen-based fisheries councils that set limits and oversee the fisheries. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who represents the Florida Keys, consistently opposes catch limits because the fishermen who live in her district have asked her to do so. Her office recently opposed federal catch limits on yellowtail snapper. Catch shares may work in other parts of the country, her office said, but the congresswoman doesn't want them in the southeast, particularly without adequate stock assessments.
Fisheries managers also can struggle to balance commercial fishing quotas with recreational quotas, such as in Alaska where halibut charter boat captains have seen limits imposed on their catch. The balancing act pits different sectors of the state's economy against each other; halibut charter boats are a vital part of the tourist economy in some parts of the state.
Phil Smith, who retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service after overseeing the implementation of Alaska's catch-share program for halibut, fully backs the concept in Alaska. Because they have identifiable limits for the year, fishermen stay home during bad weather, which improves safety. The season is extended, meaning there's product available more consistently, he said.
"They are not a panacea, but they do rationalize the race for fish that occurs when the government -- or whatever the authority is -- sets a catch limit, then fires a gun and says, 'Go get 'em,' " Smith said. "Depending on how you design the program, you can end up with a system that's orderly, clean, and you know what you're allowed to catch."