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Plenty of Fish in the Sea?


Tuna clustering off the coast of southern Italy. Photo: Courtesy of the UN FAO

In 2010, people across the globe munched their way through 128 million tons of seafood. That's according to the latest data coming out of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This hefty supply of fish equals around 41 pounds per person each year, and is taking its toll on the health of the oceans and, in turn, food security, economic prosperity, and coastal communities.

Here's a bit of perspective: In 1974, 40 percent of marine fish species were deemed "non-fully exploited," a slightly obscure term meaning that the population is thriving and hasn't been fished beyond or just up to a sustainable level (60% or more of the virgin stock exists). Less than 40 years later, the number has plunged to about 13 percent.

Species on the current "safe" list include the Northern Prawn, American cupped oyster, European Pilchard, or sardine, the common cuttlefish and squids, Argentine anchovy and Polar cod. Don't frequently see these on many restaurant menus? There are a number of reasons why, says the FAO. Many of these species have a low value to fishermen, their location makes fishing difficult, or they're not in large enough concentrations in the water to make it worthwhile.

Though there have been ups and downs over the years in the percentage of "over" or "fully-exploited fish," the general trend is one of decline. Today, 30 percent of world's fish stocks are over-exploited, a slight decrease from the previous two years, and approximately 57 percent are fully exploited.

"The declining global marine catch over the last few years together with the increased percentage of overexploited fish stocks and the decreased proportion of non-fully exploited species around the world convey the strong message that the state of world marine fisheries is worsening and has had a negative impact on fishery production," the report says.

The solution? Hard quotas, also known as annual catch limits, concrete deadlines for achieving and maintaining sustainable fishing levels, and strict accountability measures, such as closing a fishery if they don't heed the rules, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Division (NOAA).

Countries around the globe are embracing this tactic, including the U.S., which has been following in New Zealand's wake. It's paying off, says Dr. Richard Merrick, Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. is now the first country to enforce annual catch limits on every single species under its jurisdiction. In updating the Magneson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006 to require annual catch limits by the end of 2010 on "all stocks subject to overfishing," and for the remaining stocks by the end of 2011, an end to overfishing is possible.

Today, 67 percent of all stocks are now sustainably harvested in the U.S., while only 17 percent are still over-exploited (this data is from 2009 and these statistics have improved since then). Also, in the last 11 years, 27 of its marine fish populations have been rebuilt.

"With annual catch limits in place this year for all domestic fish populations and the continued commitment of fishermen to rebuild the stocks they rely on, we’re making even greater progress in ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks around the nation,” said Samuel Rauch, acting assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries in their press release.

This type of science-based cautionary approach to fisheries management may be bait worth biting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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