Fish populations around the world have been decimated by overfishing — but new research suggests that this could soon change if the world got its act together.
Fishermen around the world could haul around 16 million more metric tons of fish than they do today and generate $53 billion more in profits while more than doubling the amount of fish left in the oceans by 2050 if they adopted sustainable fishing practices, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Those practices would involve a so-called "catch share" model of fisheries management. In catch share systems, regulators figure out the maximum number of fish that can be hauled from the sea without hurting future fish populations. The regulators then divvy up that amount of fish into shares that are distributed to individual fishermen. Each fisherman has a set amount of fish they are can catch in the year.
"If you can reform fisheries and eliminate their competitive nature, there's enormous room for profits, catch, and abundance," said Ray Hilborn, a professor of marine biology and fisheries science at the University of Washington who co-authored the study with researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Environmental Defense Fund.
In contrast, traditional fishery regulations set quotas for the total amount of fish that fleets can catch and imposes limits on the amount of days fishermen can fish or the equipment they can use. This leads to a free-for-all where individual fishermen try to net as much as they can before regulators declare the quota met and the fishing season over. It also can cause overfishing and makes the business needlessly unpredictable, according to Amanda Leland, senior vice president for oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"When you give fishermen a secure share of the catch and they know on January 1 the total catch for the year, they slow down their fishing, they burn less fuel, they cut their costs, they go when the weather is good, and they are able to provide a much more predictable supply," Leland said.
Catch share programs apply to around 107 species in the United States as of last year, according to the Environmental Defense Fund — an increase from 24 species in 2000.
The industry adopted the system in 2007 in the red snapper fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, where fish populations nearly collapsed in the 1990s. The red snapper has since rebounded.
"There are more red snappers in the Gulf of Mexico now than there has been in a long time," said Eric Brazer, deputy director of Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, a group that represents around 50 commercial fishermen. "The average side of the red snapper is bigger."
The US isn't really the problem, however. Hilborn noted that if sustainable practices were adopted worldwide, many of the gains cited in the report would occur in South and Southeast Asia, where overfishing is rampant.
"There's two kinds of fisheries in the world — those that are managed effectively and those that are not," he said. "They just don't have fisheries management. There's a closed season during the monsoons."
But there's little sign of Asia adopting sustainable fishing. Singapore's daily English-language newspaperToday reported on Wednesday that Southeast Asian countries are angry about Chinese trawlers that are allegedly entering their waters to fish illegally.
Though promising, catch share has its skeptics. Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a fishing industry trade group, pointed out that doling out shares of available fish can be controversial. Once the shares are distributed, newcomers might need to wait years to enter the fishery.
"It tends to consolidate ownership," Vanasse said. "It makes it exceedingly difficult for new people to enter the fishery. If you are a growing company and you don't get enough to survive, you're screwed."
But Hilborn said fishing laws in the US and elsewhere already tightly control competition because of overfishing that wiped out fish such as the cod in the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland.
"Limiting access to fishing is the primary tool we've had to improve fisheries," he said. "In very few fisheries can anyone go fishing who wants to go fishing."