A landmark new study of the world's fisheries released yesterday found that management efforts — especially in developmentally advanced nations, notably in the United States, New Zealand and Iceland — have been effective in reversing declines caused by chronic overfishing.
The report, which appears in the issue of Science magazine on newsstands today, is no cause for celebration or let-up in the recovery programs, even in the most advanced systems. But it presents a more hopeful picture than previous alarmist predictions by the chief author, Boris Worm, and colleagues of his who have produced a welter of academic studies funded by the Pew Environment Group and associated environmental non-government organizations, or ENGOS.
Altogether, a team of 21 scientists from academia and government, many with extensive ties to Pew, worked two years on the study, titled "Rebuilding Global Fisheries." And its findings contrast sharply with previous findings by Pew and other ENGO scientists that suggested the oceans were so "overfished" that many stocks were on a path to extinction.
The headliners behind the new story are Worm and his former nemesis, Ray Hilborn, who had sharply criticized Worm's past work as being motivated by an anti-fishing agenda more than by true science.
A member of the faculty at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Worm's research and output has given rise to numerous documentaries and policy papers on overfishing that predicted the seas would be left sterile except for jellyfish by mid-century.
A major policy paper produced by the Environmental Defense Fund last year relied on Worm's vision to recommend catch quotas to the Obama administration as it was forming.
"There is a scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems, which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish," wrote that working group, which included Jane Lubchenco, now the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In a Wednesday teleconference about the publication of the new study, Worm pulled back from the generalization but asserted that in some regions the jellyfish scenario is apparent.
Hilborn, a professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington, has warned that this strain of alarmist reports resulted from an inverted form of pseudo-science in which the desired ends are set, and then the research is conducted to support the predetermined ends.
In "Faith-based Fisheries," his landmark response to Worm's work in the November 2006 issue of Fisheries Magazine, Hilborn takes to task not only Worm but Science magazine itself (along with Nature) for uncritical decision making, sham peer reviews and publication of decisions based on the circulation value of a submission rather than its scientific stature.
Worm and Hilborn were together with other co-authors in the Wednesday press teleconference, which had been embargoed until 2 p.m. yesterday.
The magazine's press release noted the Worm-Hilborn conflict and their peace — or truce.
"This new study is a followup to a 2006 paper in Science by Worm and others that highlighted the widespread global trend toward fisheries collapse," a Science statement indicated. "The results of that paper led to a public disagreement between Worm and Hilborn."
The statement indicated that Worm and Hilborn began talking and recognized "a shared sense of purpose."
They were not alone in answering questions at Wednesday's teleconference. A co-author, Michael Fogarty, a biologist with the Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Woods Hole, said Worm's "high-profile study" in 2006 "got my attention."
He reviewed the history of New England groundfishery and said the "success stories" had things in common, notably "hard and fast rules, tighter controls" and incentives for fleets to take the long view instead of repeating the tendency to "race to catch the last fish."
Fogarty also noted the "dramatic recovery of haddock on Georges Bank." He said there's a "haddock baby boom" going on, but cod and flounder are less far along in their recoveries.
"This is the most positive thing to come down the track in a long time," said Nils Stolpe, an East Coast fishing industry consultant and columnist. "The plight of the oceans from overfishing has been significantly oversold. This is a retrenching from that position."
"Efforts to end overfishing around the world are beginning to pay dividends," said NOAA administrator Lubchenco. "The message is loud and clear: When we set firm fishing limits, fish and habitats can recover."
In its initial response, Pew, seizing on the finding that fishing should be held below maximum allowable yields, said yesterday that "Fishing targets must be more conservative than they have been in the past."
The Science study comes on the heels of similar findings reported by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas in Brussels.
"Our message is rather moderate," said the ICEA, which studies oceans for the coastal states of Europe. "We are not in the best of worlds, but we are not in the worst of worlds either ... Most stocks are stable," the agency reported.
In New England, where the first fishery of the New World opened before the first settlement, the recovery and restoration efforts began in the mid 1970s with the first Magnuson-Stevens Act that claimed a 200-mile frame around the nation's coasts as an exclusive economic zone, and kicked out foreign factory ships that had pillaged at will while the smaller U.S. boats looked on in horror.
Since that time — as ocean science has struggled and pushed to de-mystify the deep — various schemes were tried to protect the weakened stocks while allowing the survival of the fleets from big and little ports all along the east and south coasts, but concentrated in Gloucester and New Bedford.
The dispute over the status of the fishery drove regulatory schemes and public opinion, and left the fishing industry reeling, which is why the Science report was described by Worm as "landmark" and "a turning point."
Whether a scientific consensus behind "Rebuilding Global Fisheries" can be maintained remains to be seen, and the doom-and-gloom message encouraged by Worm and others previously is not easily stifled. "End of the Line," a new, major film documentary narrated by actor Ted Danson, still prophesies an empty ocean — "it's just a question of when."
The policy of the Obama administration, submitted by Pew, the Environmental Defense Fund and Oceania — the major ENGOS that have made commitments to fishing issues — is to convert the traditional conception of the fisheries as commonly-owned public resources into commodities known as "catch shares."
Attempting to assuage concerns especially in New England and along the Mid-Atlantic that the catch shares were susceptible to investor speculation and the extraction of equity, NOAA administrator Lubchenco — a former academic scientist with ties to both EDF and Pew — said this week there were ways to insure indigenous ownership.
The new report by Worm, Hilborn and their colleagues emphasized that their study was far from encyclopedic, and by necessity focused on the more developed nations and their recovery efforts.
They also said it was likely that reduced consumption, which was cited as the key, would logically have pushed harvesting into Third World systems where controls were weak or non-existent.
They urged consumption targets well below maximum sustainable yield levels, catch shares, marine protected areas, innovative and more selective gear and conservative consumption of recovering stocks.
The conclusions section reasoned that:
"Ecosystems examined in this paper account for less than a quarter of the world's fisheries area and catch, and lightly to moderately fished and rebuilding ecosystems comprise less than half of those. They may be best interpreted as large-scale restoration experiments that demonstrate opportunities for successfully rebuilding marine resources elsewhere."
"Similar trajectories of recovery have been documented in protected areas around the world, which currently cover less than 1 percent of ocean area. Taken together, these examples provide hope that despite a long history of over-exploitation, marine ecosystems can still recover if exploitation rates are reduced substantially."
"In fisheries science, there is growing consensus that the exploitation rate that achieves maximum sustainable yield should be reinterpreted as an upper limit rather than a management target."
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com.