By Nancy Gaines
The message that many environmentalists would have you believe is this: We're catching and eating the oceans bare.
"There is an end in sight" for fish, a 2006 Science magazine paper proclaimed. The paper even put a date to the end time: the year 2048.
The paper was produced by a team of scientists headed by Boris Worm, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
Worm's idea that the world's supply of seafood would be exhausted within the lifetime of many alive today caused a sensation. The "2048" prediction gave it a news hook that made headlines around the world.
The idea that the world's fisheries were on the verge of collapse was not new. In 1998, in another Science magazine article, University of British Columbia professor Daniel Pauly predicted overfishing would consume every species until nothing was left but "jellyfish and plankton soup."
A decade later, the same theme was sounded by "Oceans of Abundance," the 2008 policy paper prepared for the incoming administration of Barack Obama by a team convened by the Environmental Defense Fund, the leading advocate of the current catch share system of fisheries management.
The team included marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, who last year was picked by President Obama to head the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.
"Evidence is overwhelming," the policy paper said. "The global oceans are being emptied of seafood. ... There is scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems, which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish."
That "scientific consensus" was the justification for the catch share system imposed on the New England fishery by Lubchenco as NOAA administrator.
In fact, the claim of a scientific consensus was as questionable as the claim that manmade global warming was "settled science."
Most New England fish stocks are healthy, stable and improving, according to NOAA's own figures, after more than a decade of management to rebuild the stocks (Please see related graphic).
"We've reduced fish mortality in most of the stocks," Steven Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science adviser for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a recent interview. "We can't drain the pond and count, but the science is compelling."
Tom Nies, chief fishery analyst of the New England Fishery Management Council, said the rebuilding of imperiled stocks is on track or even ahead of schedule.
Cod, for example — often cited as a poster child for alleged overfishing — is expected to be fully rebuilt by next year, Nies said, perhaps this year.
The rest of the stocks in the New England groundfishery are all at different points of recovery — but all are recovering.
Two hundred miles out, from the Canadian border down to Florida, under the belly of the nation, through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Pacific Coast to Alaska, the great American fishery is in no risk of dying.
That is what the latest stock data shows. What has been portrayed by some as a catastrophe in the making can be seen as an American success story.
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The waters of the Western Atlantic have been commercially fished since at least the 15th century. By the middle of the 20th century, human depredation had taken a heavy toll, requiring radical steps. New England fishermen have taken much of the blame for the overfishing of the past and have paid the price.
Fishing restrictions have reduced the size of the fleet, and conservation policies limited the number of days the remaining boats can fish.
Now the fleet faces new restrictions under the catch share system imposed by Lubchenco. The system parcels out shares of a greatly reduced total catch.
Stephen Ouellette, an attorney and advocate for the local industry, argued in a research paper presented to government officials in March that the catch could be increased by 20 percent and still not threaten the recovery of the stocks, although he conceded it might take longer for stocks to completely rebuild.
Thirteen of 20 species of groundfish in New England waters are "overfished," as defined by regulators. That does not mean they are endangered, simply that the species has not yet achieved "optimal biomass" — a naturally sustainable population, though what constitutes a sustainable population is a moving, and controversial, target.
The tough restrictions on fishermen — plus nature's resilience — have brought the fish back.
"We had a big-year class of haddock (in 2009)," said Brian Rothschild, dean emeritus at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
"Scallops are in high abundance. But a lot of that is caused naturally, as is decline. Some abundance is hastened by fishery management, but the role of the natural environment is underplayed."
Jim Balsiger, then NOAA's acting assistant administrator in charge of fisheries, noted in a Times column last August that reduction of cod fishing in New England in recent years has contributed to a tripling of Gulf of Maine cod population since 1994 — and a doubling of Georges Bank cod population since its low point in 2005.
Citing a 2009 study called "Rebuilding Global Fisheries," Balsiger noted that these stocks "are expected to continue to rebuild as a result of sustained fishing rates and successful fish reproduction. ...
"All is not gloom and doom, there are some positive signs," Balsiger said. "The big story is that fisheries are still an important part of the economy. I am pretty optimistic for New England fish stocks."
Murawski, the National Marine Fisheries Service scientist, credits much of the comeback to the cooperation of the fishermen.
"We need to get over some sticky management and political issues," he says, "and align the interests of the fishermen and the science."
Those interests are not yet aligned. The government's allocations for the new fishing year — which began May 1 — aim to further tighten the limits.
"The resource is exploding and the industry is going in a downward direction," Vito Giacalone, program director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, told the Times last month.
Fishermen have little faith in the government science behind the new limits.
New Jersey fisherman James Lovgren, who has worked with the Trawl Survey Advisory Panel to the New England Fishery Science Center — which provides the study data for the National Marine Fisheries Service, noted that, in studying flounder, NMFS canceled its annual winter survey.
That, he said, meant the flounder studies would miss "what every offshore fisherman from Massachusetts and Rhode Island already knows — there is an enormous biomass of summer flounder that now spend the winter on the southern edges of the Georges Bank in 50 to 75 fathoms of water."
Lovgren also said federal regulators neglected to sample Nantucket Shoals, where a large portion of the blackback and yellowtail flounder live.
"This selective surveying," he wrote, "is equivalent to the U.S. Census Bureau estimating the population, but not including all urban areas."
• • •
The science that was used to justify the new catch shares regime is disputed not only by fishermen but also by many scientists.
A landmark 2006 essay in Fisheries Magazine called "Faith-based Fisheries" took on the notion that fisheries management techniques have failed and new, more radical steps are needed to protect fish.
The author was by Ray Hilborn, an oft-published professor of fish management at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He compared agenda-driven fisheries scientists to "creationists" who deny the reality of evolution and tailor their science to fit their preconceived ideas.
"I suggest," Hilborn wrote, "the fisheries community needs to look at itself and question whether there is not within our own field a strong movement of faith-based acceptance of ideas, and a search for data to support these ideas."
Hilborn also accused the science journals Science and Nature of publishing a string of papers on the collapse of the fisheries, "not for their scientific merit, but for their publicity value."
"I assert that ... many of these papers are being published only because the editors and selected reviewers believe in the message, or because of their potential newsworthiness."
Worm himself inadvertently admitted that his prediction of a fisheries collapse by 2048 was meant to capture headlines.
Shortly after the paper was published in Science, Worm said in an e-mail he accidentally sent to the Seattle Times that he put in the doomsday date as a "news hook."
It caught on in the popular press and, coming out at a time that Congress was debating a rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act regulating fishing, was used to push the idea that tough new rules were needed.
But many scientists were skeptical of Worm's analysis.
Papers that reference the 2048 date are "reckless," says Rothschild of UMass, "and there is scientific consensus that they are."
Another critic of Worm's 2048 doomsday date was Murawski, the Fisheries Service scientist.
Murawski debunked Worm's alarmist assertion in a lecture on sustainable fisheries he delivered at Yale University in 2007.
Murawski said a flawed analysis caused Worm to count recovering stocks as collapsed stocks, then extrapolate those figures into the future.
The sky was really not falling into a sterile sea.
Nancy Gaines, who lives in Gloucester, has been editor of two newspaper chains and four magazines, including the Improper Bostonian. She was founding editor of the Boston Business Journal and has reported for The New York Times and Boston Globe. She is now a publishing consultant and special projects writer, and is married to Times reporter Richard Gaines.