The emptying oceans

A recent report says the world 's fish population could be depleted by 2048_unless we do something now to reverse the damage

November 10, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter

Boris Worm often gets the same question these days: "What happens in 2049?"

That's the price of predicting that fish will disappear from the world's oceans by 2048 - if nothing is done to preserve them.

"They wonder, after Jan. 1, will there be any fish left?" says Worm, a researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Scientists have warned for decades about the ocean's declining fish stocks. But something about Worm's report, setting the deadline just 42 years away, rang alarm bells around the world.

"It stirred up the pot pretty good," said Steven A. Murawski, chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service.

A team of 14 biologists and economists analyzed fish populations going back 1,000 years, examined 32 controlled experiments and reviewed studies of 48 marine-protected areas as part of the report, published Nov. 3 in the journal Science.

To come up with the 2048 deadline, they looked at 40 years of international harvest records from the oceans where 80 percent of the world's fish are caught. From those numbers, they extrapolated what might happen if current trends continue.

Some experts say the report highlights the emerging importance of fish farming and the need for more aggressive measures to protect the oceans.

"I think it's pretty amazing, in the sense of giving a specific date. I find it shocking that it could happen so soon," said Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney and executive director of the Oceans Initiative for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But Worm says corrective measures by governments, environmentalists and commercial fisheries - some already in place - could prove the prediction wrong.

"I don't think [the prediction is] what's going to happen. We were just asking if we have a trend and if the trend continues, where is it going to lead us," Worm said.

Preventive efforts include establishing more marine sanctuaries, enhancing pollution controls in coastal areas and improving management of sensitive habitats, he said.

"It's really a host of measures," Worm said.

Experts say government and industry are already at work on the problem.

California and New York, for example, have taken steps recently to ensure better management of fishing grounds along the Pacific Coast and in the Great Lakes, said NRDC's Chasis.

Her organization also is promoting a United Nations resolution that would encourage nations to regulate trawlers that scrape the sea floor - a practice scientists blame for destroying sea corals and other sensitive marine life. Discussion of the U.N. resolution is scheduled to begin next week.

Most experts agree that the seas are being fished to capacity and that something has to be done. "We're not going to catch any more fish than we're catching now, that's understood," said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, which represents the commercial seafood industry.

Industry takes off

Aided by sonar and other technologies that have increased efficiency, global catches began shooting up after World War II, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Catch levels have increased from an annual 20 million metric tons in 1950 to 90 million metric tons by the late 1990s, where they have remained since, according to the U.N. group. By some estimates, harvests peaked in 1994 and have declined about 13 percent since.

"You have too many boats chasing too few fish," said Michael Sutton, vice president of Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and director of its Center for the Future of the Oceans project.

Meanwhile, scientists believe fish farming will meet more of our appetite for seafood. Another U.N. report, released in September, found that aquaculture provides 43 percent of the world's seafood, up from 9 percent in 1980.

"Aquaculture will help produce the world's seafood. That's what we're all about," said Yoni Zohar, a fish farm expert who is director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology.

But fish farming has its own problems.

When farm-raised fish escape and interbreed with wild populations, they can damage genetic strains of both the wild and farm-raised species. For many farmed species, fish farmers need small fish to feed the big fish, which further depletes natural stocks. Moreover, some fish farms are made up of open water pens that can breed aquatic diseases and degrade coastal habitats, critics say.

"A lot of them are basically feed lots in the ocean," Sutton said.

The Monterey aquarium, like others, has set up a Web site at seafoodwatch.org advising shoppers about environmentally friendly choices in the seafood they buy. Sutton is optimistic that consumers will begin making the right choices.

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