While the outlook is positive for fisheries in the developed world, Ray Hilborn and the University of Washington team also found that about half of the world’s fisheries lag behind in establishing and enforcing sustainable fisheries management.
Large areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East, Central America and Central and Eastern Africa do not have scientific estimates of fish populations but account for half the world’s catch.
The study also shows that regions with less developed fisheries have on average three times greater harvest rates and half the abundance of assessed stocks. He states that this is due to primitive management systems and a lack of enforcement –but work is underway to address this.
‘There are a lot of resources going towards building the capacity of fisheries agencies in those regions to assess and manage their fisheries and I think that is the big need. We have funding from several US foundations for staff training purposes and currently have people from countries such as China, Peru, Chile, Mexico and Indonesia attending our university,’ he said.
‘You have to collect the data first, and then have the capacity to use that data to really summarise the status of your fishery and determine what the appropriate management action would be. Do you need to reduce fishing pressure? That is the key question. Regions with less developed fisheries need help building good, reliable data collection systems and more staff who are capable of analysing the data. The specialty of our research group is how assessments are actually done so we offer training in this aspect rather than data collection. Having said that, there is a bigger need in data collection.]
The main message from the study is that fisheries management works. Ray Hilborn and his team are investigating how fisheries management can be extended to all corners of the globe, what elements of fisheries management are having the most effects, and how to manage fishing pressure in areas where fishermen target many available species.
Another interesting question to address, he said, is the relationship between the biological abundance of stocks and their socio-economic performance. Some stocks may not be very healthy in the sense that they are being fished too hard but because they may still be providing food and employment to their communities, they are probably sustainable.
‘Probably the biggest misconception in fisheries is that overfishing is not sustainable. Overfishing simply means you are fishing harder than producing maximum yield. Certainly some places have consistently been overfished but they are doing just fine. If fish stocks are contributing in terms of food or employment, that must be taken into account,’ he said.
‘Something else to remember is climate change,’ he added. ‘Changing sea temperatures cause fish to move elsewhere in search of food, for example, but as the fish move so too do the problems. You cannot stake or draw a circle around a particular area and say we are going to close it to fishing because even if it’s the right area now, it won’t be in 10 or 20 years but fisheries management is flexible in that way. We use closed areas a lot but we use them in response to where the turtle by-catch is or where sharks are being caught where they shouldn’t be. We close those areas and we move those things around. That is the nature of good fisheries management – find the problem, identify the solution.’
Ray Hilborn believes that convincing the science community to change their mind about declining fish stocks will be key, followed by the NGO community, an increasing number of which is setting very specific fisheries policies such as more Marine Protected Areas. He also hopes that this will help the public to learn more about fisheries management and harvest rates.