Fish Stocks Show Signs of Recovery in Some Parts of the World

Efforts to rebuild fisheries are starting to pay off in some places around the world, an international team of scientists with divergent views on ocean ecosystems has determined.

The study “puts into perspective recent reports predicting a total collapse of global fisheries within 40 years,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for administration of U.S. fisheries, said in a statement about the research.


Small haddock: The haddock fishery in the Northeast is rebuilding, one of the positive signs in the U.S.

Photo courtesy NEFSC/NOAA

In a paper published in the July 31 issue of the journal Science, study co-author Mike Fogarty of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) of NOAA’s Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, Masachusetts. and 20 co-authors say that efforts made to reduce overfishing are succeeding in five of ten large marine ecosystems studied. Some of the successes are in U.S. fisheries.


It’s good news for several regions in the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand.

“These highly managed ecosystems are improving” says Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, another author of the paper. “Yet there is still a long way to go: of all fish stocks we examined, 63 percent remained below target and still needed to be rebuilt.”

But in spite of this good news, the researchers found that two thirds (68 percent) of the worldwide fisheries examined by the team “need rebuilding and that even lower rates of fish removals are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species.”

The researchers estimated that lightly fished and rebuilding ecosystems account for less than 10 percent of world fisheries area and catch, but represent examples of opportunities for successfully rebuilding marine resources elsewhere.

“Finding a balance between fishing and conservation, while difficult, is possible and has been accomplished in a number of fisheries.”

Fogarty, head of the NEFSC’s Ecosystems Assessment Program and a specialist in ecosystem based management, says finding a balance between fishing and conservation, while difficult, is possible and has been accomplished in a number of fisheries.

“Sometimes small changes have a big effect. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ management approach since each fishery has its own unique circumstances,” Fogarty said.

“Many of the world’s fisheries have a long history of overexploitation.

“Different management tools are needed, depending on the situation, to restore marine ecosystems and rebuild fisheries. It takes time. There have been successes in New Zealand and on the U.S. West Coast, and there are promising solutions in other areas, but rebuilding efforts have to be done on an ecosystem basis and from a global perspective.”


Scallops on deck during the 2007 NEFSC sea scallop survey.

Photo courtesy NEFSC/NOAA

The new study follows a controversial prediction that wild caught fish will disappear from the oceans by 2048, NOAA said. That statement, contained in a 2006 Science article that focused on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services in the oceans, was made by marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington in Seattle and others disagreed with the prediction, and a debate ensued between fisheries scientists and marine ecologists about the status of the world’s ocean ecosystems,” NOAA said.


NGS photo of Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan by James L. Stanfield

“The two researchers soon met to discuss the issue through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, California. Fogarty and scientists from various disciplines around the world were asked to work with Worm and Hilborn to find common ground on which to assess the prospects for restoring depleted fish populations and their ecosystems.”

The team analyzed global catch data, and evaluated scientific stock assessments, research trawl surveys, and small-scale fishery information using  dozens of models. They considered historical fisheries and current illegal or unreported fishery catches. 

Two Basic Questions 

“The scientific team addressed two basic questions: How do changes in exploitation rates (the amount of fish taken from the ocean each year) affect fish populations, fishing communities and yields, and which management approaches have proved successful in rebuilding marine ecosystems,” NOAA explained.

The authors caution that their analyses were based largely on managed fisheries in developed countries, where scientific data on fisheries have been collected for decades. 

“There was far less data from other parts of the world, but nonetheless, there are positive signs in developing countries. As one example, scientists, fishery managers and local communities in Kenya worked together to close some fisheries and restrict certain fishing gear, management efforts that have led to increased fish size and abundance and more income for fishers,” NOAA said.


NGS photo of Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan by James L. Stanfield

“Although optimistic, the authors acknowledge that many problems face rebuilding efforts, which often take years or decades and have short term economic costs.

“On a worldwide scale, the redistribution of fishing effort from industrialized countries to the developing world, as is evident in Africa, has meant competition between local fishing boats and foreign fleets. The authors also note that effective controls on exploitation rates are still lacking in vast areas of the ocean, including those beyond national jurisdictions.”

Steve Murawski, chief scientist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, says the team’s two-year effort has resulted in more comprehensive databases and a broader view of the issue.

“This study clearly demonstrates that in both developing and developed parts of the world, if fishery exploitation rates are reduced sufficiently, species and their ecosystems have the capacity to recover,” Murawski said.

“The study drew together two scientific approaches, one focused on conservation of marine communities and the other focused on the science of fishery population dynamics.  The result is a product that has profound importance in the design of management systems to achieve diverse goals for conserving and using marine ecosystems.”


NGS photo of Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan by James L. Stanfield

Says Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, “Across all regions we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse. But this paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause.

“The encouraging result is that the exploitation rate–the ultimate driver of depletion and collapse–is decreasing in half of the ten systems we examined in detail. Management in those areas is setting the stage for ecological and economic recovery.

“It’s only a start–but it gives hope that we have the ability to bring overfishing under control.”

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn