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Fisheries Set To Collapse, Study Warns

Overfishing, other factors will wipe out stocks worldwide by 2048, scientists say. But there's hope.

November 03, 2006|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

All of the world's fishing stocks will collapse before midcentury, devastating food supplies, if overfishing and other human impacts continue at their current pace, according to a global study published today by scientists in five countries.

Already, nearly one-third of species that are fished -- including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, Alaskan king crab, Pacific salmon and an array in California fisheries -- have collapsed, and the pace is accelerating, the report says.

If that trend continues, the study predicts that "100% of [fished] species will collapse by the year 2048, or around that," said marine biologist Boris Worm, who led the research team. A fishery is considered collapsed if catches fall to 10% of historic highs.

Without more protection soon, the world's ocean ecosystems won't be able to rebound from the shrinking populations of so many fish and other sea creatures, the scientists reported in the journal Science.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Fisheries: A graphic in Friday's Section A that accompanied a story about predictions of a collapse of the world's fisheries transposed two figures. It should have said that by 2000, 38.2% of fish species worldwide had collapsed, and 7.1% had become extinct.

The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the potential consequences of ongoing declines in the oceans' diversity of life. In recent years, marine scientists have warned of the extreme toll of overfishing in many regions, but the new report, global in scope, offers one of the grimmest predictions for the future of the world's fisheries.

Yet there is hope, the scientists concluded: "Available data suggest that at this point, these trends are reversible."

If more protections are put into place, such as new marine reserves and better-managed commercial fisheries, seafood supplies will surge and the oceans can recover, they said.

"The good news is that it is not too late to turn things around," said Worm, an assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. "It can be done, but it must be done soon."

The authors are 14 marine scientists, eight of them from California institutions, including Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and UC Davis. Funding came from the National Science Foundation, the University of California and UC Santa Barbara.

Group disputes findings

A U.S. fishing industry group, the National Fisheries Institute, disputed the pessimistic findings, saying that fishermen and government already had acted and that federal data showed that "more than 80% of fish stocks are sustainable and will provide seafood now and for future generations."

"Fish stocks naturally fluctuate in population. Fisheries scientists around the world actively manage stocks and rebuild fisheries with a low sustainable population," the institute said.

The group said that for the last 25 years, catches had been steady, with wild fisheries providing 85 million to 100 million metric tons annually, and aquaculture -- fish farming -- helping to fill the growing demand.

The scientists, however, said they were confident of their predictions because they found "consistent agreement of theory, experiments, and observations across widely different scales and ecosystems."

"There's no question if we close our eyes and pretend it's all OK, it will continue along the same trajectory. Eventually, we're going to run out of species," Worm said.

Delving into recent catch data around the world as well as 1,000 years of historical archives in areas such as the San Francisco Bay, the team reported that estuaries, coral reefs, wetlands and oceanic fish were all "rapidly losing populations, species or entire functional groups."

Scarcity of a highly nutritious food supply for the world's growing human population would be the most visible effect of declining ocean species. But the scientists said other disruptions also were occurring as ocean ecosystems unraveled, species by species.

Biologists have long debated the lasting effect of removing a few species from oceans. The authors of the new report conclude that it sabotages oceans' stability and their recovery from stresses.

Other effects

Water quality is worsening, and fish kills, toxic algal blooms, dead zones, invasive exotic species, beach closures and coastal floods are increasing, as wetlands, reefs and the animals and plants that filter pollutants disappear. Climate change also is altering marine ecosystems.

"Our analyses suggest that business as usual would foreshadow serious threats to global food security, coastal water quality and ecosystem stability, affecting current and future generations," the report says.

Not just humans, but other creatures are in danger of food shortages, biologists say.

"Animals like seals, dolphins and killer whales eat fish. If we strip the ocean of these kinds of species, other animals are going to suffer," said coauthor Stephen Palumbi of Stanford, who specializes in marine evolution and population biology.

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