A new study in the journal "Nature" paints a grim picture of life in the world's oceans. It says 90 percent of the large predatory fish species have vanished from the world's oceans since the onset of large-scale commercial fishing 50 years ago. But the picture may be brighter in smaller fishing communities.
The two Canadian scientists who wrote the journal article say it's a dire situation for tuna, swordfish, marlin and other large species. They warn that unless restoration is attempted on a global scale, fish populations, and the ocean ecosystems they support, are in danger of even further collapse.
That view of a crisis in world fish stocks is shared by Andrew Solow, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the Massachusetts coast. "I think it's depleted too far. You would always expect in a fishery that's not well-managed which is almost all fisheries that there's over-fishing and the stocks are below what society would really want them to be. It behooves us to try to rebuild these stocks," he says. "The thing is, these things take time, and if the stocks were continuing to decline very rapidly, then time would be even more of the essence than it is.
Fishermen have become so efficient at their trade that, on average, it takes them only 15 years to catch 80 percent of a given species. The authors of the Nature report attribute much of that efficiency to "longline fishing," where up to 100 kilometers of line, with dozens of baited hooks, are trailed behind a boat.
John Pappalardo catches cod off the Massachusetts coast, and is a spokesman for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association. He's not surprised by the article's findings on global fish declines, but says they don't seem to have considered that at the local level, the fish outlook can appear less bleak. "There's clearly some successes in New England. We have various closed areas here in New England that are either permanent or temporary. That's been a preferred tool to give fish a break from fishing pressure. We also limit the number of days that a fisherman can fish," he says.
There are similar regulations in other U.S. fisheries. Several West Coast states have implemented minimum-size limits on many species and quotas on the number of fish that can be caught, as well as closed seasons and restrictions on fishing gear.
Even before the Canadian study was published, regulators everywhere were pushing for tougher fishing restrictions. A recent UN resolution stressed the need to restore the world's fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. And it mandated a system for preventing illegal and unreported fishing.
Teri Frady of the National Marine Fisheries Service says current regulations in New England and elsewhere are showing signs of success. "Around the world, you'll find all levels of recovery and rebuilding going on under different conditions. Our local picture is much different from the broader picture. We are making some progress. We haven't seen any signs that our stocks are not going to improve and recover based on a reduced fishing harvest," she says.
Still, it gets harder and harder to make a living on the water. Fisherman Tom Smith says he's become distrustful of scientists and regulators. "We've been hurt by scientists a lot in the past. The scientists tell us one thing, they're in their laboratories doing their work, and we're seeing totally opposite things on the ocean day to day from what they're telling us," he says.
So regulators have decided to get more input from fishermen. One project pays them to catch fish and throw them back. It's part of a new tagging program that could help scientists do a better job of monitoring dwindling stocks, especially of cod.
On the Miss Morgan, some 40 kilometers southeast of Nantucket, a couple of fishermen stand on deck, reeling in cod left and right and throwing them into a tank. Tom Rudolph of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association is onboard to lend a hand. "This is a pretty typical division of labor. One person dipping into the tank, one person doing the tagging, and one person doing the data recording," he says.
When a fisherman tags a fish, he records the tag number, date, time, location, the fish's length, and other information. Then, the newly-labeled fish is tossed back into the ocean. If enough of these fish are re-caught and reported, the project could give scientists and regulators a better understanding of the mortality rate and population of cod stocks.
Fishermen around the country are also cooperating on other research projects that could help shape fishery management policies… and in the meantime, offering them a much-needed boost to their shrinking income. Tom Rudolph sees the cod-tagging program as just the beginning of a healthier relationship between fishermen and regulators. "We thought that this was a good way to get a lot of fishermen in cooperative research and get a foot in the door and get them thinking along the lines of, maybe I can bring my ideas forward in terms of another project down the road. Start building the bridges of cooperation between fishermen, scientists, and managers," he says.
Still, looking to the future, fisherman John Papplardo says restrictions are bound to get tighter. "I think we're on the cusp of how we manage things here in New England. I think the change we're going to go through is we're going to end up with finite limits of how many pounds of each species we can remove in a given year. And that's going to be a painful transition for a lot of people. But, we're going to find a way to make it," he says.
But will the world's fish make it? Teri Frady of the Fisheries Service says it's hard to say because the health of the world's fish depends on the health of the oceans, and that is influenced by more than just fishermen. "There's really a mixed picture, and a lot will depend on how you're actually able to reduce fishing effort and then these things you can't control, the biological challenges that are there for the stocks," she says. "Are they going to recover, are they going to be able to jump-start themselves even if you really reduce the fishing effort?"
Large predatory fish populations will probably never return to their numbers prior to commercial fishing. But scientists say the marine eco-system can recover, if smaller, fast-growing species are given a chance to fill in for the large, over-fished predators.