Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission
There was a time when the leading marine scientists Boris Worm and Ray Hilborn were sworn enemies.
Each looked at the ocean in very different ways and when Dr Worm published a paper three years ago predicting the collapse of all fish stocks around the world by 2048, Professor Hilborn hit the roof. The way he saw it, the fish were doing fine.
Science is supposed to be cold, impartial and evidence based, but the two had come to different conclusions. Professor Hilborn was concerned with measuring the size and populations of individual species of fish to determine how many could be safely harvested by fishermen. Dr Worm, meanwhile, looked at things from the perspective of the entire ecosystem — including all the different types of fish, invertebrate and plant life. Where Professor Hilborn saw a workable fishery, Dr Worm saw looming crisis…
After meeting face to face, when brought together to air their differences in the studio of a National Public Radio show, they decided to collaborate. The result, the Rebuilding Global Fisheries study, published in the journal Science, is being hailed as a landmark work by experts around the world.
“This paper marks a historical turning point,” Dr Worm told The Times. “We’ve been fishing for 10,000 years, but we’ve never been able to proactively manage it. The environment has always defined what fish we catch. What we’ve done is establish beyond doubt the ecosystem consequences of fishing, and what works to reduce those impacts.”
For two years the two scientists and 19 co-authors gathered data from the world’s fishing grounds to establish a consensus on the situation, and what should be done about it.
“The picture is much more optimistic,” said Professor Hilborn. “We’ve found that some areas have never been overfished, while others are well within their limits. There is an increasing fraction that are being overexploited, but the key thing is to understand and address the causes of that trend…”
Catching fewer fish is not an attractive option for many fishermen, for whom it means less income. Persuading them to accept cuts in return for greater gains in the future is a key challenge. “Yet, it remains our only option for ensuring fisheries and marine ecosystems against further depletion and collapse,” Dr Worm said.
I grew up subsistence fishing with my family. If we didn’t catch fish – we didn’t have that chunk of protein 5 or 6 days a week. Whatever was running – for months at a time – that’s what we ate.
That was a time before we needed to know about managing fish stocks. We learned about pollution and what disasters thoughtless industries could visit upon a sport and business – and the young environmental movements in the 60’s and 70’s won a great deal of that battle. At least until the days of Reagan.
This is a tale that’s better than cautionary because it’s about scientists who work at saving their part of the world through scientific methods instead of political crap and ideology. One can only hope the workers of this trade – fisherfolk – all adopt the lessons learned.