THE WORLD’S WATERS are dangerously overfished, threatening the health and livelihood of millions across the planet.
A new study from consulting firm California Environmental Associates, part of which appeared in the journal Science last week, estimates that “over 40 percent of fisheries have crashed or are overfished, producing economic losses in excess of $50 billion per year.” If you’ve heard more encouraging numbers before now, that’s because these new figures include estimates of what’s happening to unmonitored stocks, from which fishermen draw 80 percent of the world’s harvest, not just those stocks that authorities closely assess. One indication of fishery depletion, the report notes, is that people are spending more effort — traveling farther, sinking more hooks, staying on the water longer — to catch fewer and fewer fish. Unsurprisingly, the problem is worst in middle- and low-income countries, where regulation is more often spottily enforced or nonexistent.
Just because many fisheries are strained, however, doesn’t mean they are beyond repair. At the root of the problem is that too many fishermen face incentives to take too many fish out of the water to secure immediate benefits. With few controls and many boats on the water, captains aren’t punished for pulling in full net after full net, but they do worry that competition will limit their ability to catch as many fish in the future. Changing those expectations to reduce overfishing in the short term can result in more fish available for catching in the long term, since fish populations would have time and space to rebound and grow. The study estimates that 64 percent of unmonitored areas could, in fact, provide a bigger harvest on a sustainable basis if properly regulated.