Is the Decline of US Wild Fish Becoming Like Peak Oil — Exaggerated?


The tumult that still trails BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, now over a year old, has fueled global concerns over wild fish stocks and the overall sustainability of world fisheries. The bluefin tuna, one the most prized (and absolutely delicious) commodities of the sea, has become a symbol of weak global fishing regulation and there’s ample data to support this. And just yesterday, NPR reported that Louisiana will embark upon an ad campaign promoting the safety of Gulf seafood. Yup, BP is funding the reportedly $20 million campaign.

While the Gulf seafood industry is trying to recapture the public trust and not necessarily assuage concerns of stock sustainability, let’s agree that health, safety and habitat security should all be included in the sustainability agenda.

But perhaps there’s burgeoning evidence that government regulatory instruments can improve sustainability performance of natural resources like seafood.

According to Ray Hilborn, a professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, certain US wild fish markets have responded well to improved regulatory systems over the last 20 years. Professor Hilborn specifically cites research from a paper he published in Science Magazine, where he and research partner Boris Worn found that declining catch numbers in New England do not necessarily correlate with a drop in the sustainability of a fishery. Hilborn actually argues that world fish stocks may be rising and the noise in the data comes from the fact that new regulatory policies have indeed forced limits on catch numbers, but these lower numbers to do not account for the overall health of a fishery.

Professor Hilborn cites the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act as a primary reason for fishery recoveries in New England. The legislation, enacted 35 years ago today, banned international fishing 200 miles within the US mainland. Bottom fish in New England–haddock and redfish to name a few–recovered sixfold between 1997-2004. While Hilborn concedes weak regulatory environments in Africa and Asia provide us with scant transparency on the condition of fisheries in those waters, he doesn’t believe we should increase fishing limits in the world given our growing food needs.

It is the feeding the world dilemma–nine billion people by 2050–where the professor makes  his most provocative point.  Assuming a fishery is well managed–as in the case of bottom fish in New England–the comparative environmental costs to fishing versus livestock cultivation are miniscule.

As the logic goes, if we shut down wild fishing due to incorrect assumptions about ecological health, more land will be used to raise chickens, cows and pigs.  And these food sources require far more environmentally damaging inputs–chemical fertilizer, carbon-intensive machinery, water–than is required by fishing. Indeed, agricutural runoff is the cause of fishery dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Just as it is eco-trendy to scream about peak oil, there’s little evidence to support it we anywhere close to running out of the stuff before the next century. US fish stocks may be similar.

Image credit by Another Pint Please via Flickr under a CC license