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

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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

2 thoughts on “Is the Decline of US Wild Fish Becoming Like Peak Oil — Exaggerated?”

  1. You should be careful about trashing predictions of peak oil, since it seems like you’ve misunderstood what they’re saying.

    The timing of peak oil isn’t when the oil runs out—it’s when oil production reaches a maximum rate (say, 90 million barrels per day), and then declines from there. The U.S. has already passed its peak of oil production, although it’s far from running out, and is still the world’s third-largest oil producer, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    Many other countries are clearly past their peak of oil production, too, and the issue is whether oil production globally will start to decline soon.

    We’ve gotten used to using ever-increasing amounts of oil, decade after decade, and seem unprepared for dealing with having less and less each year. This is why peak oil would be a big problem—not because the oil would “run out” this century. If we were at the peak rate of oil production right now, then oil production would likely continue well into the 22nd century, but with an ever-declining amount of oil produced each year.

    Fish stocks are fundamentally different from non-renewable resources like oil. The issue with fish is how to manage the stocks to be able to harvest a certain amount essentially forever—that’s sustainability. There’s no sustainable production of fossil fuels because eventually they’ll run out; once you’ve used them up, they’re gone.

  2. I would agree that regulation and proper management of fish stocks can produce food more sustainably than CAFL livestock. But don’t forget that you need to Regulate and then Properly Manage those fish stocks, and not just in New England, all over the world. Take the example of Cod Fishing in Canada, it may be too late for them:

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