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Q&A: The fisheries crisis

Q: Global evaluations show that many of the world's fisheries are overfished. Why does this matter?

A: Overfishing is a major environmental problem and a serious economic and food security issue. Annual catches hover around 100 million tons and are worth nearly $100 billion. About 15 percent of all animal protein we consume comes from the seas, and as many as one billion people in low-income countries are dependent on seafood for protein.

Q: When did the world community really wake up to the crisis facing fish stocks?

A: As a kid in the 1970s in Scotland I remember news coverage of the "cod war" showing Icelandic and British boats ramming one another as they fought for access to dwindling cod stocks. Various herring and hake stocks collapsed around the same time. However, the extent of the fisheries problem really hit home early in the 1990s, when more than a dozen North Atlantic cod stocks declined simultaneously.

Q: What kind of impacts do commercial fisheries have on life in the oceans?

A: Fisheries, referring to both stocks and the boats that harvest those stocks, are found in some of the most productive and richest marine environments on Earth. If a fish stock collapses, a "hole" can be created in the food web and disrupt the whole ecosystem. Also, some fishing gears, like traditional shrimp trawling nets, result in excessive catches of nontarget species, called "bycatch." Bottom trawls can damage sensitive marine habitats, and a variety of gears can kill marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles and fish. Gear modifications can reduce these impacts, but it's difficult to avoid them completely.

Q: Can fish stocks recover?

A: If appropriate management actions are taken then it is possible, in most cases. But how long it takes depends on the species and how early action is taken. Consider the declines in North Atlantic cod stocks in the early 1990s. Catch quotas were cut 50 percent for Norwegian/Russian cod, and they bounced back to healthy levels in a couple of years. But Newfoundland cod suffered a severe collapse before action was taken, and they still haven't recovered today.

Q: You've made fisheries a priority for CI's Center for Conservation and Government. What are your aims?

A: We aim to stimulate recovery efforts for depleted fish stocks, encourage the use of low-impact fishing gears and carefully locate marine protected areas to minimize environmental impacts on vulnerable habitats, other fish stocks and endangered species. To do this, we must work closely with governments. They, in most cases, control fisheries, define policy objectives, establish protected areas and set quotas. However, many seafood businesses also share our concern over the future health of fish stocks and marine biodiversity. Engaging industry in tandem with government can help us most effectively identify and implement effective marine conservation and fisheries recovery programs.

Q: Who are you working with on this?

A: At the moment we're working with McDonald's to develop purchasing guidelines and standards related to well-managed fisheries. This is part of CELB's broader partnership with McDonald's to seek sustainability in global food supply chains. As the work with McDonalds makes progress, we want to build similar partnerships with other key industry players active in tuna and shrimp fisheries around the world. These species are particularly important in some of the world's most diverse tropical marine ecosystems.

Q: What can the general public do to help fix the fisheries crisis?

A: Write their elected officials to back fisheries conservation measures. Lack of information in the marketplace means it is difficult to make the right choices as a seafood consumer. Consumers should definitely support stores and restaurants that are using responsible seafood sourcing policies and are making efforts to help rebuild depleted fish stocks and protect the environment.

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© CI, Patrick Johnston
Jim Cannon

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