THE recent standoff between United States and Canadian fishing officials over Pacific salmon points to a much larger problem: Fisheries worldwide are in trouble.
One-fourth of all assessed fish stocks have been overexploited; another 44 percent are fully-to-heavily exploited, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
More than half the world's major fishing areas ``are in serious decline,'' Worldwatch Institute reports.
At stake: 200 million jobs in the $70 billion industry, a major nutrition source in developing nations, and even the survival of some species and ecosystems.
``It's really an economic threat,'' says Barry Kaufmann, an economist with Australia's Fisheries Management Authority, who came to the University of Washington here for a recent conference on global fisheries. For much of this century, the annual fish catch has risen. But the last four years have seen a decline that could mean the catch is nearing its sustainable limit.
While causes range from weather conditions that affect fishes' food to pollution, experts say the nub of the problem is the ``tragedy of the commons.'' Oceans have been viewed as a commons, where people try to maximize their take rather than conserve resources. The decision to go after fish may make economic sense for each boat, but the industry is now overcapitalized, says Michael Sissenwine of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Too many boats are plying the briny deep, and with ever-increasing efficiency.
Policymakers are scrambling to change the incentives. How to infuse the commons with individual stewardship was the main topic among fishery managers at the conference.
CANADA had charged a fee for US fishermen in its waters as a way of forcing resolution in stalled talks over how the nations should divide up salmon that originate in one country and migrate to the other. In recent days, however, Canada dropped the fee because the nations have agreed to resume negotiations. Indeed, the dispute hints at complexities to be faced all over the globe.
``The status quo will not be an option'' for managing the oceans, Mr. Sissenwine told his colleagues. Developing nations have expanded their share to 60 percent of the global industry, and that trend is likely to continue to contribute to overcapitalization and overfishing, he said.
Several nations, including Iceland and New Zealand, have pioneered individual transferable quotas (ITQs), which divide up the catch within national waters among commercial fishermen. Quota owners can sell them to others or retain them. Officials limit the number of rights given out initially, based on estimates of how much fishing can be sustained long-term.
Bruce Turris, who oversees ITQ and non-ITQ fisheries in British Columbia, says fishermen's attitudes ``change considerably'' when property rights are introduced. ``The value of their asset is the value of their quota,'' and that rises or falls with the health of fish stocks. Many fisheries set a ``total allowable catch'' but then allow boats to race each other to get a huge piece of that pie before the limit is reached.
When everyone gets the same volume, the focus shifts to maximizing catch value, with issues such as timeliness and quality coming to the fore, he says.
But not everyone likes turning fish resources into private property. Industry members often worry that the plan will be bad for them; bringing them on board is crucial to success, experts say.
Doug Hopkins of the Environmental Defense Fund has deeper concerns: He argues that, once the government creates an ITQ system, it will never be able to take back property rights. He urges a go-slow approach, starting with a few trial areas.
Mr. Kaufmann contends that some form of property-based system, of which ITQs are just one variety, should be tried. ``Governments are not very good at managing things,'' he says.
The FAO has estimated that, with good management, world fisheries might be able to sustain an annual harvest of 100 million tons of fish, about 20 million more than today. Moreover, governments could save money by removing subsidies that now total some $54 billion a year and by collecting rents or fees in return for access to fisheries, as is done with access to government land for timber harvests.
The challenge remains huge. The FAO's Serge Garcia says since World War II, overfishing has spread from North Atlantic ``to the North Pacific in the '50s, to the Eastern Atlantic [West Africa] and the Eastern Pacific [Latin America] in the '60s, to the Indian Ocean and the Antarctic in the '70s, to the South Pacific and Southwest Atlantic [in] the '80s.''
New policies must be forged by coastal nations for waters within 200 miles of land and by international pact for the seas. Next month, the UN will try to conclude talks to form rules governing ``straddling stocks,'' which migrate between national and international waters and account for one-fifth of the global catch. Issues of monitoring and enforcement must be addressed.
Phil Major, a New Zealand fisheries manager, warned colleagues that environmentalists will watch for progress: ``If you don't grasp at the opportunities that are here before you right now, somebody else will seize them.''