A Wake-Up Call to Save the Sea's Shrinking Fish Stocks

Canada's ravished codfish stocks are in protective custody. So is Georges Bank, the historic fishing area off the coast of New England. It's time to do the same for the North Sea.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea now urges a drastic cut in the cod harvest there, even though it has been one of Europe's leading fish resources.

In addition, the annual North Sea cod haul takes up to 60 percent of the fishable stock, according to Robin M. Cook and colleagues at the Marine Laboratory of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department of the Scottish Office in Aberdeen. Last week in the journal Nature, they too warned of "a need for swift and effective action to protect the stock...."

This is part of a global problem that affects people everywhere who look to the sea for at least some of the food that lands on their dinner plate. Exploited as an unmanaged, wild resource, the sea can no longer meet those consumers' rising expectations.

According to a study published last year by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, fish have become a critical food supply for a billion of the world's poorer people. In more affluent regions, government subsidies and profits from high-priced delicacies encourage reckless exploitation. It's not just the North Atlantic cod that can't take it any more. Once abundant commercial fish stocks are crashing around the world.

This alarming fact is a timely wake-up call. As the Food Policy Institute pointed out, there still is time to put sensible curbs on commercial fishing while doing the research needed to develop effective ways to husband our planet's natural marine fish stocks. That dual strategy of fishing restraint and vigorous research is already being followed in some cases, such as some of the North Atlantic cod fisheries.

But in many other cases, such as the North Sea fishery, the responsible governments have dodged the issue. They hide behind the claim that the scientific basis for taking action is uncertain.

That's a false perception. Scientists do have a lot to learn about the natural factors that govern wild-fish populations. But they're certain that overfishing has caused the collapse of many commercial fisheries. The big question now is whether or not these stocks will recover if we take the overfishing pressure off their backs. That's where the lack of scientific understanding comes in.

A massive five-year international research program under way in the North Atlantic illustrates this. Called Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics, it is studying all aspects of life in the watery world of cod, haddock, flounder, and other "desirable" species. That means getting to know the complex system in which microscopic plants and animals form the base of a food chain that supports even the largest fish. It means learning how the shifting flows of winds and water currents shape the environment in which this system operates. Only when scientists have a fair understanding of how the system works can they suggest how to manage it wisely.

There's no guarantee that depleted commercial stocks will recover on their own when overfishing stops. For example, Andrew Solow with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts has noted that the Georges Bank ecosystem may still be healthy. But, being depleted of commercial species, it now may "prefer" to support less desirable species such as skate and spiny dogfish. In that case, commercial species won't come back on their own. Scientists, like Dr. Solow, expect the research now under way to show what may need to be done to restore the fishery there.

Countries that have dodged the challenge of declining fisheries should stop kidding themselves. They need to curb overfishing now and join with others in the kind of research being carried out in the North Atlantic. It's not too late to learn to manage the greatest natural-food resource this planet has produced.

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