New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
November 2, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Fish are disappearing, and time is running
out for the oceans. "We still have rhinos and tigers and elephants
because we saw a clear trend that was going down and we changed it.
We have to do the same in the oceans."]

By Cornelia Dean

If fishing around the world continues at its present pace, more and
more species will vanish, marine ecosystems will unravel and there
will be "global collapse" of all species currently fished, possibly as
soon as midcentury, fisheries experts and ecologists are predicting.

The scientists, who report their findings today in the journal
Science, say it is not too late to turn the situation around. As long
as marine ecosystems are still biologically diverse, they can recover
quickly once overfishing and other threats are reduced, the
researchers say.

But improvements must come quickly, said Boris Worm of Dalhousie
University in Nova Scotia, who led the work. Otherwise, he said, "we
are seeing the bottom of the barrel."

"When humans get into trouble they are quick to change their ways," he
continued. "We still have rhinos and tigers and elephants because we
saw a clear trend that was going down and we changed it. We have to do
the same in the oceans."

The report is one of many in recent years to identify severe
environmental degradation in the world's oceans and to predict
catastrophic loss of fish species. But experts said it was unusual in
its vision of widespread fishery collapse so close at hand.

The researchers drew their conclusion after analyzing dozens of
studies, along with fishing data collected by the United Nations Food
and Agricultural Organization and other sources. They acknowledge that
much of what they are reporting amounts to correlation, rather than
proven cause and effect. And the F.A.O. data have come under criticism
from researchers who doubt the reliability of some nations' reporting
practices, Dr. Worm said.

Still, he said in an interview, "there is not a piece of evidence"
that contradicts the dire conclusions.

Jane Lubchenco, a fisheries expert at Oregon State University who had
no connection with the work, called the report "compelling."

"It's a meta analysis and there are challenges in interpreting those,"
she said in an interview, referring to the technique of collective
analysis of disparate studies. "But when you get the same patterns
over and over and over, that tells you something."

But Steve Murawski, chief scientist of the Fisheries Service of the
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said the
researchers' prediction of a major global collapse "doesn't gibe with
trends that we see, especially in the United States."

He said the Fisheries Service considered about 20 percent of the
stocks it monitors to be overfished. "But 80 percent are not, and that
trend has not changed substantially," he said, adding that if
anything, the fish situation in American waters was improving. But he
conceded that the same cannot necessarily be said for stocks
elsewhere, particularly in the developing world.

Mr. Murawski said the Bush administration was seeking to encourage
international fishery groups to consider adopting measures that have
been effective in American waters.

Twelve scientists from the United States, Canada, Sweden and Panama
contributed to the work reported in Science today.

"We extracted all data on fish and invertebrate catches from 1950 to
2003 within all 64 large marine ecosystems worldwide," they wrote.
"Collectively, these areas produced 83 percent of global fisheries
yields over the past 50 years."

In an interview, Dr. Worm said, "We looked at absolutely everything -
all the fish, shellfish, invertebrates, everything that people consume
that comes from the ocean, all of it, globally."

The researchers found that 29 percent of species had been fished so
heavily or were so affected by pollution or habitat loss that they
were down to 10 percent of previous levels, their definition of

This loss of biodiversity seems to leave marine ecosystems as a whole
more vulnerable to overfishing and less able to recover from its
effects, Dr. Worm said. It results in an acceleration of environmental
decay, and further loss of fish.

Dr. Worm said he analyzed the data for the first time on his laptop
while he was overseeing a roomful of students taking an exam. What he
saw, he said, was "just a smooth line going down." And when he
extrapolated the data into the future "to see where it ends at 100
percent collapse, you arrive at 2048."

"The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I said, 'This cannot be
true,'" he recalled. He said he ran the data through his computer
again, then did the calculations by hand. The results were the same.

"I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know what the future will
bring, but this is a clear trend," he said. "There is an end in sight,
and it is within our lifetimes."

Dr. Worm said a number of steps could help turn things around.

Even something as simple as reducing the number of unwanted fish
caught in nets set for other species would help, he said. Marine
reserves would also help, he said, as would "doing away with
horrendous overfishing where everyone agrees it's a bad thing; or if
we banned destructive fishing in the most sensitive habitats."

Josh Reichert, who directs the environmental division of the Pew
Charitable Trusts, called the report "a kind of warning bell" for
people and economies that depend on fish.

But predicting a global fisheries collapse by 2048 "assumes we do
nothing to fix this," he said, "and shame on us if that were to be the