UW News

April 1, 2016

Global ocean fish populations could increase while providing more food, income

UW News

Most of the world’s wild fisheries could be at healthy levels in just 10 years, and global fish populations could greatly increase by 2050 with better fishing approaches, according to a new study co-authored by University of Washington researchers.

The new report, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also explains how the world’s fisheries could produce more seafood and increase profits for fishermen by 204 percent by the year 2050, if reforms such as secure fishing rights are implemented now.

“We’ve uncovered a really important insight: there is urgency and tremendous upside in reforming thousands of fisheries around the world,” said Ray Hilborn, a co-author and UW professor aquatic and fishery sciences.

“The research adds to the body of work that shows that most of the world’s large fisheries are doing relatively well, but it emphasizes the critical need to rebuild fisheries that millions of fishermen and their families depend on for food and livelihoods, most of which are in the developing world.”

The study is a collaboration among researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Environmental Defense Fund and the UW. Trevor Branch, a UW associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, together with Hilborn, developed a database on fisheries stock status that was used in the study for both the status of individual stocks, and to tune the statistical model that was used for many of the other stocks.

According to the paper, if reforms were implemented today, three-quarters of exploited fisheries worldwide could reach population goals within 10 years, and 98 percent by mid-century. These conclusions emerged from the analysis that used a massive database of 4,713 fisheries — including most of the U.S. West Coast fisheries — that represent 78 percent of the ocean’s catch. That’s far more precise and granular than previous analyses.

The research suggests that implementing reforms, like secure fishing rights, is critical to providing the combined benefits of increased fish populations, profits and food production. Allocating fishing rights is a management approach that ends the desperate race for fish by asking fishermen to adhere to strict, science-based catch limits in exchange for a right to a share of the catch or to a traditional fishing area.

Since 2000, overfishing in U.S. federal waters has dropped 70 percent as the number of species managed with fishing rights or “catch shares” has quadrupled. In the past three years fishing-industry jobs have increased by 31 percent and fishermen revenues by 44 percent.

“Our research reveals a stark choice: manage fisheries sustainably and realize the tremendous potential of the world’s oceans, or allow status quo to continue to draw down the natural capital of our oceans,” said Chris Costello, the paper’s lead author and a professor of environmental and resource economics at UC Santa Barbara.

Other co-authors are Daniel Ovando, Tyler Clavelle, Steven Gaines, Cody Szuwalski and Reniel Cabral of UC Santa Barbara; C. Kent Strauss, Douglas Rader and Amanda Leland of Environmental Defense Fund; and Michael Melnychuk, a UW postdoctoral researcher in aquatic and fishery sciences.

This research was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Waitt Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. The national Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis provided computational support.

Read related news stories about the study in Vice, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Huffington Post and National Geographic.


This was adapted from an Environmental Defense Fund release. For more information, contact Hilborn at rayh@uw.edu.