Around the world, years of mismanagement — or no management — have led to overharvesting in the majority of fisheries, threatening billions of people who rely on the oceans for income and food. But a study released Monday suggests that global management reforms could return thousands of fisheries to good health in about a decade. Described as “commonsense” by researchers, these reforms could generate an extra eight million metric tons of fish caught each year and an additional $36 billion in profit compared to today.
A team of researchers led by Christopher Costello, a resource economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, assembled data from over 4,700 fisheries representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study is “the first analysis that demonstrates the recovery potential of the world’s fisheries on a global scale,” said Tess Geers, a marine scientist at Oceana.
The researchers looked at three management strategies — a “business as usual” scenario and two strategies that maximized either long-term catch or economic value — and projected the trends for each fish stock until 2050. By combining the predictions for individual fisheries, the team was able to estimate national and global outcomes for each of the three models.
Not surprisingly, the report revealed that nearly every country in the world stands to gain from fisheries recovery. But the scale of the monetary benefits for some nations far outweighs those for others. “The worse a fishery’s current status,” the authors wrote, “the larger the potential gains from reform.”
China stands out as the major winner. If the country adopted the economic value-based approach for currently overfished stocks, it could see a massive growth in fish abundance that could bring in over $9 billion more in annual profits. Under this strategy, Indonesia, India, Japan and the Philippines also stand to net billions of dollars more each year.
Though the numbers are hopeful, Geers said, there are some caveats. One issue is that a system prioritizing profits for individual fishing businesses does not necessarily translate into greater employment or food security.
“The main challenge, however, is the political feasibility of implementing these management reforms,” she noted. “Many of the world’s countries don’t even have a basic governance system for fisheries. They can’t just tomorrow write regulations to fix these fisheries and expect them to turn around. You also need enforcement, monitoring and buy-in from fishers and coastal communities.” She added that government officials often have little incentive to enact fisheries reforms since they require sacrifice in the short term — rarely a popular platform for a politician.
As the study’s authors concede, the research doesn’t take into account other factors that could put the brakes on fisheries recovery. Some stocks may have reached the point of no return — either because there are so few fish that reproduction becomes difficult, or because their habitats have been destroyed.
According to Geers, climate change and other environmental factors are also major question marks. “They’re definitely going to impact the recovery of some stocks more than others, but we don’t really know what the scale of that is yet.”
Oceana works in some of the world’s largest fishing countries – and some of those that stand to gain the most from improved management – to rebuild fish stocks, save the oceans and feed the world. Learn more here.