For over a decade, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been predicting that unregulated and irresponsible fishing practices would see the collapse of the international seafood industry.
The response to our predictions has been that we are pessimistic alarmists.
Now, a scientific report from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has given considerable weight to Sea Shepherd concerns
"If current trends of overfishing and pollution continue, the populations of just about all seafood face collapse by 2048," states a new report from a team of ecologists and economists published in the current issue of the journal Science.
"Whether we looked at tide pools or studies over the entire world's ocean, we saw the same picture emerging. In losing species we lose the productivity and stability of entire ecosystems," said the lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are - beyond anything we suspected," Worm said.
Worm and an international team spent four years analyzing 32 controlled experiments, other studies from 48 marine protected areas, and global catch data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's database of all fish and invertebrates worldwide from 1950 to 2003.
The scientists also looked at a 1,000-year time series for 12 coastal regions, drawing on data from archives, fishery records, sediment cores, and archaeological data.
"At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed - that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating," Worm said. "If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime - by 2048."
"It looks grim and the projection of the trend into the future looks even grimmer," he said. "But it's not too late to turn this around. It can be done, but it must be done soon. We need a shift from single species management to ecosystem management. It just requires a big chunk of political will to do it."
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation's National Center for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis. The researchers called for new marine reserves, better management to prevent overfishing, and tighter controls on pollution.
In the 48 areas worldwide that have been protected to improve marine biodiversity, they found, "diversity of species recovered dramatically, and with it the ecosystem's productivity and stability."
While seafood forms a crucial concern in their study, the researchers were analyzing overall biodiversity of the oceans. The more species in the oceans, the better each can handle exploitation.
"Even bugs and weeds make clear, measurable contributions to ecosystems," said co-author J. Emmett Duffy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.
Not surprisingly the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association for the seafood industry, does not share the researchers concern.
"Fish stocks naturally fluctuate in population," the Institute said in a statement. "By developing new technologies that capture target species more efficiently and result in less impact on other species or the environment, we are helping to ensure our industry does not adversely affect surrounding ecosystems or damage native species."
"This, of course, is the usual rhetoric from the industry. The fact is that they have not developed technologies that efficiently target species," said Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "The fishing industry has been fueled by corporate greed and governmental incompetence and the bottom line has been profit and not conservation. Nothing is changing and there is no sign that the industry is considering serious changes to address this problem."
"We can't even get supposedly progressive companies like Whole Foods Market to stop selling endangered to Chilean Sea Bass," continued Captain Watson. "The demand for seafood is going up as the supply is plummeting and this is a recipe for collapse."