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New Research Shows Path to Reverse Fish Declines

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - For those in the United States and Canada who stand for sustainable modes of production and consumption of natural resources, including seafood, there is good news from the oceans this week.Though fish stocks continue to decline despite years of efforts to overcome the problem, new scientific evidence shows there exists a clear pathway to reversing the course.

"Fishery collapses are not inevitable," says Brian Halweil, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, one of the leading independent environmental think tanks in the United States.

Halweil has long held that eating less of big fish species and avoiding fish caught by trawlers could pave the way for the salvation of imperiled fish populations.

This week, his claim was fully validated when Environmental Defense, a Washington, DC-based independent environmental group, released a comprehensive study on fisheries.

Entitled "Sustaining America's Fisheries and Fishing Communities," the report points to the need for employing Limited Access Privilege Programs (LAPPs), or "catch shares," as an effective tool to save fish stocks.

Catch shares work by allocating a percentage share of a fishery's total catch to individual fishermen or communities. If a fishery is well-managed, the value of the shares increases as the stock expands.

When participants have a secure portion of the catch, researchers say, they gain the flexibility to make business decisions that improve safety, increase profits, and promote healthy fishing stocks.

Funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the study involved more than 30 scientists and economists who collected data on nearly 100 fisheries and analyzed over 150 peer-reviewed studies.

Their findings led them to conclude that catch shares could not only save fishing stocks, but also prove to be helpful in providing social and economic benefits to fishing communities.

"Catch shares are the missing piece in the puzzle to restore our fisheries," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. "The hard data...shows how catch shares can improve the performance of fisheries at lower cost to fishermen and greater benefit to the overall ecosystem."

Currently, scientific studies show that almost 90 percent of large predatory fish are gone from the world's oceans. In the United States alone, more than 230 fisheries have been assessed. Of them nearly 100 are either already over-fished or currently experiencing over-fishing, while the fate of another 100 is still uncertain.

Many researchers assert that the decline in fishing stocks has occurred due to heavy use of bottom trawling, an indiscriminate and environmentally destructive practice that involves dragging heavy nets along the sea floor. Metal plates and rubber wheels attached to the nets move across the seabed and crush nearly everything in their path.

"Fisheries have continued to decline despite decades of trying to manage these resources," said Steve Gaines, Director of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a statement on the results of the new study on fisheries.

"But, as these data show, this doesn't have to be the reality," he added.

Those involved in the research said the implementation of catch shares in 10 particular fisheries in the U.S. and Canada reduced so-called "bycatch" by more than 40 percent, which, along with the benefits of complying with catch limits, saves the equivalent of the annual seafood consumption of 16 million Americans.

They also found that revenues per boat went up by 80 percent due to increased yields per boat and higher dockside prices. Also, safety was more than doubled, based on an index of loss of vessels, lives, and search and rescue missions.

In fishermen's view, the most important result of implementing catch shares is that it puts an end to "the race for fish."

"We used to go out in dangerous conditions, regardless of the cost of fuel or what price we would get for our fish. Now our jobs are safer and we can deliver a higher quality product," said David Krebs, a Gulf red snapper fisherman.

Researchers say that in recent years the fishing communities in the United States have lost some 72,000 jobs due to decreasing salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest and that most fishermen now make nearly 30 percent less than those employed by other industrial enterprises.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill who pay close attention to the concerns of environmental groups welcomed the new findings on fisheries and acknowledged the fact that it could effectively contribute to the well-being of coastal communities and the conservation of marine species.

"We should give fishermen tools to enhance their economic vitality, advance sustainable fishing practices, and protect fish populations for future generations," said Congresswoman Lois Capps, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a statement after the release of the new study.

Last year in December, the U.S. Congress passed a law to promote catch share programs and, recently, President George W. Bush also declared that he would expand the implementation of such plans by 100 percent in the next three years.

Environmental groups say they would be keenly watching the implementation of catch share programs.

"The task at hand today is prompt and well designed implementation of catch shares," said Environmental Defense's Krupp. "We call on both President Bush and Congress to prioritize funding over the next five years for these innovative approaches to rebuild our fisheries and fishing communities."

Copyright 2007

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