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Overfishing means the end of seafood by 2050, large study

By Chris Mercer , 03-Nov-2006

All seafood stocks around the world may collapse by 2050 if fishing continues at its current rate, scientists have warned, piling intense pressure on industry and governments to handle stocks more sustainably.

The collapse, which would see more than 90 per cent of all wild seafood that is currently fished disappear, would destroy both ecosystems and fishing economies, says the large study, published in the Science journal.

The findings reveal a major threat to fishing sector earnings and put the heaviest pressure yet on both industry and governments to create a more sustainable production chain.

"I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are - beyond anything we suspected," said Boris Worm, lead author on the report, which is the first to analyse all existing data on ocean species and ecosystems.

The international team of researchers spent four years trawling through United Nations figures and studies on 48 marine protected areas worldwide, as well as examining coastal regions.

Current declines in biodiversity in the world's oceans were cutting food supplies to a growing human population, sabotaging environments and preventing the sea from filtering out harmful pollutants, they said.

"Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the oceans' species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood," said study co-author Steve Palumbi, of Stanford University.

Discussions on damage to seafood stocks and how future supplies can be maintained have intensified in the European Union in recent months.

Most European fish stocks are now overfished, according to the influential International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. The increasingly precarious situation was highlighted this year by a World Wildlife Fund study claiming that bluefin tuna stocks had almost been fished out of some of the Mediterranean's oldest fishing grounds.

Overfishing has led to lower catches, lower incomes for fishermen, low profitability in many fisheries, and high catches of young fish - many of which are discarded, the European Commission has said.

It recently set out its guiding principles for cutting fishing quotas in 2007, attempting to stay afloat in the middle ground between member state politics and scientists' warnings.

Officials called for cuts of up to 15 per cent per year on overfished species, and suggested adopting a maximum sustainable yield policy (MSY) to control overfishing, which would reduce domestic supply and so likely increase imports from outside the EU.

Agriculture ministers from the 25 EU member states have now agreed on catches and quotas in the Baltic Sea region for next year. They said cod fishing would have to drop, but opportunities to fish herring and sprat would likely increase.

Is it too late?

"The data shows us it's not too late," said Worm, of Dalhousie University in Canada. "We can turn this around. But less than one per cent of the global ocean is effectively protected right now."

He said many species were capable of bouncing back in between three and 10 years. "And where this has been done, we see immediate economic benefits."

For now, declining stocks are likely to raise the seafood sector's reliance on farmed produce as governments face up to the fact that the world's oceans are being depleted at unsustainable rates.

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