Events & Media

Global Oceans and Better Management: More Fish, More Food, More Income
"Rights-based" approaches could double fish biomass; 77 percent of world's fisheries could be "biologically healthy" in a decade.

Chris Costello

Santa Barbara, Calif. ― Groundbreaking research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that with better fishing approaches compared to business as usual, the majority of the world’s wild fisheries could be at healthy levels in just ten years, and global fish populations could double by 2050.

The peer-reviewed study is authored by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, The University of Washington, and Environmental Defense Fund. Five of the twelve authors are affiliated with the Bren School, including lead author and Bren professor of environmental and resource economics Christopher Costello, Dean Steve Gaines, PhD student Daniel Ovando, alumnus Tyler Clavelle (MESM 2014), and post-doctoral researchers Reniel Cabral and Cody S. Szuwalski.

The paper also shows that by 2050, applying the same improved fishing approaches, profits from the world’s ocean fisheries could increase by 204 percent versus what can be expected under a business-as-usual approach. The increased harvest would be enough to provide a significant source of protein for an additional 500 million people. With a projected 9.5 billion people competing for more food from maxed-out resources in the coming decades, finding sustainable ways to increase food production has become a critical challenge.

“This research shows that we really can have our fish and eat them, too,” said Chris Costello,. “We no longer need to see ocean fisheries as a series of trade-offs. In fact, we show that we can have more fish in the water, more food on the plate, and more prosperous fishing communities — and it can happen relatively quickly.”

According to the paper, if reforms were implemented today, three-quarters of exploited fisheries worldwide could attain population goals within ten years, and 98% by mid-century. These powerful conclusions emerged from an analysis that was performed using a massive database of 4,713 fisheries that represent 78 percent of the ocean’s catch, which enabled this analysis to be far more precise and more granular than previous ones.

“We’ve uncovered a really important insight: there is urgency and tremendous upside in reforming thousands of small-scale, community fisheries around the world,” said Ray Hilborn, a co-author and professor of marine biology and fisheries science at the University of Washington. “The research adds to the body of work showing that most of the world’s large fisheries are doing relatively well, but it emphasizes the critical need to rebuild local fisheries, most of which are in the developing world, that millions of fishermen and their families depend on for food and livelihoods.”

The research suggests that implementing reforms, such as those based on secure fishing rights, are critical to providing the combined benefits of increased fish populations, food production, and profits. “Fishing rights” is a fishery management approach that ends the desperate race to fish by asking fishers 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.

“We now have a clear roadmap for how to recover fisheries: give fishermen secure fishing rights so they can control and protect their future,” said Amanda Leland, a co-author of the paper and senior vice president for oceans at Environmental Defense Fund. “Countries from the U.S. to Belize to Namibia are leading a turnaround by implementing secure fishing rights and realizing benefits for people and the oceans.”

Since 2000, overfishing in U. S. federal waters has dropped by 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 31 percent, and fishing revenues have grown by 44 percent. In Belize, a fishing-rights program newly implemented by the government for small-scale fishermen has dramatically increased compliance and shows tremendous potential for recovering important local species.

“Our research reveals a stark choice: either manage fisheries sustainably and realize the tremendous potential of the world’s oceans, or allow the status quo to continue to draw down the natural capital of our oceans,” said Costello.