The science of sustainable seafood, explained

E. O. Wilson Calls for an end to Fishing

A few days ago, The New York Times published a story on renowned scholar and author E. O. Wilson in promotion of his new book: Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. 

The book offers an improbable prescription for the environment: Dr. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man.

Indeed this 50 percent would include commercial fishing territory, specifically the open oceans.

Wilson tells The New York Times that, “we need to stop fishing in the open sea and let life there recover. The open sea is fished down to 2 percent of what it once was. If we halted those fisheries, marine life would increase rapidly. The oceans are part of that 50 percent.”

These numbers are wrong and are directly refuted on our Myths page. Wilson’s comments suggest there are no well-managed fisheries in the open ocean (despite lots of evidence to the contrary) and furthermore, there is no point in trying to operate sustainable commercial harvests in the open ocean (food, perhaps?).

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr

While I greatly respect the science that EO Wilson has done, he does not seem to understand that closing half of the earths surface to human activities, both on land and in the ocean, would lead to mass starvation of the poor people of the world. Rich people like Professor Wilson would be able to buy food, but global food production would decline dramatically and it is the disadvantaged people of the world that would suffer.

Professor Wilson also appears to be very poorly informed about the status of world fisheries. Where he came up with the idea that only 2% of the fish are left in the ocean is not clear but no scientific studies have suggested a number anywhere close to that. We can continue to produce nutritious food from the ocean on a sustainable basis without major impacts on biodiversity if we simply manage our fisheries well. Closing ½ of the oceans to fishing would move all the worlds fishing fleets into the other half, with little chance of managing those places well.

Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr

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