The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Sylvia Earle says our Taste for “Aquatic Bushmeat” is Killing the Sea

A recent Newsweek article titled, “Our Taste for ‘Aquatic Bushmeat’ is Killing the Sea” comments on the state of worldwide fisheries as food. The article uses interviews with Sylvia Earle and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance to paint a bleak picture of the state of worldwide seafood. The article claims that 90% of fish in the ocean had been removed in the last half-century and 90% of the worlds stocks were unsustainably harvested (since corrected to 29%).  Likening fish to “aquatic bushmeat” Sylvia Earle admonishes people who don’t think about what kind of fish they eat or where the fish is from. This kind of traceability is hard to achieve, however, with little to no regulation – especially in Africa and Asia. The article does concede that eating local, abundant stocks is fine. The article ends with Sylvia Earle asking people to take an animal rights approach to fish saying, “We’ve become hardened in our view of pain that we inflict gratuitously on fish. We don’t think of them as creatures worth noticing.”

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington (@hilbornr)

The recent Newsweek article inspired by an interview with Dr. Sylvia Earle may set a new record for factual errors. The accompanying photo states “Up to 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished or depleted” If Dr. Earle or the author actually read the report they quote they would find that it says “Thus, in 2011, 28.8 percent of fish stocks were estimated as fished at a biologically unsustainable level and therefore overfished.” The graph below shows the trend in the number of stocks overfished according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


To the credit of the author of the article, Doug Main, he provided an online correction once the CFOOD staff pointed out this error.

However, the 2003 study cited in the Newsweek article that argued that 90% of the large fish of the ocean were gone by 1980 has been rebutted repeatedly; yet again the author and Dr. Earle don’t seem to have read the scientific literature or have conducted any due diligence with respect to the facts in the article. The graph below shows the analysis based on actual abundance estimates for the fish stocks discussed in the 2003 paper.

From Juan-Jorda, M. S., I. Mosqueira, A. B. Cooper, J. Freire and N. K. Dulvy (2011). “Global population trajectories of tunas and their relatives.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108: 20650-20655.

Certainly those stocks declined from 1950 to 2005 but they were mostly not overfished and the declines were a natural part of newly developing fisheries.

In fact, in many places of the world overfishing is disappearing and stocks are increasing. Cod in most of the North Atlantic are coming back, and Atlantic bluefin tuna is increasing rapidly. The idea that on the whole global fisheries are not sustainably managed is out and out wrong. In many places such as North America, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Norway fisheries are sustainably managed. Many other countries including the European Union members, Chile, Peru, South African, Japan and Argentina have made great strides in the science of sustainable fisheries management and overfishing in those countries is also declining not increasing.

Certainly there are many fisheries in the world that need better management, but we must understand where and why some stocks are overfished and this requires good science. Dr. Earle is an advocate for minimizing human impacts on the ocean but and has frequently argued that we should not fish at all. This is despite the fact that fish provide essential nutrition and employment for many of the world’s poorest people. The challenge is to assure that all of the worlds fisheries are sustainable and totally incorrect statements are no help in achieving this goal.

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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