OCEANS' EARLY DEMISE DISPUTED
Fishers, other marine experts
say pessimistic report unduly alarmist
by KEVIN HOWE and SARAH C.P. WILLIAMS, Herald
Staff Writers 11/27/06
The sky isn't falling and the fish will still
be around in mid-century, according to fishermen
and critics of a recent article that forecast a
bleak future for the fishing industry.
The article, published Nov. 3 in the magazine
Science, predicted the collapse of all of the
world's fisheries by 2048, based on declining fish
harvest numbers and other research. It also
sparked a firestorm of controversy, generating
headlines nationwide in newspapers and news
magazines, spinning off into an elaborately
illustrated feature in Time magazine.
Among critics like Ray Hilborn, a peer review
scientist at the University of Washington, the
article was "probably the most absurd prediction
that's ever appeared in a scientific journal
Hilborn called the Science article findings
"silly," but also worried that they "will become
completely accepted in the ecological community.
They have no skepticism."
But the researchers who wrote the Science story --
including two from Stanford University's Hopkins
Marine Station in Pacific Grove -- are sticking to
"I haven't seen any science that shows we're
wrong," said Steve Palumbi, a marine ecologist at
Hopkins. "There are opinions I've heard, but I
haven't seen any science."
At the same time, Palumbi and the other
researchers said they are grateful the article has
generated controversy because they believe it will
help direct attention to the factors contributing
to the loss of fishery resources.
Palumbi and Fiorenzo Micheli, also a scientist at
Hopkins, were among a dozen authors of the Science
At the core of the controversy is what critics
call the growing "enviro-sensationalism" trend of
environmental news, said Steve Ralston, senior
fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's National Marine
Fisheries Office in Santa Cruz.
He referred to the growing number of similar
reports as "an increasing 'Chicken Little'
The principal objection, Ralston said, is that the
scientists infer that fisheries are going to
"collapse" based on declining catches.
But one reason for the decline, he said, has been
a successful management program. "The basic way
they measure 'collapse' is flawed. Catch is not a
good way to measure the status of the fish stock."
The authors of the original paper acknowledged
that there is some validity to Ralston's argument.
"Yes, catches are an imperfect measure of the
stock abundance," said lead author Boris Worm, a
marine biologist at Canada's Dalhousie University.
He said, however, that declines in catches are
still indicative of larger trends.
"It's obvious that when the catches collapse, it's
often because there's no more fish to be found,"
Critics of the research have also cited the
successful recovery of some fish populations, like
rockfish, as evidence against declines.
Co-author Fiorenzo Micheli, of Hopkins Marine
Station, said those recoveries only go to show
that there are ways to stop collapses from
"These examples prove the point that when
something is done, and measures are taken, things
get better," said Micheli.
Worm agreed, and said that much of the debate
about the paper is because of this
misunderstanding of what a projection is.
"Our projection is not a prediction. If we don't
change the way we do things, that's what the
future will look like," he said. "I'm actually
optimistic that we're going to turn things around
fast enough that we're not going to hit rock
The forecasted potential to hit rock-bottom,
however, is what most critics have latched onto.
"I'm very disappointed in Science magazine,"
Ralston said. "This is not the first article
that's almost created a panic situation with ocean
resources and fish."
Hilborn said many of the world's fisheries are not
well managed and are getting worse, but the United
States, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia and others
have successfully pursued strategies to keep
fisheries sustainable. For instance, those
countries are getting rid of a fishing industry
race that led fishermen to build and operate
ever-bigger boats to bring in ever-bigger catches.
Lowering the take, he said, is the key.
Ralston describes himself as "an ardent
conservationist," but said he worries that public
exaggerations of environmental problems erode the
credibility of scientists and the conservation
Fishers view the Science report as another
undeserved slap at them and their industry.
"I see a completely different picture of fishing
and the ocean," said Jiri Nozicka of Monterey, a
native of the Czech Republic and a fisherman on
Monterey Bay for the past seven years.
"We as fishermen see how much fish there is, and
we've been catching a lot more fish than ever
Palumbi acknowledged that some areas of the world
have not seen such drastic declines in fish
populations as others. In fact, a main point of
the paper was that the collapse in fish numbers is
dependent on the diversity of ecosystems.
"In Monterey," he said, "we're in a hotspot of
diversity. So the collapse is happening more
slowly here." The research, however, looked at the
Fishermen have also said the study was flawed
because catch numbers are influenced by government
"There's huge waste created by reduced limits by
the federal government because of quotas not
matching reality," said Joe Pennisi," Nozicka's
brother-in-law and fishing partner.
Fishers, Nozicka said, are forced to throw catches
overboard because of regulations limiting the
number of fish they can land, and that lowers the
landing numbers scientists rely on to determine
In addition to the lower catch limits, he said,
the number of fishing vessels is also declining.
If there's an endangered species on the coast,
Nozicka said, it's the American fisher.
A fishing industry can collapse, he said, when
there are too few boats on the water to support
the fish canning and processing industries, not to
mention the businesses ashore that maintain,
supply, build, fuel, service and sell boats.
The decline in fishers, however, is also closely
tied to the number of fish in the ocean, say some
"Historically, the cause of a shrinking fishing
industry is because of declining stock," Micheli
Jared Roth, who was until recently an observer for
NOAA's West Coast Groundfish Observer Program,
"There's a lot of fish out there," Roth said.
"Nobody knows what's down there, and that might
always be the case. The ocean is really
mysterious; it's dark, always changing. It's
really hard to know what the truth is down there."
Roth sailed with Nozicka and Pennisi as an
observer on a number of their fishing trips.
While the Monterey coastline is rich in marine
life, he said, "how does that compare to what it
was like before people started dipping into the
Roth described himself as "skeptical of a lot of
ocean science," even though that's his educational
He has participated in fish counts but doesn't
know what is done with the numbers they generate.
Rockfish species were "really heavily fished by
really intense gear by a really intense industry
over the past 10 years," Roth said. "You have to
suspect that real damage was done. We're just too
good at doing damage when there's money involved."
Almost all of the gear used then has been
outlawed, he said, and catch limits are lower.
Roth, too, worries about the future of the
industry, which he sees as a fleet of aging boats
and aging skippers, with few young people willing
to come into the business.
"Fishing is so hard, really hard," he said. When
people set out to harvest wild fish on a wild
ocean "you really have to be able to adapt, to
have lots of options, to be lucky, smart, skilled
"People don't value the resource," he said. "If
they really knew where their food was coming from
and wanted real local fresh food, then these guys
wouldn't so easily be weeded out. We should be
valuing these guys. What will replace these guys?
They seem to be going out of style fast, like
This is one point that all the scientists agrees
"These fishermen need your support to be able to
fish sustainably," said Worm, who encouraged
consumers to buy local catch when they eat
seafood, even if it's more expensive.
Whether or not they agree with the research
methods, the end message Worm hopes people take
away from his research is that something has to be
done so that we avoid the 2048 projection.
"People still expect scientists to tell them what
the future will look like. But we don't have a
crystal ball," he said. "What we can do is tell
people what the consequences of our actions or
inactions will be."