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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 regarding fisheries."

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 their findings.

"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 article.

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' response."

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," Worm said.

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 becoming severe.

"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 bottom."

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 movement.

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 before."

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 global picture.

Fishermen have also said the study was flawed because catch numbers are influenced by government regulations.

"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 fish population.

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 scientists.

"Historically, the cause of a shrinking fishing industry is because of declining stock," Micheli said.

Jared Roth, who was until recently an observer for NOAA's West Coast Groundfish Observer Program, disagreed.

"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 pot?"

Roth described himself as "skeptical of a lot of ocean science," even though that's his educational background.

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 and tough."

"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 family farms."

This is one point that all the scientists agrees on.

"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."


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