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A Wake-Up Call to Save the Sea's Shrinking Fish Stocks

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Canada's ravished codfish stocks are in protective custody. So is Georges Bank, the historic fishing area off the coast of New England. It's time to do the same for the North Sea.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea now urges a drastic cut in the cod harvest there, even though it has been one of Europe's leading fish resources.

In addition, the annual North Sea cod haul takes up to 60 percent of the fishable stock, according to Robin M. Cook and colleagues at the Marine Laboratory of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department of the Scottish Office in Aberdeen. Last week in the journal Nature, they too warned of "a need for swift and effective action to protect the stock...."

This is part of a global problem that affects people everywhere who look to the sea for at least some of the food that lands on their dinner plate. Exploited as an unmanaged, wild resource, the sea can no longer meet those consumers' rising expectations.

According to a study published last year by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, fish have become a critical food supply for a billion of the world's poorer people. In more affluent regions, government subsidies and profits from high-priced delicacies encourage reckless exploitation. It's not just the North Atlantic cod that can't take it any more. Once abundant commercial fish stocks are crashing around the world.

This alarming fact is a timely wake-up call. As the Food Policy Institute pointed out, there still is time to put sensible curbs on commercial fishing while doing the research needed to develop effective ways to husband our planet's natural marine fish stocks. That dual strategy of fishing restraint and vigorous research is already being followed in some cases, such as some of the North Atlantic cod fisheries.

But in many other cases, such as the North Sea fishery, the responsible governments have dodged the issue. They hide behind the claim that the scientific basis for taking action is uncertain.

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