After millenniums of a free-for-all, many foresee the era of open access to the ocean formally coming to a close.
World catches have steadily declined since peaking in the late 1980s. Everyone, from scientists to fishermen, is alarmed. And in the US, all quarters are pushing to develop solutions before the problem becomes unfixable. Fishermen and fishery managers are rethinking management to encourage stewardship. Scientists now say that fish stocks can’t be viewed in isolation; they must be managed in the context of the greater ecosystem. Many, even some fishermen begrudgingly, realize the importance of having some areas completely off-limits to fishing in order to keep ecosystems healthy. And increasingly, a new argument is heard in the debate over fisheries: Marine ecosystems should be preserved not just for their economic value, but also because, like the wilderness preserved in the national forest system, they are part of humankind’s natural heritage.
The debate comes at a time when, driven by both health trends and increasing prosperity in countries like China, demand for fish is rising. In industrialized countries, fish consumption doubled, to 27 million metric tons, between 1961 and 2003, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Per capita, that’s an increase of one-third, to 29.7 kg (65.5 lbs.) per person yearly. (Much of the increased demand is being met by a growing aquaculture industry.) In developing countries, fish continue to provide an important source of protein. The average African gets 17 percent of his protein from fish; for Asians, it’s 26 percent. The typical North American gets only 7 percent of his protein from fish.
Fishery managers have a name for what can be removed without causing stocks to fall: the maximum sustainable yield. In theory, a well-managed fishery should provide free food – save for the cost of catching it – year after year.