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The eminently reputable journal Science, this November, will publish a major study dealing with fisheries, ocean biodiversity, and ocean productivity.  In that study, scientists talk in ways we’re not used to hearing scientists talk: in almost apocalyptic terms.

Guess we better get used to it.

All species of wild seafood are headed for collapse within 50 years, according to the study.  The loss of marine biodiversity is decimating the ocean’s capacity to produce food for humans, resist diseases, filter pollutants, and recover from stresses.

“All species of wild seafood.”   The scope of that statement is incomprehensible.  Can the ocean run out of fish?  Yes, I know mass extinctions are a looming threat, but.. but....  How many millions of people around the world, how many poor people in particular, depend on  the ocean’s bounty for a key part of their protein – and therefore for their survival?  What could possible replace all species of wild seafood, from shrimp to cod to salmon to sardines and all the rest?

There’s nothing that can replace it.

Reading a Stanford.edu news story containing these stark words, I tensed up, waiting for the qualification.  The “unless.”  Surely there would be an “unless.”

And there is.

“Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood,” says co-author Sephen Palumbi of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station.

Brian Worm of Dalhousie University, lead author of the study, echoes the dual themes of the ocean’s profound fragility and continuing hope.  “I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these [destructive] trends are – beyond anything we suspected.”  But he adds, crucially, “The data show us it’s not too late.  We can turn this around.  But less than 1 percent of the global ocean is effectively protected right now.“

The study authors want us to understand that the collapse of global fisheries isn’t something they're predicting will happen, but is happening now.  It’s the process we’re in the middle of, and it’s more drastic than the experts expected.  What’s called for is a reversal of the path that we are now heading down.

According to a BBC article on the study:

In 2003, 29% of open sea fisheries were in a state of collapse, defined as a decline to less than 10% of their original yield.

Bigger vessels, better nets, and new technology for spotting fish are not bringing the world's fleets bigger returns - in fact, the global catch fell by 13% between 1994 and 2003.

The New Scientist website, in a good discussion of the study, points out that even among scientists the key role of biodiversity has not always been acknowledged.
Many fisheries scientists have been sceptical of the idea that damage to a few non-fish species could be a threat to major fish stocks. But this study demonstrates, for the first time, that commercial and ecological health go together in the ocean. "Every species matters."

Ecologists are heralding the findings as a breakthrough not just for the study of the oceans, but also more widely for gauging the value of natural ecosystems to the health and wealth of the planet. "This analysis provides the best documentation I have ever seen regarding biodiversity's value," says Peter Kareiva at the Nature Conservancy in the US.  

There are some clear recommendations we can draw even from the early reports on this massive international study of global fisheries.  The need for more protected marine areas is one of the strongest.

If we’re to reverse the trend of continuing collapses, we also need improved management of fisheries, taking into account whole ecosystems rather than just the targeted fish stocks.  We need to outlaw particularly destructive fishing methods, such as the inexcusable practice of bottom trawling, which wrecks ecosystems for short-term gain.  We need the political will to put limits on or completely suspend fishing of stocks that have been pushed too close to collapse.  We need to treat the ocean as the irreplaceable treasure-house that it is, to be protected and drawn upon, but no longer recklessly plundered.  “Oceanic” is the very word for limitlessness, but it is now crucially important that we recognize the limits of what the ocean can survive, and act on that knowledge while there’s still time.

And we need to make these changes quickly, marshaling a response adequate to a major crisis.  Otherwise, we are entering a period of continuing and increasingly irreversible decline, which will leave us with no major ocean-based fisheries by 2050.

So get the word out, fellow citizens of the watery Earth.  Bump the ocean up toward the top of your ecological list of concerns.  Read about this study, and tweet your friends. And your Congresspeople.  Remember that when the experts took a good look, they were shocked at how far along the wrong road we’ve travelled.  Let that bother you.  Stay bothered.  And demand that our leaders take seriously that the ocean is the origin, the seedbed, of life on Earth, and it’s way past time to take better care of that foundation.

Originally posted to Fiona West on Thu Jul 31, 2014 at 04:33 PM PDT.

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