Comeback cod lessens gloom over emptying oceans
ABOARD HAUNES, Norwegian Sea (Reuters) – It was hours before dawn on a heaving Arctic sea, and snow showers were making it hard for Kurt Ludvigsen to find his fishing buoys with the trawler’s powerful searchlight.
But the 49-year-old Norwegian was less bothered by the conditions than by the large numbers of cod flailing in the nets he and his younger brother Trond winched aboard.
“It’s paradoxical but we have too many fish this year,” the older Ludvigsen said. “Prices have fallen 30 percent … We’re having to work far harder.”
Just over six years ago, an article in the US journal Science projected that all fish and seafood species, on current trends, would collapse by 2048.
A cod bonanza off north Norway and Russia and recovery of some fish stocks off developed nations from the United States to Australia have led many scientists to say the future for over-fished world stocks is a bit less bleak.
Stocks off developing nations – from the Pacific to the Caribbean – are still in sharp decline but the recoveries give hope that the problems are not irreversible.
“The outlook is improving relative to what we saw in 2006,” said Boris Worm, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Canada who was the lead author of the 2006 study in Science.
“It’s more than isolated examples – it’s a substantial number” of successes, he said.
A lot is at stake. Fisheries, both marine and farmed, provide livelihoods for up to 820 million people, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which emphasises that globally, over-fishing is still on the rise.
Cod, the 11th most caught fish species in an FAO list led by the Peruvian anchovy, skipjack tuna and Atlantic herring, has had a mixed fate.
While a 1990s moratorium off eastern Canada is still in place and European Union quotas are unchanged this year, the quota off northern Norway and Russia is a record 1.02 million tonnes, up a third from 2012 and six times as high as in 1990.
Part of the reason is that global warming has expanded the cod’s habitat northwards. And strict management of quotas by Oslo and Moscow have played a role, fisheries experts say.
Among other encouraging examples, fish landings off the United States rose to a 14-year-high in 2011, “thanks in part to rebuilding fish populations,” according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
US successes include Atlantic swordfish, summer flounder, New England scallops, Pacific lingcod and mid-Atlantic bluefish, the Washington-based Pew Environment Group said.
In September, another study in the journal Science said catches of the best-studied stocks off developed nations were shifting towards sustainable levels.
“We now know that we can make fisheries recover,” said Christopher Costello, lead author of that study and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“That sounds obvious but even 10 years ago many people would have disagreed, saying ‘we’ve already decimated them to a point of no return’.”
Many experts were now dropping a belief that over-fished stocks, like cod off Canada, can never revive. Closing fishing grounds, or cracking down on illegal catches, usually gives stocks a needed respite, he said.
That is much harder for developing nations, from the Philippines to Ecuador, to enforce, with the result that better conservation in one area may simply shift problems elsewhere.
The boom in cod stocks off Norway and the drop in prices, caused partly by recession in key importers Portugal and Spain, has undermined efforts to farm cod as an alternative to preserve wild stocks. Fresh cod now costs far less than farmed fish.
Most revivals in fish stocks are in areas where only one or two nations set the rules, like off the United States or Australia, where stocks of prawns and tuna have risen.
“And the biggest gap is still fixing the high seas – half the world’s surface,” said Amanda Nickson, director for global tuna conservation at the Pew Environment Group who said most successes were in national waters.
Global warming, meanwhile, is bringing all kinds of threats.
Iceland unilaterally raised its mackerel quota in 2011, saying the fish had moved north due to warmer seas, and the European Union warned it might block imports in response.
Their spat has drawn comparisons with “cod wars” between Britain and Iceland in the 1950s and 1970s, although for 2013, Iceland has cut its quota by 15 per cent.
One study last year said fish would shrink in coming decades because of a lack of oxygen in warming waters.
And acidification caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could make it hard for creatures to form protective shells, disrupting marine food chains.
So far, though, only only one semi-marine fish is known to have gone extinct, Worm said, the New Zealand grayling which lived in both rivers and the ocean.
For now, Norwegian fishermen are happy to enjoy their boom. Locally known as “skrei”, the cod swim south to coastal areas to spawn in vast numbers from January to April.