Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to enable ocean fish populations to rebound after being so over-fished? Are nations coming together on this in any way?

— Deborah Kay, Milford, Conn.

There is no overarching international agreement to limit overfishing globally, but a few governments have been able to implement and enforce restrictions at regional levels that have resulted in rebounding fish stocks. The success of these isolated examples gives environmentalists and marine biologists hope that protecting marine hotspots from overfishing can save the biodiversity of the world’s oceans.

The results of an extensive four-year study released in 2006 by leading fisheries expert Boris Worm of Canada’s Dalhousie University and colleagues showed that overfishing would put every single commercial fishery in the world out of business by 2048, with the oceans potentially never recovering. But University of Washington fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn challenged Worm’s frightening conclusion, offering evidence that several fisheries in parts of the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand were recovering. So the two men decided to team up on a new, even more comprehensive survey of fisheries around the world.

The results the second time around, published in 2010 in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, provided ocean advocates with somewhat more encouraging results. In half of the 10 fisheries studied by Worm, Hilborn and their researchers, closing some fisheries, creating protected areas, setting catch limits and modernizing equipment did result in lower exploitation rates and some fish are indeed on the rebound.

“This is a watershed,” Worm told reporters. The new study “shows clearly what can be done not only to avoid further fisheries collapse but to actually rebuild fish stocks” and provides a baseline which scientists and managers can use to gauge progress. “It’s only a start, but it gives me hope that we have the ability to bring overfishing under control,” he added.

Of course, a little bit of good news hardly means we’ve solved the overfishing problem. Environmentalists were particularly disappointed last year when the European Union (EU) announced it would set quotas for deep-sea fisheries even higher than expected. According to Uta Bellion, director of the European Marine Programme for the non-profit Pew Environment Group, the EU’s decision “will give fleets from France, Spain and Portugal the opportunity to continue plundering these stocks.” She adds that the new quotas go against a 2009 United Nations General Assembly resolution that commits the EU to implement a set of measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish and the rebuilding of depleted stocks.

Meanwhile, some groups are trying to end the government subsidies that effectively bankroll overfishing, legal or otherwise. The nonprofit Oceana, for instance, led an ill-fated 2010 effort to persuade the World Trade Organization to ban subsidies that encourage the depletion of fish and other marine resources. “Although 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are now either overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation, many governments continue to provide huge subsidies — about $20 billion annually — to their fishing sectors,” says Andy Sharpless, Oceana’s CEO. “The fleets are fishing at a level that’s as much as 2.5 times more than what’s required for sustainable catch levels.”

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