Last week science journal Nature published a study that brought some good news for fisherman in Newfoundland (and cod lovers everywhere). The seas off Canada’s Newfoundland coast have been one of the world’s richest fisheries for nearly 500 years. In the 1950s modern trawlers arrived in the area and by 1992 the fishery was closed for lack of fish. Cod stocks in the area remained at less than 5% of their former levels for decades in spite of the closure. Since then the Grand Banks have been a case study for fisheries mismanagement and total ecosystem collapse brought on by over-fishing, a problem that is a severe threat to fish-stocks in the rest of the world.
Skewed Food Chain in Canadian Fisheries
The new study therefore brings some hope to the area. Canadian researchers from Queen’s University have found that cod are now at 34% of their pre-collapse peak, and biomass of all predatory fish is at more than 50% of pre-collapse levels. The collapse of cod has led to subsequent increase of haddock and pollock as well as herring which is what the cod used to eat. This imbalance of the food chain will take a longer time to recover.
According to the study “The answer to the critical question of whether or not such profound changes in the dynamics of large marine ecosystems are reversible seems to be ‘yes.’” Although the cod’s extinction has been reversed, the cod that have returned are much smaller in size. Additionally no one knows for sure the implications of the currently skewed food chain in these waters. Recovery is further hampered by challenges like climate change, ocean warming and marine pollution. These issues have been faced in the North Sea, Black Sea and Baltic Sea where species recoveries have been delayed by new competitors, invasive species, water pollution, or continued overfishing.
European Fisheries Policy
This news puts the European debate about a common fisheries policy in sharp focus. 88% of European fish stocks are being fished unsustainably and 30% are close to collapse. The fisheries policy needs a serious overhaul to regulate fish catch based on weight of the fish caught, not the total weight landed. This will prevent juveniles being caught thereby giving fisheries a chance to recover, as the current policy encourages fishing vessels to discard fish beneath the permitted size.
Privatization of the Oceans
It may sound crazy, but privatization of this collectively-owned natural resource is one way to protect it. The idea was first suggested in the 1960s by Hardin in his Theory of Commons. It was later studied by Elinor Ostrom who was awarded a Nobel for her study of how to manage communal resources. While privatization of the ocean works for certain species like halibut, cod etc., it is more difficult to implement for deep sea fish like tuna and marlin. However considering that most commercial fisheries are in national economic exclusion zones under the UN’s Law of the Sea, ocean privatization is a successful model that has already been employed in several places.
While it is excellent news that Canada’s cod fisheries are recovering, this should remain a cautionary tale for other fisheries as well. According to an FAO report, there is a loss of 50 billion US dollars from the fishing industry on account of diminishing stocks. If this trend continues not only will it affect global economy but also global oceans systems.
Image Credit: Atlantic Cod by Patrick Gijsbers via Wiki Commons