A national panel of scientists has recommended immediate and substantial reductions in ocean fishing to rebuild marine ecosystems throughout the world that are so severely depleted they are in danger of collapsing.
The total volume of fish being caught has reached or exceeded the maximum amount that can be sustained by the world's oceans, the scientists reported. About 84 million metric tons of fish and other seafood are caught each year in marine waters worldwide, worth about $3.5 billion a year in the United States alone.
Atlantic halibut, once common, are now rare. Orange roughy off New Zealand have declined substantially because they were fished faster than they could replace themselves. Bluefin tuna, rockfish, herring, shrimp, sturgeon, oysters, shark, Atlantic salmon and American shad are depleted.
Some species have declined so seriously, especially along the East Coast, that once-thriving commercial fisheries have been shut down. Included are cod off Newfoundland, ground fish such as haddock and yellowtail flounder off New England, and some salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
"The sea was long viewed as an inexhaustible supply of protein for human use. But recently . . . it has become increasingly clear that the ocean's resources are not inexhaustible," the 25-member committee of the National Research Council says in its report, "Sustaining Marine Fisheries."
When it comes to individual fish stocks, 30% of the world's stocks have been overfished below the point where they can keep producing the current yield, and 44% are being fished at or near that point, according to the scientists, led by biologist Harold Mooney of Stanford University.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce Terry Garcia, who oversees ocean issues, said the scientists' findings confirm the warnings that the federal government has long been issuing. He said many of the recommendations reaffirm that U.S. policies are on target and have already revived some fish stocks.
"The general thrust of this report is something we very much agree with," he said. "It is in fact consistent with the approach we have been taking in recent years.
"The world's oceans cannot sustain" the high demand for food, said Garcia, calling it "a very serious problem."
The scientists said they had "no silver bullet to offer," but advised governments in the short term to impose "substantial global reductions in fishing capacity."
In the long term, they recommend switching from an approach that focuses on catch limits for each specific species to one that aims to reduce all fish deaths in an entire ocean ecosystem. Limits aimed at specific species aren't protecting the oceans as a whole, they concluded. Garcia said the federal government is moving in that direction, with an advisory panel about to issue recommendations on how to do it.
"Adopting a successful ecosystem-based approach to managing fisheries is not easy, especially at a global or even continental scale," the report says. "Although this approach will cause some economic and social pain at first, it need not result in reduced yields in the long term because rebuilding fish populations should offset a reduction in fishing intensity and increase the potential sustainable yields."
One of the most intriguing, and controversial, recommendations is that exclusive fishing rights be assigned to individuals or communities, replacing open competition and overall limits. Such assigning of rights, the committee members say, could reduce competition that leads to overfishing but would also raise difficulties over how to equitably divide the catch.
Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service say exclusive rights are now assigned in some small areas off Alaska. But Congress bans more of them through 2000 because of the controversies over who gets rights and who doesn't.
Commercial fishing groups agree that problems with many fisheries, including overfishing, are so serious that they threaten to make their profession go extinct.
"In some fisheries there's just too many vessels," said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., "and we're going to have to figure out ways . . . to retire them."
The industry's ideas, he said, include scrapping some ground fish trawlers on the Pacific Coast or reducing the number of traps used for dungeness crab. But in other cases, he said, especially West Coast salmon, the decline of the fishery is due to pollution, habitat damage and water diversions, not overfishing.
"We have to protect the resources and in many cases we have too many boats or too much fishing gear, or we haven't controlled the other man-made causes that affect the fish," he said. "That means taking on some very powerful forces," he said, such as timber companies and urban water users.
Environmentalists also agree with the scientists' findings, although they call them overly general and politically difficult to implement.
"Fundamentally, we've still got too many boats chasing too few fish and political decisions preventing us from taking action on that. The fleet is much bigger and more sophisticated than the resource can accommodate," said Warner Chabot of the West Coast chapter of the environmental group, Center for Marine Conservation.
The scientists' recommendations are good, he said, "but the devil is in the details and the politics of making it happen."
Congress recently recognized the need to preserve ocean ecosystems, not just fish stocks, and changed the law to protect habitat and reduce catches of fish that are snagged by accident, Chabot said. About 27 million tons of marine life are discarded each year.