New research released this week has some good and bad news for the global fishing industry and fish lovers.

The good news is that the world’s fish stocks might not be in as parlous a state as previously thought, the bad news is that fishing operators and governments need to spend much more on research if they expect global wild fisheries to survive until the end of this century.

This is especially bad news for New Zealand, which has one of the worst track records for marine research in the OECD. Over the past decade New Zealand has spent less than 5% of the annual value of its fish trade ($1 billion) on research, yet it depends on research data to achieve its much-vaunted status as one of the world’s best-managed fisheries.

While finding that global fish stocks are nowhere as perilous as previous reports have found, research leader, Trevor Brand of Washington State University in the US warns that science needs to deliver better research if we expect to manage fisheries sustainably.

“Most fisheries are already being caught at or near the maximum sustainable level.  Some are still overfished or have collapsed, and they all need management based more on stock measurement than catch data. But at least most of the world’s fisheries do not, yet, appear to be headed for destruction,” he said.

Researchers say it is also important for consumers to be able to identify where the fish they are eating comes from so that the pressure of public opinion can be brought to bear on threatened fisheries and their exploiters. Traceability is shaping up to be a most important tool in marine resource management.

According to Brand’s data 68 percent of world stocks are overfished or have collapsed, but the data itself is suspect. Seventy-two percent of data on fish stocks is unreliable as it depends entirely on catch statistics, not biomass estimates using sound scientific methods.

The Brand team also identified that small fish species are just as likely to be exposed to species collapse as large fish, a complete reversal of accepted scientific opinion. This puts even more species at exposure to elimination from the food resource.

These findings change the perspective of advice to eat only those fish from the bottom of the food chain and avoid those at the top. Now marine science is saying that we need to eat across the food chain, with particular attention on avoiding high risk species and fish from stressed catch areas.

~Keith Stewart

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