10/01/2012 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

New Report Confirms Ocean's Decline, Offers Hope for Recovery

Last week, a report came out that helps answer one of the most important (and disputed) questions in the world of fisheries -- how much trouble are the world's fisheries really in?

About six years ago another report was featured in the journal Science, called "Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services," which analyzed global data for fisheries and offered a provocative conclusion: if we didn't change our ways, all of the world's fisheries would be in collapse by 2050. This set off an uproar in both the non-fish world -- "how could this be?" -- and in some parts of the fish world -- "this can't be right!"

Three years later, some of the authors released a new study in Science entitled "Rebuilding Global Fisheries" (co-authored with some of the critics of the original study) that said the world's fisheries are on a path to recovery, with a few exceptions. Huh? Well, it turned out that they had only analyzed available data -- which excluded about 80% of the world.

Then, last week, an exciting new study came out in Science entitled "Status and Solutions for the World's Unassessed Fisheries" that analyzed the whole world and found that, yes, the planet's fisheries are in serious trouble -- more than 50% of them are in decline already and many of the ones worst off are in the places where very poor people rely on them for sustenance.

So, in other words, it is clear -- the world's fisheries are in big trouble. And as the new study points out, we should and can move quickly to fix things because the decline in fisheries is accelerating and, most importantly, because we can reverse this decline if we take some relatively simple steps.

Since 1988 global fish catch has been dropping for the first time in recorded history, despite an increasingly technologically advanced fishing fleet, the exploitation of ever more remote fish stocks and an enormous number of fishing vessels. It is an unavoidable truth that further increasing fishing effort will only result in fewer and fewer fish. In fact, the only way to restore the abundance of the oceans is through science-based management that sets quotas within biologically sensible limits, monitors, protects vital habitat and limits bycatch.

Just ask the fishermen of New England, who in recent weeks have seen one of the most historically productive ground fisheries in the world declared a "disaster" by the federal government. While cod, haddock and flounder were thought to be recovering in the northeast, regulators failed to take into account the true impacts of bycatch. Even as fishermen caught within their quotas, the stocks collapsed. It's why we need better monitoring and enforcement, before both fish and fisherman disappear.

Perhaps most troubling about the new study is its assertion that, "small unassessed fisheries are in substantially worse condition than assessed fisheries." Of the world's 925 million people who go hungry every day, 400 million live in major fishing countries, with many of them depending on the sort of small scale fisheries identified in the study. It is our moral obligation to ensure that the ocean continues to be a source of sustenance for those who so critically rely upon it.

We know how to do this. This study points out that by setting responsible science-based quotas and protecting vital habitat we could increase fishery yields by up to 40%. We have seen fisheries rebound all over the world when science-based management is put in place, from anchovies in Spain to flounder off New Jersey. The potential for the ocean to recover if given a chance is astounding. Simple conservation measures would generate an estimated 56% increase in the biomass of the oceans, according to the new study. With the world population expected to top 9 billion by the middle of the century and the demand for protein ever rising in a world that is becoming more drought-prone and crowded, wild-caught fish will play a crucial role in the world's food security.

But while the world relies on wild-caught fish, the biggest opportunity is at the national, not international level. More than half of the world's fish is caught in the territory of just 10 countries. By working with those governments and enacting policy on a national scale we can dramatically alter the future of fish. The long slow decline of our world's fisheries does not have to be our destiny.

This latest report makes things very clear. Yes, the world's fisheries are in bad shape and we need to put responsible management measures in place now. It's time. Both fish and humans depend on it.