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Just How Badly Are We Overfishing the Oceans?

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Humans now have the technology to find and catch every last fish on the planet. Trawl nets, drift nets, longlines, GPS, sonar... As a result, fishing operations have expanded to virtually all corners of the ocean over the past century.

That, in turn, has put a strain on fish populations. The world's marine fisheries peaked in the 1990s, when the global catch was higher than it is today.* And the populations of key commercial species like bluefin tuna and cod have dwindled, in some cases falling more than 90 percent.

So just how badly are we overfishing the oceans? Are fish populations going to keep shrinking each year - or could they recover? Those are surprisingly contentious questions, and there seem to be a couple of schools of thought here.

The pessimistic view, famously expressed by fisheries expert Daniel Pauly, is that we may be facing "The End of Fish." One especially dire 2006 study in Science warned that many commercial ocean fish stocks were on pace to "collapse" by mid-century - at which point they would produce less than 10 percent of their peak catch. Then it's time to eat jellyfish.

Other experts have countered that this view is far too alarmist.** A number of countries have worked hard to improve their fisheries management over the years, including Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. "The U.S. is actually a big success story in rebuilding fish stocks," Ray Hilborn, a marine biologist at the University of Washington, told me last year. Overfishing isn't inevitable. We can fix it.   


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