The state of commercial fisheries has attracted global attention. Concern has focused on a number of areas, environmental damage caused by bottom-dragging trawl nets and the incidental catch of birds and mammals by nets and longlines chief among them.
The fishing industry has invested in new gear and new techniques to reduce bycatch. Many countries are studying the environmental effects of bottom trawling, and some, like Norway, have banned trawling in ecologically sensitive areas.
Several longline fisheries now add weights to gear to ensure that longlines remain on the bottom rather than floating up to the surface where birds and other species may be inadvertently hooked. Additional measures include setting longlines at night, when seabirds sleep, and using improved navigational tracking systems that will minimize the potential of losing gear to drifting in storms.
Satellite surveillance of fishing boats will play an important role in future fisheries enforcement. Boats fitted with the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) will allow fisheries management authorities to monitor the positions of vessels, and vessels suspected of fishing out of season or in prohibited waters will be boarded by fisheries enforcement officers.
Fisheries management will serve as the starting point for countries trying to rehabilitate their declining fisheries. The most important goal will be to scale fishing fleets to the amount of resources.
Developed nations, faced with overexploited stocks, are attempting to reduce the numbers of vessels fishing while simultaneously rebuilding what stocks remain by closing or severely limiting at-risk fisheries.
Developing nations, by contrast, are seeking new technology to more efficiently exploit existing fisheries and more resources to develop new ones rather than limiting fishing itself. Unlike its modest economic contribution to developed nations, commercial fishing plays a vital role in employment and nutritional security of the world's poorest nations. Other measures include improving infrastructure to minimize losses due to spoilage and increasing investment in aquaculture.
In the short term, aquaculture--fish farming--will help maintain supply. It's been the fastest growing sector of agriculture for 10 years and now accounts for one of every five fish eaten.
But aquaculture presents some serious environmental problems. Farm-raised fish tend to be bigger and more aggressive than their wild cousins. Farmed fish not only pollute surrounding waters, but they can out-compete indigenous fish populations.
Farmed fish, especially carnivorous fish like salmon, consume large quantities of ground-up low-value fish, called fishmeal. The total amount of fishmeal consumed by farmed salmon outweighs the amount of fish ultimately raised and sold to market.
Genetic manipulation resulting in bigger, faster growing fish may also help, though it's likely to remain a controversial issue for the foreseeable future. Genetically altered fish could not only out-compete indigenous fish, but they could breed with them, raising questions about the long-term consequences for native ecosystems.
Conservation, habitat restoration and international agreements reducing factory fleets may help stabilize fish populations and perhaps even allow them one day to return to levels not seen in a generation.
But for now, the situation has never been worse.