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Fishermen loading catch. (Photo: NOAA)

Fish stock abundance not correlated with potential harvest: study

Click on the flag for more information about United States UNITED STATES
Tuesday, January 15, 2013, 22:20 (GMT + 9)

Fisheries managers should sharpen their ability to spot environmental conditions that hamper or help fish stocks, rather than assuming that having a certain abundance of fish assures how much can be sustainably harvested.

That is because the potential harvest of fish is only closely linked to abundance in 18 per cent of 230 fish stocks assessed in a University of Washington- (UW) led study, according to Ray Hilborn, UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. For the other 82 per cent of stocks, potential harvest of fish was primarily controlled by irregular shifts in environmental conditions or was random and not controlled by either abundance or shifts in environmental regimes.

Yet targets based on abundance of fish stocks are the mainstay of most management plans in the US and a growing number of other countries: If a stock reaches certain abundance, it is thought, then potential harvest is maximized.

The findings are being published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There have been competing ideas about productivity," Hilborn said. "One is that it depends primarily on abundance. The other is that productivity of a stock mostly depends on whether there's a period of good conditions or a period of bad conditions."

"What we've done in this study is take 230 fish stocks and ask which of these explanations explains the data for each fish stock better," he said.

In contrast to the 18 per cent of stocks where abundance controls productivity, there were 39 per cent of stocks where productivity appears to jump between periods of high and low environmental regimes in an irregular fashion. Another 30 per cent showed a weak relationship between productivity and abundance mixed in with irregular regime shifts. The remaining 13 per cent fluctuated randomly.

"Regime shifts can affect the number of young fish that reach adulthood, their ability to grow or how long they live. A shift can be caused by such things as changing ocean temperatures or increases in predators," said lead author Katyana Vert-pre, a UW master's student in aquatic and fishery sciences.

The authors write, "Although there may be little that fishery managers can do to avert shifts to a lower productivity state, improved methods for early detection of such shifts may permit managers to reduce harvest in time to avoid collapse."

As the paper says, "If fish populations experience substantial shifts in productivity unrelated to stock size, then management based on a single set of management targets (for example maximum sustainable yield) will be either inefficient or risky. If the targets are based on a higher productivity regime, then a shift to a low productivity regime will result in increased risk of overfishing. Conversely, management targets based on a lower productivity phase will result in overly cautious harvest during regimes of high productivity."

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