Expert to reel in facts on fishing's ecological effects

by Andy Poon
Staff writer

Fisheries Centre Prof. Daniel Pauly has received a $3-million grant to study the impact of excessive fishing on the marine ecosystems of the North Atlantic.

"Fisheries is a major factor that impacts on marine ecosystems even more strongly than pollution or climate changes," says Pauly.

Pauly -- in partnership with Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts which provided the funding -- will lead a team of researchers in analysing the ecological and economic
effects of industrial fishing on the marine ecosystems on both the eastern and western sides of the North Atlantic.

"With this project, our goal is to affect policy in Europe and North America to stop overfishing," says Pauly. "We will amass compelling evidence out of existing fisheries data to show the impact of non-sustainable fisheries."

The project builds on an exhaustive study released last year in which Pauly and fellow researchers used nearly 50 years of United Nations fisheries data to show how fish stocks are being wiped out on a global scale by overfishing.

The researchers showed how in one ocean after another, fishers first caught big, valuable stock and then worked their way down the food web to the smaller species. Instead of catching predators high in the food web, like snapper, tuna and halibut, global fisheries have increasingly moved towards plankton-eating species lower in the food web.

Dubbed "fishing down the food web," it drew attention to the destruction of the world's fisheries by industrial fishing. The release of the study gained intense media coverage in publications such as The New York Times, Newsday and The Economist.

As part of the 24-month pilot project, the researchers will also develop and test a method for reconstructing past catches (including misreported catches) and past ecosystems to serve as a baseline for assessing the health of present ecosystems.

Pauly says the Fisheries Centre's lead in developing a simulation model -- Ecosim -- for predicting the results of human and climatic impact on marine ecosystems helped the researchers secure the grant.

"We can construct a computer simulation of a marine ecosystem as it was in the 1930s and then fish it and see if it mimics what actually happened," says Pauly. "If you can parallel in your model what happens in nature, then you can pose `what if' questions."