Image: Wikimedia

Time and again, our appetite for tasty seafood pushes our favorite species to the brink of collapse. We’ve seen it with North Atlantic cod, Pacific bluefin tuna, Peruvian sardines, and more. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A new study finds that the majority of the planet’s fisheries could be sustainable within ten years, and commercial fish stocks could double by 2050—if the world adopted a few common-sense management strategies.

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“If we put reforms in place today, the turnaround is fast and dramatic,” Amanda Leland, senior vice president for Oceans at Environmental Defense Fund told Gizmodo. “This was a big surprise.”

In many parts of the world, every fishermen is competing to catch as much as he or she can, with no ability to plan for the long term. When government regulators shorten fishing seasons to prevent a stock from collapsing, fishermen respond by going into the oceans guns blazing—using bigger boats and more destructive technologies. “When fishermen are encouraged to race against each other, they end up overfishing,” Leland said. “They get lower prices, and they often have to throw a whole bunch of fish back dead. It’s a maddening situation.”

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Today, a full 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are considered fully exploited or overexploited. Countless studies have made the grim prediction that we’re headed for a global fisheries collapse if we don’t get our act together.

But with a better incentives structure and scientifically-defined catch limits, the oceans could rebound fast. That’s according to Leland and a team of researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Washington. They spent years analyzing data on 4,713 fisheries that collectively represent 78 percent of our global catch. Their key finding, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, is surprisingly straightforward: we need to hand stewardship of fisheries back to fishermen.

Image: Carlos Aguilera / Environmental Defense Fund

“We asked the question: based on the information we have, how would the world look in the future if we adopted different types of fisheries management strategies?” Leland said. “We looked at the amount of food fisheries produce, the number of fish in the water, and profits. What really stood out is that a fishing rights strategy optimizes all of these variables.”

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Under a fishing rights strategy, each individual fishermen is given a share of a scientifically-determined sustainable catch limit. According to Leland, when such a system was adopted in the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, the transformation was dramatic. “The whole race went away,” she said. “Each fishermen knew how much they could catch—they could go when the weather and market conditions are good, and they could slow down overall.”

Fisheries in the United States, Australia, Belize, Namibia, and elsewhere have turned to fishing rights systems in recent years, with remarkable success. The new study highlights just how transformative this strategy could be if applied on a global scale. Roughly 3 billion people rely on wild-caught fish as a critical protein source today, and that number is rising. With better management, the authors estimate that wild-caught fish could feed another half billion humans in the near future.

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“We’re not surprised by the study’s main conclusions,” Tess Geers, a marine scientist at Oceana who was not involved with the study, told Gizmodo. “This is something Oceana has been saying for a number of years. It’s really a political challenge—many of the countries that stand to benefit the most don’t have basic fisheries management in place.”

The strategy is not without risk. While fishing rights programs typically seek to support small-scale fisheries, there’s a danger that they end up favoring large, multinational corporations, who can snap up all the rights at top prices. “It’s not a matter of just saying we’re going to implement this tomorrow,” Geers said. “It’s getting the legal structure in place for a better fisheries management system.”

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Between climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and exploitation, marine ecosystems are more threatened today than they’ve ever been in human history. Overfishing is one piece of a much larger puzzle—but it’s a piece where humans can affect fast and lasting change.

“We know that it’s going to take the oceans hundreds of years to deal with climate change,” Leland said. “The best way to have the most resilient system is to bring back populations that have been overfished. In my view, there’s only up to go.”