Sustainability of Deep-Sea Fisheries

E. A. Norse, S. Brooke, W. W. L. Cheung, M. R. Clark, I. Ekeland, R. Froese, K. M. Gjerde, R. L. Haedrich, S. S. Heppell, T. Morato, L. E. Morgan, D. Pauly, R. Sumaila, R. Watson, (2012). Marine Policy 36, 307-320.

As coastal fisheries around the world have collapsed, industrial fishing has spread seaward and deeper in pursuit of the last economically attractive concentrations of fishable biomass. For a seafood-hungry world depending on the oceans’ ecosystem services, it is crucial to know whether deep-sea fisheries can be sustainable. The deepsea is by far the largest but least productive part of the oceans, although in very limited places fish biomass can be very high. Most deep-sea fishes have life histories giving them far less population resilience/productivity than shallow-water fishes, and could be fished sustainably only at very low catch rates if population resilience were the sole consideration. But like old-growth trees and great whales, their biomass makes them tempting targets while their low productivity creates strong economic incentive to liquidate their populations rather than exploiting them sustainably (Clark’sLaw). Many deep-sea fisheries use bottom trawls, which often have high impacts on nontarget fishes (e.g., sharks) and invertebrates (e.g.,corals), and can often proceed only because they receive massive government subsidies. The combination of very low target population productivity, nonselectivefishing gear, economics that favor population liquidation and a very weak regulatory regime makes deep-sea fisheries unsustainable with very few exceptions. Rather, deep-sea fisheries more closely resemble mining operations that serially eliminate fishable populations and moveon. Instead of mining fish from the least-suitable places on Earth, an ecologically and economically preferable strategy would be rebuilding and sustainably fishing resilient populations in the most suitable places, namely shallower and more productive marine ecosystems that are closer to markets.