If a sobering new study is correct, we may never again see a red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. Or a king crab in the Gulf of Alaska. Or an Atlantic mackerel in the Northeast U.S.
In a paper published in the journal Science on Nov. 3, an international team of ecologists warns that biodiversity loss in the world’s oceans is widespread and that fisheries are undergoing significant losses. 

“The ocean is losing species and is losing species fast,” Boris Worm, the lead author of the study and a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said via video press release. “If the loss of ocean species continues at current rates, we project there will be no more seafood species, no more viable fisheries to consume within our lifetimes, before the year 2050.”

Using the global catch database from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the researchers determined that 29 percent of all currently fished species have “collapsed”—their numbers have declined at least 90 percent from the highest population on record. By 2048, the scientists predict, 100 percent of our currently fished species will have collapsed.

“It paints a clear picture of overexploitation of the sea that mirrors what humans did on land centuries ago,” said John J. Stachowicz, one of the paper’s authors and an ecologist at the University of California, Davis.

Additional research by the scientific team showed that the consequences of a widespread species collapse could be dire. An analysis of 32 controlled experiments on marine diversity revealed that from marshes to oceans, declines in biodiversity—the number of species occupying a particular territory—compromise an entire ecosystem’s stability. Less diverse marine ecosystems are not as good at withstanding stresses such as climate change.

“Diversity provides insurance against disturbances,” said Heike Lotze, an author of the paper and ecologist at Dalhousie. “The more species, the less likely the ecosystem will change.”

Using fishery information, historical data, and sediment records, the scientists also compiled a 1,000-year record of ecological changes in coastal regions. As the fish stocks disappear, they found, other important benefits go along with them. 

“One is high water quality,” Lotze said. A decline in fish could lead to algal blooms and oxygen depletion, which pose health risks to humans.

Steve Murawski, the director of programs and chief science advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, does not believe that a total collapse of fish species is imminent.

“We have much to do, but the pessimistic scenario of the paper is not correct as far as the U.S. and many other countries are concerned,” he said.

The researchers believe, however, that the decline in biodiversity can be reversed. Management plans, Lotze says, should focus on entire ecosystems, rather than just one particular species.

“So far, we have depleted a lot of species,” she said, “but they’re still there and can bounce back.”

Originally published November 9, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM