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Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities

Abstract

Serious concerns have been raised about the ecological effects of industrialized fishing1,2,3, spurring a United Nations resolution on restoring fisheries and marine ecosystems to healthy levels4. However, a prerequisite for restoration is a general understanding of the composition and abundance of unexploited fish communities, relative to contemporary ones. We constructed trajectories of community biomass and composition of large predatory fishes in four continental shelf and nine oceanic systems, using all available data from the beginning of exploitation. Industrialized fisheries typically reduced community biomass by 80% within 15 years of exploitation. Compensatory increases in fast-growing species were observed, but often reversed within a decade. Using a meta-analytic approach, we estimate that large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels. We conclude that declines of large predators in coastal regions5 have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems5,6,7. Our analysis suggests that management based on recent data alone may be misleading, and provides minimum estimates for unexploited communities, which could serve as the ‘missing baseline’8 needed for future restoration efforts.

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Figure 1: Time trends of community biomass in oceanic (ai) and shelf (jm) ecosystems.
Figure 2: Spatial patterns of relative predator biomass in 1952 (a), 1958 (b), 1964 (c) and 1980 (d).
Figure 3: Compensation in exploited fish communities.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Casey, A. Fonteneau, S. Hall, J. Hampton, S. Harley, J. Ianelli, I. Jonsen, J. Kitchell, K.-H. Kock, H. Lotze, M. Maunder, T. Nishida, M. Prager, T. Quinn, G. Scott and P. Ward for data, comments and suggestions, N. Barrowman and W. Blanchard for statistical advice, and D. Swan for technical assistance. This research is part of a larger project on pelagic longlining initiated and supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Further support was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Ransom A. Myers.

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Myers, R., Worm, B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423, 280–283 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01610

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