A path to sustainability for coral reef fisheries

October 6, 2023—More than half of the world’s coral reef fisheries do not meet one of two key sustainability benchmarks, according to a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study was published on September 4 in Nature and was led by Jessica Zamborain-Mason, a research associate in the Department of Nutrition.

Globally, there is little research on or monitoring of coral reef fisheries, making it difficult to assess their stocks of fish and their overall sustainability. To fill this gap, the researchers used fish biomass data and catch estimates from more than 2,000 coral reefs to determine site-specific benchmarks of sustainability and assess the status of global coral reef fish stocks.

“While assessing fish abundances in a particular location is straightforward, assessing sustainability requires knowing how much fish that location could support if we were not fishing, and also how productive those fish assemblages are—how fast they can replenish their stocks after depletion by fishing,” Zamborain-Mason explained in a September 26 article in Smithsonian Magazine. “To get a handle on these numbers, we asked how fish communities recover when they are in no-take areas and how many fish there are in remote locations far from direct human impacts.”

The study found that over 50% of reef fisheries did not meet at least one of the sustainability benchmarks: Their fish stocks are dangerously low, and/or levels of fishing outmatch fish stocks’ capacity to recover.

While these findings may prompt concern, the authors wrote that the study also offers “a promising means” for analyzing, understanding, enhancing, and protecting sustainability going forward.

Read the study: Sustainable reference points for multispecies coral reef fisheries

Read the Smithsonian article: First global assessment of the sustainability of coral reef fisheries