WASHINGTON -- If destruction of global fish stocks is to be avoided, the choices are how and when to reduce ocean fishing -- not whether to do so -- a research analysis says.
"The sea was long viewed as an inexhaustible supply of protein for human use. But recently ... it has become increasingly clear that the ocean's resources are not inexhaustible," the report from a National Research Council committee says.
It called for a "significant overall reduction in fishing."
The drastic changes urged in the study will cause economic and social pain at first, but could result in maintaining sustainable fisheries in the future, the report says.
"This is a welcome report because its thrust is consistent with the approach we have been taking," said Terry Garcia, assistant commerce secretary for oceans and atmosphere.
The generally conservative approach to fish management the report recommends is already being undertaken by the federal government and the nation's eight regional fishery management councils, Garcia said.
His comments came as he prepared to leave for a meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome to discuss ways to reduce worldwide fishing.
"The demand for fish protein is going to outstrip the supply in the next decade ... a serious problem," Garcia said.
The government's National Marine Fisheries Service and the regional fishery management councils are developing plans to reduce catch of unwanted species, identify essential fish habitat and find ways to protect and rebuild fish stock.
Declines in some species have already forced the shutdown of once-major fisheries, including cod off Newfoundland, haddock and yellowtail flounder off New England and some salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Other fish that have declined include Atlantic halibut, orange roughy off New Zealand, bluefin tuna, rockfish, herring, shrimp, sturgeon, oysters, shark, Atlantic salmon and American shad.
According to the National Research Council analysis, which was released Thursday, the amount of fish and shellfish taken from the oceans already exceeds the estimated total that can be replaced over the long term.
In recent years, worldwide catches of ocean fish and shellfish have reached a plateau of about 84 million metric tons, the study said.
In addition, there is a so-called bycatch -- unwanted catch that is discarded -- of 27 million tons, meaning the total of fish and shellfish killed by ocean fishing exceeds 110 million metric tons annually.
Various estimates of the potential sustained yield of the ocean are in the area of 100 million metric tons, the report said. A metric ton is 2,205 pounds.
The report by the council panel, part of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that fishery managers consider assigning exclusive fishing rights to individuals, communities or groups of fishermen to discourage overfishing.
That would reduce competition for the biggest catch and encourage more economical investments in fishing equipment, the report said. Currently, competing fishermen often buy more boats or sophisticated gear, then face pressure to overfish to recover costs.