By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - Global sustainable fishery policies could raise profits in the sector by $51 billion a year, boost the numbers of fish in the oceans and provide more food for the world's people, research showed on Thursday.
The extensive research, based on data from fisheries representing 77 percent of the world's fish catch, showed that fish stocks could grow very quickly if responsible fishing policies are adopted.
"We found that conservation is a means to an end," said Chris Costello, from the University of California, one of the institutions involved in the research. "This is a bit shocking and we think this is a new finding."
The findings of the research, which also involved the Environmental Defense Group and the University of Washington, were released during a World Ocean Summit of business leaders, government officials and conservation groups in Portugal.
The researchers said they were based on a very large database of fisheries, 4,373 in total, compared with previous studies which looked at far fewer.
The preliminary results suggest policies to prevent overfishing, taking measures when fish stocks become depleted and enforcing laws to stop illegal fishing can quickly turn around dwindling fisheries.
Adopting sustainable policies could restore the percentage of world fisheries considered healthy from 45 percent today to 79 percent within 10 years and 98 percent by 2050. A typical fishery could recover in just nine years, the findings showed.
"Science-based limits, habitat protection and limits on bycatch will pay off in terms of healthy fish stocks, food, and as we see from this study, also profits," said Jackie Savitz, vice president of Oceana, a international ocean conservation organization.
In the most optimistic scenario, taking action could produce harvests 23 percent larger than today, annual profits for fishermen 315 percent higher and 112 percent more fish in the seas.
"While many of the world's fisheries have been on a steady downtrend for decades, the model indicates that fisheries can be made healthy again relatively quickly -- even while fishing continues," a document on the findings said.
"The data reveal a stark choice: manage fisheries sustainably and realize the tremendous potential of the world's oceans; or allow 'business as usual' to continue to draw down the natural capital of our oceans."
The research urged governments and businesses to take action soon to ensure fishing can be sustainable in the future and feed the world's growing population.
(Editing by Andrei Khalip and Andrew Roche)