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Worldwide Slowdown in Fishing Unlikely to Save Rare Species

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The worldwide fishing industry has slowed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But experts say it is unclear if the slowdown will help endangered sea life recover.

Hours recorded by fishermen at sea fell by nearly 10 percent around the world after the March 11 declaration of a pandemic. Fishing completely stopped in countries that were most affected by the coronavirus, such as China. The drop in fishing has raised questions about food security, ocean management and worldwide trade.

As countries return to fishing, experts are wondering whether an extended fishing slowdown could help rare ocean animals.

One such animal is the North Atlantic right whale. Only about 400 of the whales remain and they face a deadly risk of being caught in fishing equipment. Many other rare species face the same risk.

Less fishing could also help some kinds of fish in the Mediterranean, like the overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna.

David Kroodsma is a research director for the nonprofit group Global Fishing Watch. He said it is too early to tell if less fishing is helping sea creatures. He added that since millions of people depend on fishing to make a living, any help to sea life has come at a cost.

"I don't think we should be celebrating anything here. Not by making people suffer incredibly," Kroodsma said. "I bet what we'll find is, it is not sufficient for rebuilding stocks in places that have to rebuild."

Fishermen around the world recorded about 6.8 million hours at sea from March 11 to April 28. That is down about 700,000 hours from averages the previous two years, information from Global Fishing Watch shows. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said the pandemic has brought problems that could keep fishing difficult for an unknown period of time.

Kroodsma said in countries that had a large number of virus cases, such as Italy, Spain and France, fishing dropped 50 to 75 percent.

Fishing decreased because of concerns about spreading the virus on boats and because of less demand for seafood. Two-thirds of U.S. seafood spending is in restaurants, a recent study in the journal Nutrients reported.

Thousands of those restaurants remain closed because of social distancing rules. As a result, some fishermen are bringing in less fish this year. The American catch of Atlantic herring was down more than one-fifth - almost 1.4 million kilograms - through the end of May, according to federal data. Herring is an important species because it is used as human food and also to catch other sea creatures, such as lobster.

None of this necessarily means that fish populations are rebuilding, said Gavin Gibbons. He is a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute trade group. The plans to help species recover can be highly technical and take years to complete, Gibbons said.

But in some parts of the world, there is hope that less fishing will help weak environmental systems recover. Ravaka Ranaivoson is Marine Conservation Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. She said that in Madagascar, overfishing and the effects of climate change are threatening the health of many forms of ocean life.

"We're always concerned about people using illegal fishing gear, and not respecting rules about the size of fish catches and other restrictions," she said. She added that her team has worked with local communities to try to develop more sustainable practices.

The long-term effects of the fishing slowdown remain to be seen, especially with coastal communities starting to return to work.

"We're definitely seeing cleaner water, fewer ships out and fewer entanglements," said Jake Bleich, a spokesman for the group Defenders of Wildlife. "We'll see what happens when the economy restarts."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Patrick Whittle and Christina Larson reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.

Words in This Story

pandemic – n. an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population

species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants

bet – v. to risk losing something when you try to do or achieve something

sufficient – adj. having or providing as much as is needed

gear – n. supplies, tools, or clothes needed for a special purpose

sustainable – adj. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

entanglement – n. something that entangles, confuses, or ensnares

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