The Atlantic halibut has all but disappeared from New England waters, but once it was plentiful there. Like the now-depleted Atlantic cod and many runs of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, halibut have been nearly wiped out where they previously were thought to be countless.

When fish disappear, the effects can be devastating to a fishing community's economy, to its sense of history, indeed to its very way of life. In recent years, these communities have played host to wrenching debates over what to do about disappearing fish. Eighty percent of the commercial stocks in the United States are now overfished or fully exploited, and fisheries have been further damaged by pollution, coastal development, and other human activities. Without widespread action, even more fish will become endangered.

A National Research Council committee that I chaired spent the last two years examining what science can tell us about fisheries management. We...

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