So what is the global state of wild-caught or capture fisheries?
In recent decades, the amount of wild caught fish has leveled off, even declined, while the amount of farmed fish and shrimp has grown ever greater. We could conclude that we are now fishing sustainably from wild populations, and the surge in farming has helped reduce the pressure on them.
We would be so wrong.
Instead over the past few decades fishing fleets have grown in size and searched for fish ever further in the world’s oceans. The result is ever greater fishing effort, but increasingly less catch per unit effort. These are features of unsustainable fishing, not sustainable. The FAO estimates that 57% of fish stocks are fully exploited, and 30% are over-exploited. That doesn’t leave much.
How can an industry continue to grow despite declining yields? This is a result of huge government subsidies, valued at about 19 billion dollars US per year for developing countries and about nine billion for developed.
And there is much more.
For instance, we know that bottom trawling with its indiscriminate destruction of bottom habitats and of non-target species continues to occur on almost every coast and in increasingly deep water despite condemnation by conservation organizations and fisheries scientists.
We also know that for both fish stocks and coastal fishing communities to persist, large areas of coastline need to be protected as ‘no-take’ areas, but still only about 1% of the world’s coastlines are protected in any way. That number should probably be around 20-30%. Even where no-take areas exist, enforcement is often difficult or impossible.
If you want to really dig into the state of the world’s fisheries, the best place to go is The Sea Around Us Project where you can explore what is happening and what has happened in each of the world’s 65 coastal Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs). It is a very sobering journey.
Much of all of this of course has been known for decades, but what’s new is that the amount of data, of evidence, has become immense. What’s now emerging is an ability to assess things accurately on a global scale.
For example, we now know that global fishing effort needs to be cut by about 40% in order to keep fish stocks sustainable. To get there, government subsidies need to eliminated, the number of large fishing vessels and licenses need to be reduced through buy-back programs, and smaller quotas need to be enforced. Reducing the industrial scale and increasing the locally managed fleets of smaller craft would mitigate some of the economic pain and support community-based management.
At the same time, the goal of global fisheries scientists remains to manage fisheries not at the species level but at the ecosystem level, even the level of the LME. Almost all nations except for USA and North Korea have ratified the UN Law of the Sea, agreeing to accept the associated obligations and commitments. Imperfect though it no doubt is, it is a vehicle for regulating fishing pressure and resolving differences. We know that where a few or more nations share an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), fisheries agreements are elusive at best and dangerously volatile at worst (as they currently are in the South China Sea). But treaties continue to emerge, and opportunities for cooperative management at least exist.
With increasing global information about the world’s oceans – including challenging data on coastal development, pollution, ocean warming and acidification – we can encourage decisions that recognize that the Earth is a single, dynamic and adaptable system whose resilience in the face of rapid change is clearly not unlimited.