Not enough fish in the sea
in a personal view, describes the gathering crisis, and
calls for the building of sustainable fisheries
It is no longer true, as the old fishing lore has it, that
'There are as good many fish in the sea as were ever taken out of it': nor
has it been so since the end of the great post-war expansion of the
fisheries in the late 1970s.
The stocks on which marine capture fisheries depend have declined. But
this has been masked by several factors: the spread of fishing effort from
northern waters to the southern ocean; a change in the composition of the
world catch from dominance by a comparatively few, mainly high value, food
fish to a greater variety of species including lower value pelagic ones,
mostly converted into animal feed; and the exploitation of species
previously neglected by commercial fisheries. The steady expansion of
aquaculture in recent years has also contributed to maintaining total
production while the harvest from the capture fisheries has flattened out.
Overfishing is not new. One of the first fisheries bodies, the
International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, was set up nearly a
century ago in response to declining catches in and around the North Sea.
Individual fish stocks have waxed and waned over the years, sometimes
spectacularly. In 1972, the annual yield of the Peruvian anchoveta fishery
fell from over 10 million tonnes to less than 2 million tonnes, as a
result of overfishing during adverse oceanic conditions. What is new,
however, is the extent of the problem: the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that almost 70 per cent
of marine fish stocks are now overfished.
Some marine mammals have been hunted to extinction and some fish species
have probably disappeared, but overexploitation usually leads to the
economic collapse of a fishery rather than a reduction in biodiversity.
Nevertheless, failure to check the decline in marine fish stocks, and
aquatic living resources generally, is now having far reaching effects in
both the industrialized and developing worlds. A severe penalty is being
paid in terms of lost production and poor returns on investment - and the
cost of restoring fishery resources to full health is growing with the
passage of time. Restoring the world's failing aquatic resources and
creating sustainable fisheries is a major challenge for the world.
Fish: a source of food and trade
Worldwide, fish provides about 17 per cent of the animal protein in the
human diet. It is highly nutritious and serves as a valuable supplement in
diets lacking essential vitamins and minerals. Rivers, lakes, coastal
shallows and reefs support artisanal fisheries that provide vital
nourishment for poor communities in Africa, Asia, many parts of Latin
America, and islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In fact, 39 of the
top 40 countries where fish is the principal source of animal protein are
found in the developing world.
The fisheries sector is an important source of employment and income for
over 120 million people. Fishery exports have increased in importance in
many developing countries. Their global market share has grown and the
value and diversity of their products has increased. Thailand, for
example, has become the world's largest fishery exporter: it overtook the
United States in 1993 with exports valued at $3.4 billion. According to
FAO estimates, net exports of fish and fishery products by the developing
world that year were worth more than $13 billion.
This changing flow of trade is largely driven by demand in richer
countries, which account for a substantial proportion of fish imports. In
1993, Japan's fishery imports alone were valued at over $14 billion. The
terms of trade have also been moving in favour of exporters, offering
developing countries greater opportunities to earn foreign exchange. This
income can enable them to pursue development and to purchase agricultural
inputs and cereals needed to provide food security. But, equally,
exporting fish can rob needy people, including children, of a
traditionally low-cost but nutritious food.
The danger in demand
The growing demand for fish, particularly in industrialized countries, and
its potential for foreign exchange earnings, have done little to conserve
stocks. The world's fishing fleet has grown significantly faster than its
catches. There are now about 3.5 million vessels worldwide. National
jurisdiction over the seas was greatly extended prior to and in the wake
of the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but
this has not led to a reduction in fishing effort or to the sustainable
development of fisheries. On the contrary, national policies contributed
to a major expansion in the international fish trade while focusing on a
progressive replacement of foreign fleets by national vessels and joint
Today, no major commercial fish stock remains untouched. By the beginning
of the 1990s - after three decades of expansion during which the world
fish catch increased fivefold - about 69 per cent of stocks were either
fully to heavily exploited (44 per cent), overexploited (16 per cent),
depleted (6 per cent) or very slowly recovering from overfishing (3 per
cent). The marine fish catch now seems to have peaked, far short of its
sustainable potential, at around 70 million tonnes. (Total world fishery
production, including aquaculture, was 105 million tonnes in 1994.)
Several distant water fleets have been reduced in recent years, while the
international development banks have become reluctant to finance further
increases in fishing capacity. But throughout much of the world, too many
boats are still chasing too few fish. Crisis areas include the North
Atlantic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the Central
Baltic, the Gulf of Thailand and the Western Central Pacific. Nearly all
the inland fisheries of Asia and Africa also show signs of
A continuing deterioration in aquatic ecosystems and the impact of
conflicting 'non-fishery' uses of shorelines and coastal areas add further
pressure. About 80 per cent of marine pollution comes from the land.
Mangrove clearance or the drainage of marshlands for agriculture, human
settlements, or tourism have destroyed fragile ecosystems and vital
breeding or nursery areas for marine life, including fish and crustaceans.
By the year 2000, 60 per cent of the world's urban population - some 1.8
billion people - will be living within 50 kilometres of the coast; many
more will be settled on the shores of rivers and lakes.
One of the few encouraging features has been the tremendous expansion of
aquaculture, which is emerging as a major source of food and, in many
cases, income. Over half of all freshwater fish production now comes from
aquacultural production. It grew at an average rate of 9 per cent per year
between 1984 and 1993, to 22.6 million tonnes of fish, shellfish,
crustaceans and plants (mostly seaweeds) worth $35.7 billion. Production
could reach some 33 million tonnes within 15 years. It is overwhelmingly
concentrated in the developing world, which accounts for 85 per cent of
acquaculture's output by volume, 71 per cent by value.
Who will pay for sustainable fisheries?
Attitudes are beginning to change as a result, for example at UNCLOS
(concluded in 1982), at the International Conference on Responsible
Fishing at Cancun, Mexico, and at the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro (UNCED), both held in 1992.
These benchmark Conferences inspired other meetings and initiatives. FAO's
World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development, in 1984, was the
first major follow-up to UNCLOS. Similarly, the Code of Conduct for
Responsible Fisheries, endorsed by FAO's membership in 1995, owes much to
Cancun and the momentum, following from UNCED, behind placing conservation
and sustainable development high on the global agenda.
Nevertheless, the gap between intentions and action on creating
sustainable fisheries is far from being closed. Conflicts have increased
as resources have dwindled. There have been disputes, some violent, in
both the Northwest and the Northeast Atlantic between fishermen from
developed countries in recent years. In developing regions, large-scale
commercial fisheries often threaten the livelihoods of artisanal fishing
Despite numerous attempts over the years to bring order to fisheries
management, the marine capture fisheries - still the dominant force in the
sector - typically consume more than they produce. The world fleet is
calculated to operate at a loss of about $54 billion per year. And the
erosion of natural capital resulting from overcapacity is reducing
opportunities for future development - and is in serious conflict with the
basic principles of the UNCED declaration and the intentions of Agenda 21.
Without effective intervention at national and international levels, the
continuing growth in demand will inevitably lead to fishing further down
the food chain. Capture fisheries will increasingly rely on smaller and
shorter-lived species, whose populations characteristically fluctuate
widely from year to year. Such fisheries are highly unstable and basically
unsustainable. So the state of the world's fish stocks can be expected to
deteriorate even further in the absence of effective regulation.
Correcting deficiencies in the world's capture fisheries alone could cost
as much as $14 billion annually over the next 10 to 20 years. Building
sustainable fisheries will require, for example, a major reduction in
fishing capacity; a reduction in wastage, particularly discards at sea;
abandonment of free and open access to resources; and the introduction of
precautionary rather than reactive management of fishery resources and
aquatic environments in general. Above all, the industrialized world will
need to acknowledge the true value of fish and fishery products,
particularly those imported from developing regions. Few developing
countries earn enough from their fisheries to provide the means for
managing them effectively. Will the wealthier countries be prepared to
meet the financial challenge? And will all countries - for
overfishing is not the prerogative of the developed world - make the
necessary adjustments in production to achieve sustainable fisheries?
Tony Loftas is Founding Editor of the journal Marine