Not enough fish in the sea

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 ventures.

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 overexploitation.

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.

Man fishing with a net

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 communities.

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 Policy.



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