One-third of global fisheries operating at biologically unsustainable levels

Humans eat more than 150 million metric tons of fish every year.

About 3.2 billion people around the world currently rely on fish for nearly 20 percent of their animal protein. That means that humans eat more than 150 million metric tons of fish every year — and as the global population increases by a couple billion over the next few decades, that number will surely rise.

The fishing industry is eager to capitalize on this growth and boost profits, of course, but overfishing is already threatening the global supply of fish and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that this growth can and will be achieved sustainably. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ latest report on the state of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re approaching “peak fish” — though it will require that fisheries management be strengthened and loss and waste reduced, while problems like climate change, illegal fishing, and pollution must also be dealt with.

“The fisheries sector is crucial in meeting FAO’s goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition, and its contribution to economic growth and the fight against poverty is growing,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in a statement. “The sector is not without its challenges, however, including the need to reduce the percentage of fish stocks fished beyond biological sustainability.”

Though the amount of fish captured in the wild plateaued in the 1990s, remaining stable ever since, and the rapid growth of aquaculture is beginning to slow down, the report projects that total fish production will grow to 201 million metric tons by 2030. That’s a nearly 20 percent increase over the 171 million metric tons produced in 2016, when the world’s human population ate 20.4 kilograms of fish per capita (which accounted for close to 90 percent of total production), compared to just 10 kilograms per capita in the 1960s.

Nearly 91 metric tons of those fish were caught in the wild in 2016, while production from aquaculture contributed another 80 million metric tons, the report states. Aquaculture continues to meet an increasing share of the world’s demand for fish and will likely continue to do so in the future, though between 2010 and 2016 annual growth was just 5.8 percent, significantly lower than the 10 percent growth seen throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Feeding human’s appetite for fish has come at a significant cost: One-third of the fisheries the FAO monitors are currently fished at biologically unsustainable levels, which the report’s authors describe as “worrying.”

“The state of marine fishery resources, based on FAO’s monitoring of assessed marine fish stocks, has continued to decline,” per the report. “The fraction of marine fish stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels has exhibited a decreasing trend, from 90.0 percent in 1974 to 66.9 percent in 2015. In contrast, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015, with the largest increases in the late 1970s and 1980s.” The most unsustainable fisheries were found to be in the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Southeast Pacific Ocean, and the Southwest Atlantic Ocean.

Despite the continuous increase in the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels, the report finds that some progress has still been made toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, which calls for effective regulation of fish harvests, science-based management plans to restore stocks, and an end to overfishing, illegal fishing, and other destructive fishing practices.

Most of the gains in sustainable fish harvesting have been regionally specific. “For example, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels increased from 53 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2016 in the United States of America, and from 27 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2015 in Australia,” the FAO found. But the report also warns that the worsening situation in developing countries is offsetting the improved fisheries management and stock statuses in developed countries.

Andy Sharpless, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Oceana, responded to the report by noting that wild fish provide a sustainable source of healthy protein for humans, and that compared to many land-based sources of protein, wild-caught fish make a modest contribution to climate change while requiring virtually no inputs of fresh water or arable land.

“If we want to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 in a responsible way, wild seafood will have to play a significant role,” Sharpless said. “That’s why the new report from the FAO is discouraging: it shows that the world still has a long way to go toward responsible management of our oceans. The number of overfished marine fisheries has risen over the last four years. And, despite increasingly sophisticated and aggressive fishing techniques, global catch has continued to decline.”

Sharpless described the report as “the latest data point on a disturbing trend line. Overfishing and destructive gear, habitat degradation, pollution, and short-term thinking have limited the amount of wild seafood available to humanity. And these same problems continue to threaten the health of the ocean and all the species that live there. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many fish reproduce quickly, and case studies from around the world have proven that — when managed responsibly — populations can rebound. If similar practices were implemented globally, the potential is staggering.”

Banner image: A fisherman fishes in the river Tista in Panjarbhanga, Bangladesh. Between 2011 and 2016, FAO worked with farmer organizations and government departments in Bangladesh to improve the design and management of agricultural investments. These technical and capacity building activities formed part of the Integrated Agricultural Productivity Project (IAPP), funded by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). Photo Credit: © FAO/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.

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