Hidden forces mask crisis in world fisheries

provided by Worldwatch Institute

lthough world fish production reached an all-time high of 121 million tons in 1997 and fish in many markets are well-stocked and affordable, 11 of the world's 15 most important fishing areas are in decline and 60 percent of the major fish species are either fully or overexploited. As a result, the 200 million people around the world who depend on fishing for their livelihoods are being squeezed out of their way of life.

Anne Platt McGinn unravels this seeming paradox and identifies steps to rebuild fisheries in a new Worldwatch Paper, Rocking the Boat: Conserving Fisheries and Protecting Jobs. McGinn reports that the crisis in marine fisheries is being masked by the taking of younger and lower quality fish, massive imports from the developing world to the industrial world, and the rapid growth in fish farming.

"Many of the fish species landed today were considered 'trash' just a few years ago," says McGinn. Low-value pelagic species, such as anchovy and pilchard, accounted for 73 percent of the increase in total catches in the 1980s. Since 1970, landings of the most commercially valuable species have dropped by one fourth. As a consequence, fishers are unraveling the food chain and grabbing fish of lesser quality and value. At the same time, fishers are hauling in species at a younger age, a practice that guarantees a smaller return in the future.

Spending on fishing fleets has been soaring, but there is so much overcapacity that profits per boat have dropped by more than half over the last 25 years. As losses mount, many fishers simply try harder. Fishers are now just steps away from the base of the marine food chain.

Already, declining fisheries have produced tragic results for coastal communities worldwide and the one billion poor people who rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein. Given growing demand and limited resources, these problems in the fishing industry may soon affect consumers worldwide.

People in industrial countries consume a disproportionate share of fish, 40 percent of the world total. And fish from the South are increasingly diverted into world trade; 85 percent of internationally traded fishery products originate in developing nations. Nonfood uses of fish in industrial countries (such as animal feed and oils) is greater than the total supply of fish for direct human consumption in Latin America, Africa, and India combined.

As large-scale foreign and domestic vessels move in closer to shore in search of profits, and large numbers of people flock to the coasts, driven by environmental degradation and population growth inland, the estimated 19 million small-scale fishers are seeing their incomes decline.

Recent dramatic growth in aquaculture also hides the deepening problems with wild catches from marine and inland waters. Wild catches expanded from 20 million tons in 1950 to 93 million tons in 1996. But in the 1990s, growth in catches has slowed to about 1 percent, compared to 3 percent in the 1980s. Aquaculture is now one of the fastest growing sources of protein, expanding at 10 percent per year. Output more than tripled between 1984 (the first year global aquaculture statistics were compiled by FAO) and 1996, from 7 million tons worth $10 billion, to 23 million tons valued at $36 billion. Today, one out of every five fish consumed comes from the farm.

However, the growth in aquaculture has its own paradoxes. Many fish farmers feed high protein pellets made from wild fish to raise carnivorous species like shrimp and salmon. During the period 1985 to 1995, the world's shrimp farmers used 36 million tons of wild fish to produce just 7.2 million tons of shrimp.

Farmed shrimp is the most profitable commodity in aquaculture, but it is also the most polluting. More than 15,000 hectares of valuable coastal areas the very areas that many wild species depend on for spawning and nourishment are choked with waste and abandoned completely each year. The forces driving fishers down the path of self-destruction are well documented: the open-access nature of fishing which draws people into the industry well after profits and catches begin falling; widespread technological change and fleet growth; and massive government bailouts. Between 22 percent to 38 percent of global fishing revenues come from government coffers, not the sea.

The policies needed to rescue collapsing fisheries are no mystery. From Namibia to the Philippines to Alaska, fishers, communities, and governments have implemented steps to move to sustainable fisheries. "Because fish swim across political boundaries and migrate without regard for management plans," McGinn explained, "we need international solutions. Truly effective fisheries conservation demands a broader response. What is still missing is the political will to take meaningful actions."

McGinn cites a number of policy changes that would improve fisheries, starting with the elimination of more than $20 billion a year in subsidies. Governments should reduce industrial fleets by half, require the use of less ecologically destructive gear, and ratify important international conventions like the 1995 U.N. Convention on Highly Migratory and Straddling Fish Stocks (to date, only four of the top 20 major fishing nations-Russia, Norway, Iceland, and the United States-have signed this convention.)

"Conservation should be at the forefront of fisheries management," writes McGinn. "We need marine protected areas, seasonal closures, and habitat restoration projects to rebuild depleted stocks and bring back jobs." McGinn points to successful conservation projects like Belize's Integrated Coastal Zone Management Program, which has allowed the country's fishing and tourism industries to become self-sufficient through user fees. In another successful conservation project, Namibia has reduced losses by requiring fishers to keep everything they catch, instead of the now common practice worldwide of wasting about one-third of the entire 93 million ton catch.

  The Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to fostering the evolution of an environmentally sustainable societyone in which human needs are met in ways that do not threaten the health of the natural environment or the prospects of future generations. Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036-1904; (202) 452-1999, e-mail worldwatchworldwatch.org or check their website www.worldwatch.org