Fishing levels globally are seriously under recorded

Prof. Callum Roberts reports, The Guardian, 21st January 2016 : About 164,000 years ago, people living in a South African coastal cave discovered the joy of seafood. Discarded marine snail shells deeply buried in the muck of human habitation represent the first evidence of seafood dinners. From then on, the increasing presence and richness of archaeological remains, and historical evidence, testify to our deepening love affair with seafood.

We soon developed the wits, skill and technological armoury necessary to capture fish and shellfish. Cave trash in East Timor shows that we could catch sharks and tuna over 40,000 years ago. North African mosaics depict us 2,000 years ago catching fish from boats with cast nets, drift nets, hook and line and even amphora-shaped octopus traps.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century, when steam engines were added to boats, that the era of industrial fishing began. Thereafter, fishing intensified swiftly and spread across the world’s seas and oceans, going further offshore and reaching deeper.

In the aftermath of the second world war there was great optimism that the oceans would feed humanity forever. Books were published with titles such as The Inexhaustible Sea, and the newly constituted Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations — FAO for short — began to collect statistics on how many fish we landed. Every year from 1950, their figures logged the growing might of the world’s fishing fleets in the relentless growth of the heap of fish and shellfish taken from the sea.

Problems began to emerge with fishing in the 1960s and 70s as the productivity of many stocks faltered and some fisheries collapsed, as did that for North Sea herring. The toll of fishing rose into the 1990s with more stock collapses, with Canadian cod the biggest crash.

But optimists could take heart at least from the FAO data: although catches had levelled off, they were not falling. With hindsight, and the benefit of a study published by Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of Canada’s University of British Columbia, we now see that we placed too much faith in FAO.

The study shows in stark detail that FAO figures do not report lots of the fish we catch: fish taken by small-scale and subsistence fishers, especially in developing countries, recreational catches, and catches thrown away at sea because they either have low value or boats have no quota for them. In reality, we take 50% more fish than we thought — a staggering total of about 130m tonnes a year all told.

That levelling off in landings was an illusion too. “Peak fish” came in 1996, since when landings have declined by over 1m tonnes every year (despite our holding on to more of the fish we once threw over the side).

Statistics are only as good as the data on which they are based, but these figures represent a huge improvement on FAO numbers. They are calculated from hundreds of country-by-country analyses that painstakingly reconstructed landings year by year back to 1950. We can be confident in the picture they paint. At the global scale, fisheries are in trouble. And while some countries are working hard to make their industries sustainable, such as the US and New Zealand, most are in deepening crisis.

Seafood is immensely important. An estimated 1 billion people depend on it as their main source of animal protein, and demand will only rise as the world population soars. But just when we need it most, the reliability of seafood is in doubt. It is particularly worrying that industrial fleets from places such as the EU, China, Taiwan and Japan, having depleted their own stocks, are now over-fishing the waters of developing countries to which they have bought access. Their plunder – the take is large and reckless enough to justify the word — jeopardises the livelihoods of countless people. In west Africa, falling fish availability in markets has led to increased hunting of bush meat, bringing people into greater contact with diseases carried by wildlife, perhaps even Ebola.

We can’t go on this way for much longer. Recognising you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery, and these new figures leave us in no doubt of the urgency of fixing over-fishing. In a nutshell, we have to fish less, waste less and devise ways to capture what we want more selectively and with less collateral damage. We must also protect more by putting places off limits to fishing so that the seas can continue to thrive and provide in our fast-changing world.

Source: The Guardian, 21st January 2016. For the full details, see

Marinet observes:
We provide here the Marinet Briefing which records the severe decline that has taken place in most stocks of commercial fish species in the North Sea between 1880 and 2010.

1880 marks the advent of the introduction of steam powered fishing practices which have been further developed throughout the subsequent 120 years to result in our current intensive fishing practices, using sonar and many other technical improvements.

As a result of the unrestrained use of these technical improvements the North Sea, in common with most other fishing grounds around the UK, is now a pale shadow of its former self in terms of the fish stocks which it contains, and as a consequence the overall UK marine ecosystem has become severely degraded.

This Briefing has been produced to inform the public and, in particular, UK and EU parliamentarians and policy makers who are interested in and concerned with reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

This Briefing records the historic levels of UK North sea fish stocks, and thus the targets that the regeneration of North Sea fish stocks should be linked to under the current reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and the implementation of the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

* * * * *

This article by Callum Roberts is illuminating but salutary reading — or rather, the article by Daniel Pauly upon which the C. Roberts’ article is based, see the original.

The burden is that over-fishing globally is far greater than is being reported in the official statistics. 

The disturbing outcome of this is that the decline in fishing yield in recent years (less fish being caught despite increased effort) is also greater, and that global fish stocks are under greater pressure and decline than has been officially reported. 

The prospects for fish as a staple food for an expanding global human population, most of whom depend on fish as a material and only component of animal protein in a “healthy diet”, is therefore not good.

What is still absent from this debate is the solution. 

Once again, we have the academics and scientists sharpening the definition of the problem, but no one showing the solution.

For Marinet this, once again, underlines the importance of Deborah Wright’s work, Conserving the Great Blue.  Here we do have the solution — idealistic, maybe, but the actual management and associated enforcement regime which will tackle this issue and put our relationship with the marine world back onto the basis of equilibrium.

It is true that in his article Daniel Pauly does recommend that the system of quotas should be applied to fish stocks whilst in abundance so as to preserve their fecundity and long term yield, rather than quotas only being applied once a stock is near collapse.  A positive piece of thinking, and a positive management measure. He also observes that improved fisheries management in the USA, Australia and Europe is leading to an improvement in stocks — certainly there are such management measures, but Marinet believes the conclusion that stocks are genuinely “improved” is overstated.

At the end of all of this, we still come to the question — what is the solution.

The solution, we repeat, is Deborah’s work Conserving the Great Blue, and the concept and principles clearly explained there.

The question is, how can we get this onto the world stage?

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