True level of global fishing 50% greater than figures being reported, say scientists

The Blue Marine Foundation reports, 16th January 2017: The Zoological Society of London and the Turing Institute, along with the Blue Marine Foundation, co-hosted a lecture by Professor Daniel Pauly and Dr Dirk Zeller in London on 12th January 2017. 

Professor Pauly and Dr Zeller from the University of British Columbia were presenting the findings on the true level of the world’s wild fish catches published last year in Nature Communications, more recently in their Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries and available on their project’s website:

Since 1950 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been reporting on global fish catches.  Every year until 2002, the FAO data showed catches increasing, suggesting that the sea was inexhaustible.  At that time, Professor Pauly reported in Nature that if the catches
inaccurately reported by China were removed, catches had begun to decline.

Further years of painstaking research by Pauly and Zeller revealed that the FAO has been dramatically underestimating the number of fish being caught every year for the past 60 years.  And more worryingly, that catches were not levelling off, or “stabilising” as the FAO suggested, but in steep decline.  Since 1996, now identified as ‘peak fish’, landings have declined each year by over a million tonnes.

In their lecture, Dr Zeller explained that the main flaw in the FAO data was that data categorised as ‘too difficult to quantify’ was marked as N/A (not available), which in turn was marked as a 0 in spreadsheets. The quantum of these ‘soft zeros’ was between 30 and 50 per cent of global catch.  Categories which were crucially left out include small-scale catch by subsistence fishers,
recreational fishing (which in the Bahamas, for example, can be almost half the catch), discards and illegally caught fish.

Gathering this hitherto unquantified data was a staggering feat by Pauly and Zeller, who called on an unpaid army of 300 researchers worldwide, and this lifetime achievement was a reason why they won the award for Science at the Boat International/Blue Marine Foundation Ocean Awards.

Professor Pauly elaborated in the Q&A on the continued threat to our oceans of industrial fishing.  Much of the fish being caught is used for fish meal for aquaculture or fish oil – it isn’t even being eaten directly as fish. Moreover, we in the developed world are importing much of our fish from the developing world: ‘we are taking food from the mouths of the poor’, meaning that the billion people who rely on fish for their main source of protein are increasingly unable to source it.

A fascinating chart also showed that small-scale fishing employs ten times as many people, has a much lower environmental impact and uses a fraction of the fuel, so produces a fraction of the CO2 emissions, compared with industrial fishing.  Yet industrial fishing attracts far more subsidies than small scale fishing.

However, there was a message of hope: Daniel Pauly said that the creation of marine protected areas was a huge step forward in halting fish stock declines, as were the development of small-scale, sustainably managed fisheries. Both strategies are being pursued by BLUE.

Daniel Pauly also had an interesting message for British ministers grappling with the challenges of Brexit.  He suggested that with Brexit Britain had a “once in a hundred years” opportunity to revive UK fish stocks or alternatively “an opportunity to be stupid.”

For Prof Pauly’s full answer to the Brexit question see here.

For Prof Pauly’s interview on BBC Radio 4 Farming today click the link here.


Source: Blue Marine Foundation, 16th January 2017. For the full text and graphics, see

Source: Pauly D and Zeller D (2016) Towards a comprehensive estimate of global marine fisheries catches. pp. 171-181 In Pauly D and Zeller D (eds.), Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries: A critical appraisal of catches and ecosystem impacts. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 


Marinet observes: Prof. Pauly is right when he says that Brexit provides Britain with a “once in a hundred years” opportunity to put right past errors in fisheries management, and that the objective should be to rebuild stocks. But, how is this to be done?

Marinet has published proposals for the management of UK fisheries following Brexit and, like Prof. Pauly and Dr. Zeller, has laid the emphasis on handing back fishing activity to the small boat fishermen who not only fish more sustainably — have low levels of discards and use less fuel – but this would also mean the economic regeneration of the industry by returning the industry’s focus to regional areas of the UK — large fishing vessels are often foreign owned and land their catch on the continent — and so result in significantly more people being employed, both as fishermen and in the port-based industries which service the boats and distribute the fish that are landed.

However, this alone will not be sufficient.

The question that is outstanding is how the UK Government, which manages the direction of the industry in terms of rule-making, will respond to Brexit.

To make the most of this “once in a hundred years” opportunity, Marinet believes the UK Government must:

  • Eliminate the control which the large fishing companies currently have over the industry. The Government does this by refusing to give these companies the quotas to catch fish which they currently enjoy, and which have effectively led to a monopolistic privatisation of UK fishing stocks.
    Instead, at least 50% of the quota is handed back to smallboat fishermen.
  • Effective management plans for each ICES area in UK seas, and for each and every significant stock of fish in these ICES areas, is drawn up by the UK Government, and strictly administered to eliminate unsustainable fishing — discards, illegal catches, and the use of factory trawlers.
  • Rebuild fish stocks by taking two key measures:
    • Ensure that adult fish can live at least half of their adult life before being caught by nets.
      Adult fish are the most important members of the spawning stock — every time an adult doubles in size, so also does the number of eggs/sperm which the fish produces double. Thus older fish are the key to the reproductive capability of a stock, therefore they need protection. At present, net sizes mean that fish are caught after only one year as adults. Consequently breeding stocks are severely compromised, and the ability of fisheries management to rebuild stocks similarly so. Hence net sizes have to be enlarged to enable the larger adult fish to survive. [Note: larger fish also have more “economic value” than smaller fish].
    • Ensure the creation of closed areas centred on spawning grounds of fish stocks. Fish disperse throughout the seas outside of their breeding season, but when they breed they come together in specific geographic areas. When they do so, they are easily caught — and with net sizes as they currently are, all the large fish are removed from the stock. Hence the breeding capability of the stock is severely damaged — a principal reason why stocks have been relentlessly falling over the years. The solution is to close the spawning areas to fishing, allow stocks to successfully spawn and breed, and thus the real stocks will quickly rebuild and so be available as the basis for a re-invigorated UK fishing industry.
  • Place the small boat, small company fishermen back in charge of the management of the industry. They understand the meaning of sustainable fishing, and managing stocks for the future and not just short-term profit. Support the traditional spirit of the industry — not the modern, monopolistic version based on exclusive access to only a few — and following Brexit the UK fishing industry will thrive, and hand on a restored industry and re-invigorated ecology of our seas to future generations.

However there is one Brexit question that is still outstanding — will the UK Government allow the industry to travel in this direction?


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