Fish Harvest Stable But Threatened

Published on: Last updated:

The world’s fish farmer and fishing fleets harvested 132.5 million tons of seafood in 2003 (the last year for which data are available), just slightly less than 2002’s record of 133 million tons (…). The amount of seafood available for each person on the planet declined slightly to 21 Kilograms, down from a high of 21.5 in 2002 (…). The global fish supply was buoyed entirely by increased production from fish farms, since wild harvests from streams, lakes, bays, and oceans dropped from 81.4 million tons in 2002 to 77.7 million tons in 2003. In fact, the gap between wild harvests and fish raised on farms continues to narrow. Since 1997, wild harvests have fallen 13 percent from the peak of roughly 87 million tons, while fish farming’s harvests jumped more than 50 percent, from 35,8 million tons to 54,8 million tons.

Worldwide, fishing is highly concentrated. Of the estimated 30,000 existing fish species, only 1,000 are eaten by humans, and a small number of these make up for the bulk of the catch. For instance, Alaska pollack, Peruvian anchovy, Atlantic bluefin tuna, and Chilean jack mackerel account for about 13 percent of the global wild catch (about 11 million tons). Fewer than 10 species- mainly carp, catfish, tilapia and salmon- dominate global aquaculture. And just seven nations – China (47,3 million tons), Peru (6,1 million), India (5,9 million), Indonesia (5,7 million), the United-States and Japan (5,5 million each), and Chile (4,2 million)- take in nearly two thirds of the global total.

Fishers in developing countries catch three out of four wild fish, by weight. People in the developing world also eat most of the world’s fish, thanks to the larger populations there, although they eat much less per capita: 14.2 kilos per year compared with 24 kilos in the industrial world. For nearly 1 billion people, mostly in Asia, fish supplies 30 percent of their protein versus just 6 percent of protein worldwide. Promoted partly by improved refrigeration on fishing boats and rapid transportation, trade in seafood has soared in recent decades. Since 1961, the volume of trade has jumped fourfold to 26.8 million tons, while the value has jumped ninefold to $ 61 billion (in 2005 dollars). Worldwide, fish processors exported 10.8 million tons of frozen fish in 2001, over 22 times more than in 1961, with frozen shrimp and squid experiencing particularly rapid growth.

While fisheries scientists have repeatedly confirmed that the major ocean fish stocks are overtapped, recent studies also show that freshwater fish –accounting for 8.7 million tons excluding fish farming and sport fishing- are joining marine species among populations threatened by overfishing pollution and destruction of habitat. Large species like the Mekong catfish, the Murray cod, and the Great Lakes sturgeon are all vulnerable to extinction. Total catches are actually increasing in developing nations like India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tanzania, and Uganda that depend heavily on freshwater species for food and jobs, even though the size and quality of fish is declining and other indicators show ecosystem stress.

But conscientious chefs and seafood eaters are helping to encourage better fishing practices by shunning fish under threat of collapse. For instance, public outcry in late 2004 led to bans on serving shark fin soup at several high profile locations, including Hong Kong’s premier university and Hong Kong Disney. Sharks, whose numbers have declined by more than 70 percent worldwide, are hunted primarily for their fins, which can sell up for $ 700 per kilo and which constitute the central ingredient in this soup prized by Chinese populations around the world.

A more ambitious strategy for rebuilding the world’s fish stocks sis the large-scale use of marine reserves- areas where fishing would be banned to allow fish to spawn and mature uninhibited. Evidence shows that fish populations recover rapidly in such reserves and that nearby fish catches and fish sizes increase dramatically after the reserve are set up. A recent study estimated that establishing reserves for all the world’s major fisheries would cost $5-19 billion each year and create about 1 million jobs.

Brian HALWEIL

Vital signs, 2006-2007.

Media Query: