Soon There Will be No Fish in the Ocean

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Temps de lecture : 5 minutes  

Bateau de pêche en Turquie
The world’s fishing situation is critical: if the rate of exploitation is not reduced, the earth’s waters could be empty of fish within half a century. Marine ecosystems have been exploited beyond their capacity to regenerate, and species such as the blue-fin tuna are already on the verge of extinction. We are still far from a sustainable and global management of fish stocks: defining fishing quotas always makes for a bitter debate and exploitative countries circumvent restrictive measures by fishing in neighbouring waters.

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 93.8 million tonnes of fish were caught in 2005. Since the mid 1980s, the figures have been oscillating around 90 million tonnes: 95 in 2004, 90.5 in 2003, and 93.3 in 2002. Driven by demand, 75% of the fishing industry exploits resources to their limits, or beyond the capacity of marine ecosystems to regenerate. Maintaining such high levels of exploitation has paid a price of diversification for other species, like shrimp and cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish and octopus etc.).

Of the 3.5 million fishing boats in the world, 1% provides 50% of the world’s catch. Nearly 400 million people live off the fishing industry (including aquaculture) directly or indirectly (catching, processing, preparing, and selling), and of the 38 million who were employed in the processing industry in 2002, 87% were in Asia. 97% of fishermen are from developing nations. If fishing continues at the current rate, fish could disappear from our oceans within half a century. (1)

Since the 1950s, development of the fishing industry has been considerable. In twenty years, global production from capture fishery (both marine and freshwater) tripled from 18 million tonnes in 1950, to more than 58 million tonnes in 1969. The growth rate at which fish were being caught then fell very quickly, with no growth occurring during the 1980s. Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Russia, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam were responsible for 80% of the world’s total catch in 2002. [Debate]

Fishing is divided into two categories:

– Traditional fishing, 25 million fishermen, consuming 1-3 million tonnes of fuel, with a catch rate of 10-20 kg per litre.

– Industrial fishing, 500 000 fisherman, 50% of the world’s catch, consuming 15-20 million tonnes of fuel, with a catch rate of 2-5 kg per litre. They use 35 000 boats, equipped with radar and sonar navigation, as well as satellite assistance. They process and refrigerate the fish immediately, allowing them to go further, for longer.

No Chance to Reproduce

The state of fishing stock varies according to species and location. The north-east, north-west and south-east Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, south-east Pacific, and the Southern Ocean, are particularly overexploited by the industrial fishing industry. In certain areas, animal populations that certain species depended on have been mostly destroyed. This is the case with deep-sea fish, certain types of shark, and migratory fish. Populations of blue-fish tuna, much sought after in Japanese sushi restaurants (a good specimen can fetch $50 000), have been cut down by 97%. Even if the fishing of them were to stop, it would take years for the species to repopulate and for stocks to increase. The over-exploited species are usually fish living near the seabed (cod, hake, flatfish), crustaceans, and cephalopods.

To compensate for the decline in landing these species, fishermen have turned towards under-exploited stocks, such as small deep sea fish (anchovy, herring, sardine). Between 1950 and 1994, the numbers of this type of fish caught has gone from 10 to 40 million tonnes (almost half of the fish landed in the world). Moreover, technological innovation has allowed man to reach previously untouched stocks at great depths (from 400 to 2500m). 65 million tonnes are brought up from the depths every year, particularly impacting five species: grenadier, emperor fish, black scabbardfish, blue ling, and Portuguese dogfish. The biology of these species is inherently linked to their life in cold water: slow growth, long life span (up to 150 years for emperor fish) and late sexual maturity. Their stocks are therefore very fragile.

The range of environmental destruction is also responsible for the decline in fishing resources. Most marine fish use coastal bayous, mangroves and estuaries as breeding grounds. According to Boris Worm, “half of the coastal areas in the world are deteriorating. Today, most of the coastal regions in developed countries are damaged and eroded”. [Debate]

Not Just Food in the Nets

Certain methods of fishing, like deep-sea trawling, are indiscriminate. The nets do not distinguish between consumable and non-consumable fish (some species have no commercial value, or are outside the size limit allowed to be caught). These fish, thrown back dead in most cases, could form 15-50% of fish caught worldwide, according to the FAO. The International Whaling Commission estimates that between 65 000 and 80 000 marine mammals are accidentally caught in fishing nets every year, and around 150 000 turtles in shrimp trawling nets.

The Economic and Social Risk

The collapse of cod fishing in Canada in the early 1990s left 40 000 marine fishermen and fish-processing factory workers unemployed. It was followed by the collapse of coastal fisheries in New Zealand and now Europe. In Canada, the stocks still have not regenerated. In the south-east Pacific, fishermen are dependent on a few species: the Peruvian anchovy, Chilean Jack mackerel, and South-American pilchard form 80% of fish caught. With the El Niño phenomenon, climate variations in this area are important, and directly influence the success of fishing there, as well as the abundance and productivity of stocks in the long term.

Fishing Licences in Africa

The reduction in fishing resources in one part of the world, or of one species, increases the pressure put on others. After the adoption of restrictive measures in EU waters, the European fleet has gone searching for fish further a-field. Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Russian and Chinese fleets are doing the same. According to Lester Brown, “for impoverished countries like Mauritania or Guinea-Bissau, the income associated with these licences could represent almost half the governmental budget”. [Debate]

Quota War

Throughout the world, settling quotas is a challenge every year, even between ‘friendly’ countries as in Europe. In spring 1997, member states agreed to reduce the fishing capacity of the European fleet for endangered species (cod, herring and sole in the North Sea) by 30%, and by 20% for over-fished species (cod in the Baltic Sea, tuna and swordfish off the Iberian Peninsular). Given the decline in fish stock, this measure turned out to be inadequate. In 2001, the EU adopted stricter measures: the fishing of cod, whiting, and haddock is now completely banned during their spawning season. Since then, more severe quotas have been adopted each year, but remain below advice from scientists. [Debate]

For many years the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) has called on the UN for a worldwide moratorium of fishing on the high seas. The UN has until now been firmly behind regional fishing management agencies. In May 2007, States in the South Pacific agreed with the DSCC to adopt a temporary ban on fishing in deep waters and created a protected zone covering 25% of the world’s high seas, a quarter of these zones located outside of territorial waters.

(1) Boris Worm, Science Mag

(2) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006

See also :

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

High seas task force


Earth Policy Institute

Le Monde diplomatique, L’Atlas de l’environnement, hors-série 2007

Le Monde 2, Demain la Terre, hors-série juillet-août 2007

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