Document created September 1995
Marine Fisheries, Population and Consumption: Science and Policy
Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council
As population pressure on aquatic resources escalates, there is
a pressing need to identify and integrate science and policy solutions
related to water pollution, coastal area degradation and the depletion
of living aquatic resources. This paper presents an environmental
perspective on some of the science and policy issues that must
be addressed in order to more effectively manage population and
consumption pressures on marine fisheries, which account for more
than 80% of world fish production.
The world now faces a global fishing crisis of unprecedented proportions.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),
70% of the world's commercially important marine fish stocks are
fully fished, overexploited, or depleted. In a third of the world's
major marine fishing regions, the catch has declined by 20% or
more from peak years.
Fueled by escalating demand, rapidly advancing technology and
massive government subsidies, the global fishing fleet has now
reached, and in many areas exceeded, the limits of sustainability,
endangering an important source of food for the world. In addition,
overfishing costs jobs in the commercial and recreational fishing
industries, disrupts the social and cultural fabric of fishing
communities in developing and developed nations alike, and threatens
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that "unless
industrial fishing fleets are controlled through national and
international regulation,... disastrous social and economic consequences
await the entire industry, including food shortages in the coastal
communities of developing countries where seafood provides the
major source of dietary protein... as well as jobs."
The global situation is mirrored in the U.S., where 83% of assessed
fish stocks where the status is known have been classified by
the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as fully fished or
overexploited. Included among these are such popular food fish
as swordfish in the Atlantic, most groundfish species, including
flounder, haddock and cod off New England, salmon in the Pacific
and redfish in the Gulf of Mexico.
The marine fisheries of the world face a triple threat: overfishing,
habitat loss and pollution.
II. OVERFISHING AND DEPLETION
Fish provide a vital source of food for hundreds of millions
of people worldwide. Overall, the marine catch accounts for 16%
of global animal protein consumption. In general people in developing
countries rely on fish as a part of their daily diets much more
heavily than those residing in developed countries. For example,
fish accounts for roughly 29% of the total animal protein in the
diet of Asian populations, but only 7% for North Americans.
The use of fish as a source of food rose from 40 million tons
in 1970 to 72 million tons in 1993. Population is by far the most
important factor in this burgeoning demand, accounting for roughly
two thirds of change in total demand. At current rates of world
population growth, the total world supply of food fish (marine,
freshwater, and aquaculture) would have to grow from roughly 72
million tons in 1993 to 91 million tons by 2010 to maintain today's
per capita fish supplies, according to FAO.
How to meet this demand is a key question. Most of the world's
major fisheries have experienced significant declines due to overharvesting
and depletion of the stocks. As a result, after decades of vigorous
growth, world fish production has stagnated since 1989, and overall
production has been maintained only by the growth of aquaculture,
where production has more than doubled from 7 million tons in
1984 to 16 million tons in 1993. Aquaculture is now estimated
to provide 23% of world food fish supplies.
With this overall picture there are some important trends in consumption
and demand that have significant implications for marine fisheries.
1. Developing vs. Industrial Nations
Developed nations now account for 85% of world fishery imports
by value. The average consumption of fish per person in industrial
nations is roughly three times that of developing countries.
This contrasts sharply with the relatively small contribution
fish makes to per capita animal protein consumption in most developed
nations. Escalating demand for fish in industrial countries combined
with the precipitous decline of major northern fisheries in recent
years has led developed nations to turn increasingly to developing
countries in search of fish.
The need for foreign exchange exerts tremendous pressure on developing
nations to export fish or auction off the right to fish. For
example, the European Union pays $200 million annually in access
fees for the right to catch fish within the Exclusive Economic
Zones of other countries. Half that amount goes to African countries.
FAO estimates that about 50% of the fish catch off Africa is
now taken by distant water fleets.
About half the fish traded internationally now comes from developing
countries. Net exports of fishery products from developing countries
exceed those of coffee, bananas, tea, rubber and other exported
commodities in terms of value, totaling $11 billion in 1993.
The consequences of exporting or auctioning off large amounts
of fish can include higher prices, depletion of domestic fish
supplies and disruption of traditional cultures in developing
countries. The imbalance between world catch and consumption
is likely to worsen given the distribution of wealth and fish
2. Artisanal Fisheries
The impact of this imbalance is likely to be felt particularly
acutely in small scale "artisanal" fisheries in developing
countries. Almost 50% of total world landings are estimated to
come from such fisheries. Most of this fish goes to direct human
consumption and in many coastal regions of the world, small-scale
artisanal fisheries provide most of the protein and jobs for adjacent
communities. It is exactly these small-scale coastal fisheries
that face the greatest threats. Coastal fisheries are generally
overfished in most parts of the world, and they face the most
significant threats in terms of coastal habitat destruction and
pollution that stem from human activities on land. It is against
this backdrop that artisanal fisheries face increasing competition
from industrialized fleets.
3. Fish Utilization
In addition to questions of equity in the distribution of
fish supplies, consideration of consumption must address the issue
of bycatch, the unintended catch of "non-target" species
of fish and other marine life. FAO estimates that some 27 million
tons -- equivalent to more than one third of current global food
fish production -- is caught and discarded every year.
This enormous waste results from several sources. First, most
fishing gear is not very selective and varying amounts of non-target
species of fish and other marine life are generally caught along
with the target stock. Among the most notorious fisheries in
this area are shrimp fisheries: in portions of the Gulf of Mexico
it is estimated that for every one pound of shrimp caught, 10
pounds of other species are caught and discarded. In addition,
limited storage capacity on large and small vessels leads to the
discard of less valuable species.
A second utilization issue is the loss of fish due to perishability.
FAO estimates that up to 10% of total food fish supplies are
lost due to poor handling, processing and lack of protection against
pests and spoilage.
A final utilization issue is the huge amount of fish -- 29 million
tons -- that goes to the production of fish meal, oil, and other
industrial products. Whether these are appropriate uses for the
equivalent of more than one third of the world's marine food fish
production, is a key question.
III. POLLUTION AND HABITAT LOSS
Pollution and coastal habitat loss, dealt with in other papers
presented at this symposium, have crucial implications for marine
fisheries and their ability to provide food for future generations.
Coastal waters provide critical spawning, nursery or other habitat
for many commercially important marine fish populations. These
waters are under a multitude of assaults that stem principally
from human activities on land. For example, roughly 80% of marine
pollution is estimated to come from land based sources. Development
along the coast has destroyed an estimated 50% of all coastal
wetlands worldwide. And global climate change has the potential
to dramatically affect marine fisheries through the alteration
of temperature regimes and impacts related to sea level rise.
Ozone depletion and attendant increases in ultraviolet radiation
are also of concern: increased ultraviolet radiation has been
shown to result in significant biological and ecological damage
to phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, benthic organisms, and corals.
Fish production itself can have significant effects on coastal
habitat. Commercial dragging operations for fish, clams, sea
urchins and other commercial species have extensively altered
nearshore bottom habitat. Aquaculture operations also impact
coastal environments through the removal of existing mangrove,
wetland and other communities in order to construct aquaculture
facilities such as shrimp ponds. The addition of fish food, feces,
antibiotics and other pollutants from aquaculture can also impact
coastal water quality. Finally, aquaculture can pose threats
to the genetic integrity of wild populations and contribute to
the spread of disease among them when farmed individuals mix with
The linkages between pollution and habitat destruction on the
one hand and impacts on marine fish populations on the other are
often difficult to quantify, particularly for offshore fisheries.
These threats may disproportionately affect small scale artisanal
fishers who cannot easily move out of fishing areas damaged by
pollution and habitat destruction.
IV. SCIENCE ISSUES
Population and consumption pressures on marine fisheries have
been compounded by the lack of basic scientific understanding
of marine ecological relationships in general and of fish population
characteristics and dynamics for many if not most species. The
lack of scientific knowledge about fisheries has contributed to
the failure of fisheries managers at the national and international
level to prevent widespread overfishing and depletion of fish
populations. Research is needed in many areas including the following,
to list just a few:
a) fish population dynamics and characteristics of harvested
b) direct and indirect impacts of harvest on target and nontarget
species of fish and other marine wildlife, and on ecological relationships
in the marine environment;
c) the nature and extent of pollution impacts on fish at the
d) the nature and extent of habitat impacts on fish at the population
e) the impacts of global climate change on marine ecosystems
in general and fish populations specifically;
f) the impacts of aquaculture on coastal and marine ecosystems
and how such impacts can be reduced or eliminated;
g) technological improvements including the development of more
selective gear to reduce or eliminate bycatch; techniques for
reducing waste through spoilage and pest infestation, and the
development of suitable new products to enable shifts from animal
feed to direct human consumption; and
h) further development of a credible process for managing fisheries
in the face of substantial uncertainty. Given that research dollars
for fishery science on the scale required are unlikely to appear
in the near future, scientific uncertainty about fish and the
impacts of fishery management decisions will continue to be a
reality for the forseable future. Managing fisheries in the face
of such uncertainty remains a major challenge.
These are just a few of the areas in need of research.
V. POLICY ISSUES
There are a number of policy issues that need to be addressed
if marine fisheries are to reach their full potential as a source
of food for the world. These policy issues include reducing overcapacity
in the fishing sector, addressing pervasive pollution and habitat
loss in coastal areas, improving fisheries management worldwide,
and addressing population and consumption pressures.
A. Reducing Overcapacity
At its core, the crisis in overfishing stems from the fact
that the world now has a substantial overabundance of fishing
capacity. Industrialized fleets aided by sonar, sophisticated
satellite technology and highly efficient gear are now capable
of fishing out vast areas of the ocean in very short order. The
predictable results of overcapitalized fleets have been overfishing
and depletion of stocks as well as substantial economic losses.
FAO estimates that to rehabilitate fisheries to 1970 abundance
levels and catch rates would require the removal of 23% of the
existing gross weight tonnage of the world's fleet.
Governments worldwide, anxious to preserve employment in fishing
and shipbuilding and ameliorate the economic disruption caused
by overfishing, have subsidized economic losses in the fisheries
sector to the tune of $54 billion a year, according to FAO. Such
subsidies serve to perpetuate overfishing and economic distress
in the fishing sector. Reducing and eventually eliminating these
subsidies as well as fishing capacity generally through boat buybacks
and retraining, is politically painful and unpopular, but essential
if fisheries are to be restored to sustainability. A key concern
is to ensure that measures to reduce overcapacity to not result
in adverse impacts to artisanal fisheries and do not simply shift
overcapacity from one region to another.
B. Environmental Protection
Roughly two thirds of commercially caught marine fish spend
part of their life cycles in coastal waters. Pollution and habitat
destruction in the coastal zone must be addressed if these fisheries
are to be rendered sustainable. Since most marine pollution originates
on land, strategies for cleaning up land-based sources must receive
top priority if economically important marine fisheries are to
be protected. And the threats posed by global climate change
to marine ecosystems and fisheries are sufficiently well understood
to justify taking immediate remedial action.
C. Improvements in Fisheries Management
Major changes are required in the way in which fisheries are
managed by national governments and international fisheries management
organizations. Needed reforms include the following.
1)Precautionary catch levels. A precautionary or "risk
averse" approach to establishing catch levels needs to be
adopted on a wide scale. Currently, allowable catch levels are
often set at or near (and sometimes above) the best available
estimate of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of a particular fish
population, leaving little room for mistakes in estimating MSY
or for natural population fluctuations. This needs to change
so that catch levels include a safety factor of a size commensurate
with the degree of uncertainty regarding the status and productivity
of the resource and its ecological relationship with other species.
In addition, specific numeric thresholds for target species should
be established at which previously determined management actions,
such as catch reductions, area closures, or effort limitations
will be taken automatically. Thresholds should be established
below which moratoria and stock rebuilding plans (discussed below)
will be automatically applied. All such thresholds should be
established with a safety factor that is commensurate with the
degree of uncertainty involved.
2) Bycatch. Gear types that minimize bycatch should be
mandatory. Innovative programs to reduce bycatch and discards,
including incentive programs such as preferential harvest allocations,
are needed to begin to more effectively address the massive waste
and environmental impact of bycatch. Bycatch plans should be
required that evaluate the bycatch of all gear types used in the
fishery and develop estimates of total bycatch of non-target fish,
marine mammals, birds, and turtles for each fishery. As with
"target" populations, bycatch thresholds should be established
below which appropriate seasonal, time and area closures, gear
modifications and other measures to reduce bycatch are automatically
imposed. These bycatch thresholds should be set using a safety
factor that reflects the degree of uncertainty associated with
estimates of bycatch and waste.
3) Ecosystem approach. In addition to direct effects on
marine life like bycatch, fishing can indirectly impact marine
ecosystems by disrupting food chain relationships and other functions
of marine ecosystems. To address this, representative species
of marine life that are either dependent on or associated with
the target fish population should be identified and monitored
to verify that each fishery, by itself and in combination with
other anthropogenic and natural factors, does not cause significant
changes in abundance, population structure or ecosystem function.
As with bycatch, trigger levels should be set below which pre-determined
action such as catch limits or area closures are automatically
imposed to protect dependent and associated species.
4) Monitoring and Enforcement. Effective monitoring and
enforcement are key to effective fisheries management. Technology
and resource needs are particularly acute in developing nations.
5) Recovery plans. The status of important commercial,
subsistence and recreational fish populations should be annually
assessed. For all fisheries classified as overfished or depleted,
recovery plans should be developed and implemented that specify
the actions to be taken to restore populations to a specified
level within a specified period of generally no longer that five
years. Progress toward achieving the goal should be assessed
and reported to all interested parties (including the public and
NGOs) on an annual basis.
6) Environmental impact assessment. An environmental impact
assessment process should be established for evaluating the impact
of new fisheries, expanded fishing levels, new gear or technology
(including processing technology) on target and non-target species
before such new activity is permitted. The burden of proof should
rest on the proponent of the proposed activity to show that the
activity will not harm the target species or the ecosystem of
which it is part.
7) Inadequate information. The absence of adequate scientific
information must not be used as a reason for failing to take action
to protect a resource.
8) Reporting. Timely and accurate information is essential
to effective management. Minimum standards are needed for collecting
and reporting catch and other information, including for bycatch
caught but discarded at sea. "No data/No fishing" requirements
should be imposed so that participants in a fishery that fail
to report catch and bycatch are excluded from the fishery during
the subsequent season.
9) Protected areas. The appropriateness of protected areas,
where no catch is permitted, should be evaluated as a method of
conserving target and non-target populations and implemented as
10) Transparency. Most international fisheries management
operates outside the public eye, which inhibits accountability
for management decisions. Opening fisheries management to the
scrutiny by the public and NGOs is key to improving public accountability
and ultimately fisheries management in general.
D. Population and Consumption Issues
If marine fish are properly managed and fish populations allowed
to rebuild the annual fish catch could be increased by some 20
million tons according to FAO. That is enough to meet the projected
new population-driven demand for food fish by the year 2010 (19
million tons over today's level). But ultimately demand will
outstrip supply unless population growth is limited. Addressing
the issue of population growth is thus a key policy issue for
Consumption patterns also require the attention of policy makers.
Worldwatch estimates that if fish consumption in industrial countries
dropped by 50% (which would still allow adequate supplies for
healthy diets), the supply of fish in developing countries could
jump by almost 50%. This would allow developing countries to
maintain their current per capita supply of fish until 2010 without
other increases in fish supply.
A second consumption issue is the current use of almost one third
of the world's marine fish production for animal feed -- for pets,
livestock and pond raised fish -- and other industrial uses.
Shifting this amount of fish to direct human consumption could
maintain today's per capita consumption until the year 2017; according
to Worldwatch. While there are significant technological and
other hurdles to redirecting this fish to human use, the potential
in this sector merits the attention of policy makers.
Marine fisheries are a vital economic, ecologic, and food resource.
The good news is that most depleted fish populations can bounce
back if pressure on them is reduced and populations are allowed
to rebuild. Rendering these fisheries a sustainable source of
food for the world however will require a large-scale coordinated
effort. Elements of such an effort must include addressing overcapacity
in the fishing industry, improving fisheries management, protecting
crucial habitats, eliminating the massive waste of fish that results
form bycatch and spoilage, redirecting consumption, and limiting
There is some progress to report on the fisheries management front.
The international fisheries treaty adopted at the UN last month
is an important step forward in a number of key areas. Among
other things, the treaty:
- requires the application of a precautionary approach to fisheries
management in a manner that will help prevent overfishing and
trigger recovery measures in depleted fisheries;
- advances the use of selective fishing gear to reduce waste and
bycatch of fish and marine wildlife;
- requires the adoption of plans necessary to conserve non-target
species of fish, marine birds and other marine wildlife that are
inadvertently caught and killed in fishing gear;
- requires nations to protect habitats of special concern and
marine biodiversity generally; and
- establishes important rules governing fisheries conservation
as well as the enforcement of conservation and management measures.
But there is much more to do. The treaty only covers fish that
occur on the high seas, about 20% of the total marine catch.
Individual nations -- including the U.S. -- still need to take
steps to manage their own fisheries more effectively. The treaty
also does not effectively deal with government subsidies or the
need to address overcapacity in the fishing industry. These and
the other issues discussed in this paper await comprehensive action.
FAO, 1994. Marine Fisheries and the Law of the Sea: A Decade of Change. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 853, p. 35.
FAO, 1994. News Release dated 4/13/94, p. 1.
FAO, 1995. The State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture, p. 47.
Meyers, R.A., H.J. Barrowman, J.A. Hutchings, and A.A. Rosenberg. "Population Dynamics of Exploited Fish Stocks at Low Population Levels." Science 269: 1106-1108.
National Marine Fisheries Service, 1993. Our Living Oceans, Table 3.
National Research Council, 1995. Understanding Marine Biodiversity, p.p. 32 and 33.
Weber, Peter, 1994. Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment, Worldwatch Paper #120, page 7, and FAO, 1994, Marine Fisheries, p. 34.
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