03 March 2009

Emptying the Oceans: state of global fisheries and aquaculture

Too many boats and highly effective fishing technologies are wiping out fisheries. This and other bleak situations are outlined in the recent "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA)" report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Harvest of wild fishes maxed out
From SOFIA: Production in capture fisheries has levelled off and is not likely to increase beyond current levels. 19% of major commercial marine fish stocks monitored by FAO are overexploited and 8% are depleted. Around half (52%) rank as fully exploited and are producing catches that are at or close to their maximum sustainable limits.

SOFIA identifies overcapacity — a combination of too many boats and highly effective fishing technologies — as a key problem affecting fisheries today. Progress in tackling this issue has been slow, and "there has been only limited progress in mainstreaming precautionary and ecosystem approaches to fisheries, eliminating bycatch and discards, regulating bottom-trawl fisheries, managing shark fisheries and dealing with illegal fishing."

How bad are things really?

WWF says: "We and many other analysts believe that the real position of the oceans is much, much worse than the gloomy report from Rome this morning as little account of is taken of rampant illegal, unreported and unrecorded fishing.

“Also, in many cases, even legal fishing quotas have no relationship to actual fish stocks. To take possibly the best known example, the legal quota of Mediterranean bluefin tuna is around twice what the scientists recommend and the illegal catch is equal to the already inflated legal quota.”

Fish farms: still not sustainable

From SOFIA: Aquaculture now accounts for 47% of all fish consumed by humans as food. SOFIA questioned the notion that aquaculture would automatically grow to meet demand, saying this sends a "surreptitious message" that no public policies are needed. "Aquaculture-enabling policies are essential for the steady and sustainable growth of the sector."

It is unclear from the FAO data whether fish farms are indirectly putting more pressure on wild stocks. In a parallel report, international fisheries pressure group Oceana charges that by feeding farmed fish with wild-caught species like sardines, which now constitute one third of world fisheries, fish farms are starving larger predators, including tuna, marine mammals and seabirds.

WWF's comments on SOFIA includes "Coastal aquaculture must also stop making inroads into fish habitat such as mangrove areas, it must becomes less polluting and less of a disease risk and it must be carried out without making communities more vulnerable to natural disasters."

Climate change: the wild card

From SOFIA: Climate change is already modifying the distribution of marine and freshwater fishes, altering food webs with unpredictable consequences for fish production.

Fish miles: that exotic fish on your plate is costing the earth

From SOFIA: Fisheries and aquaculture make a minor but significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions during fishing operations and transport, processing and storage of fish. Compared to actual fishing operations, emissions per kilogram of post-harvest aquatic products transported by air are quite high.

What is the human impact of a collapse in fisheries?

From SOFIA: An estimated 43.5 million people are directly involved, either full or part time, in capture fisheries and aquaculture. Most (86%) live in Asia.

Fish provides more than 2.9 billion people with at least 15 percent of their average per capita animal protein intake. It contributes at least 50 percent of total animal protein intake in many small island developing states as well as in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, French Guiana, the Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

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