About 80% of global fisheries in trouble, says new U.N. report

The U.N. estimates that 53% of global fishstocks are “fully exploited”, and 32% are either overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion, and need to be urgently rebuilt.

The latest numbers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that global fish consumption has reached an all-time high, and, worse, that there’s been no improvement in the level of global fish stocks. That’s according to a comprehensive report released yesterday in Rome, which looked at fishing industry data from 2008.

From the U.N. FAO press release:

The contribution of fish to global diets has reached a record of about 17 kg per person on average, supplying over three billion people with at least 15 percent of their average animal protein intake. This increase is due mainly to the ever-growing production of aquaculture which is set to overtake capture fisheries as a source of food fish

In other words, our appetite for fish, which is on the increase, is increasingly being satisfied by fish farming facilities set up on shorelines, inland lakes, and the like. The U.N. FAO report adds that, today, about 53% of fish stocks are estimated to be “fully exploited”, and 32% are estimated to be either overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion, and need to be urgently rebuilt. Translation: over 80% of the world’s fisheries in terrible shape.

Salmon. Photo by: Redakuma

Meanwhile, the U.N. report acknowledges that people are eating fish because they’re hungry, not because they mean harm to the environment:

65–90 percent of the inland capture fish production takes place in the developing and low-income food-deficit countries. The World Bank’s forecast for 2020 suggests that 826 million people, or 12.8 percent, of developing country citizens will be living on U.S. $1.25 a day or less and that there will be almost 2 billion poor people living at or below the U.S. $2 a day poverty line. The growing population will need significant increases in food production at affordable prices.

In addition, figures show that inland fisheries provide jobs for about 60 million people, especially women, in both developed and developing countries, and “…it is clear that the inland fishery sector involves a tremendous workforce, producing food where it is greatly needed.”

What to do? Sadly, the U.N. doesn’t have a clear idea, and, probably, neither does anyone else.

Fisherman. Image Credit: Ysangkok (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.N.’s focus is on reporting the challenge, itself, but their discussion of the solutions are in extremely general terms:

The future of the inland fishery sector depends very much on responsible development in other sectors. However, also within the sector, changes are needed. Improved fish-processing technologies and investment in post-harvest infrastructure can help reduce post-harvest losses and increase the quality of inland fish and fish products for better market access (as is the case for marine fisheries and aquaculture). Considering the importance of inland fisheries for the rural poor, reduction of fishing pressure where the resources are threatened by overexploitation, although extremely difficult, is often the only option. Ways to reduce the fishing pressure should be developed with all stakeholders involved.

For those of us in the developing world, Dee Boersma, an expert on penguins, has some good and practical advice to share. She says that eating fish is okay, but we should think twice about feeding it to livestock. Boersma said:

One of the big concerns I have for 2011 is the anchovy. We’re harvesting more and more anchovy out of the ocean to feed pigs and chickens in China, and salmon in Norway and Chile and other places. And that’s anchovy that can’t go to penguins. As we take more and more food, that means they’re going to be in poorer condition and have a harder time making a living.

We’re often told here in the U.S. that it’s healthy to include fish in our diets. But the FAO report on global fish consumption, which has reached an all-time high, might be something to think about.

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Beth Lebwohl