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January 21, 2016

The World Has Been Catching A Lot More Seafood Than Previously Estimated

Fishermen in India return home with their catch. Subsistence fishing makes up a substantial fraction of seafood catch in developing countries.


The global seafood catch may be declining three times faster than we originally thought because official records fail to include small-scale fishing, discards and illegal fishing. This is the finding from a new report that says the official estimates reported to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) — that imply global seafood catches are relatively stable — failed to account for a third of the world’s fishing activity during the past 60 years.

The new study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, finds that the total amount of seafood caught globally has been decreasing by an average of 1.22 million metric tons per year since the mid-1990s. This is up from the average decline of 0.38 million metric tons per year reported by the FAO. This suggests that overfishing, not government-set catch limits, has been the primary driver behind the world’s decreasing catches.

The FAO, which relies on self-reported data from member countries, places global peak fish landings at 86 million metric tons in 1996. In contrast, the study indicates that the global seafood catch peaked at 130 million metric tons.

This underestimate means that between 1950 and 2010, the world caught about 50 percent more seafood than was officially reported. This kind of incomplete data poses a major hurdle to countries aiming to enact responsible fishery policies.

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The research, conducted by the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is the first of its kind to estimate global catches from small-scale commercial, subsistence, recreational and illegal fishing, as well as discarded fish, which can form a major fraction of the haul in certain fisheries.

The contributions from small fisheries, particularly in developing nations, can be substantial. “In some island countries, the subsistence catch from women was in fact larger than the commercial catch,” says lead study author Dr. Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia. ”It looks like it doesn’t matter, these women walking across the reef catching octopus and little fish, but it piles up. Very often it exceeds the catch of men.”

For consumers in developed countries, declining catch will mean less wild-caught seafood available at the market, and what’s there can often sell for higher prices. For people in developing nations who consume fish, but who aren’t doing the catching, this may mean the difference between a healthy diet and hunger.

Many rural people depend directly on fish as the most accessible, affordable source of animal protein, one that can be especially rich in micronutrients their diets may otherwise lack. Increasingly, however, the small coastal fisheries that have traditionally fed poor and rural communities are competing with export-oriented industrial fleets.

This is one reason why it matters that official reports to the FAO primarily count catches from industrial fleets. “It is small-scale fisheries that supply food where it is needed,” says Pauly, a member of Oceana’s board of directors. “The foreign, export industries that we talk about all the time very often do not contribute at all to the food security of the countries where they are practiced.”

Not only does this global underreporting harm those who rely on the oceans for food and for their livelihoods, the associated overfishing severely damages ocean ecosystems. In Canada, for instance, stocks of cod, hake and arctic char had already collapsed by the time accurate reporting became commonplace — collapses from which these fish populations are still struggling to recover. In developing nations like the Philippines and Belize, widespread unreported and unregulated fishing exacerbates the risk of future crashes.  

An accurate picture of how much seafood the world’s fisheries catch is vital to rebuild depleted fish stocks and maintain food security around the world. Despite its sobering conclusions, Pauly maintains that his research carries a hopeful message: The oceans are capable of producing a tremendous amount of food, but only if we manage them properly.

The full results for this research are available for free at the Sea Around Us.

Restoring the oceans’ abundance could feed one billion people a healthy seafood meal every day. Oceana works to improve catch reporting around the world and campaigns to end illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Donate to support our work here