Wild Fish Restoration a Global Challenge, UN Report Warns

ROME, Italy, March 7, 2005 (ENS) - Seven of the top 10 marine fish species, accounting for about 30 percent of all capture fisheries production, are fully exploited or overexploited, says the newest edition of a United Nations biennial report, "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture," released today.

Rebuilding depleted wild fish stocks is a "challenging necessity" said the report, issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the same time, the report found, demand for fish will continue to rise.

Starting today, representatives of nearly 50 countries are gathering at FAO's Rome headquarters for the 26th meeting of the FAO Committee on Fisheries, where they will discuss the issues raised in "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture."

The number of people earning an income from direct employment in fisheries and aquaculture increased to about 38 million in 2002, reports the FAO reports.

When economic activity resulting indirectly from fisheries production is accounted for, FAO estimates that the sector supports around 200 million people worldwide.

To restore fish populations, the report recommends decreasing or temporarily stopping fishing in overexploited fisheries, reducing degradation of underwater environments, and actively rehabilitating damaged habitats.


Yellowfin tuna comes aboard during pole and line fishing operation in the tropical ocean. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, are the regions with fish populations in greatest need of recovery, followed by the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic, the Southeast Pacific and the Southern Ocean.

China remains by far the largest producer, with reported fisheries production of 44.3 million metric tons in 2002 - 16.6 million tons from capture fisheries and and 27.7 tons from aquaculture.

According to FAO, there has been a consistent downward trend since the 1950s in the proportion of marine fish stocks with potential for expanded production, coupled with an increase in the proportion classified as overexploited or depleted.

"Stock depletion has implications for food security and economic development, reduces social welfare in countries around the world, and undermines the wellbeing of underwater ecosystems," said Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director general for fisheries.

Currently, only three percent of marine stocks are underexploited, while 21 percent are moderately exploited and could support modest increases in fishing and in harvests, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture says.

The stocks that are overexploited cannot be expected to sustain major increases in catches, and "serious biological and economic drawbacks are likely if fishing capacity for these stocks is further increased," the report warns.

Fifty-two percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, which means they are being fished at their maximum biological productivity. Increased fishing of these stocks would not produce any additional sustainable harvests and would reduce reproduction to dangerously low levels.

The remaining 24 percent are either over-exploited (16 percent), depleted (seven percent), or recovering from depletion (one percent) and need rebuilding. Some of these stocks are already under strict management schemes.

"While recovery of depleted stocks is urgent, it is just as important to avoid depleting still-healthy stocks in the first place by matching fishing efforts to what these stocks are capable of supporting," said Nomura.


Hold of a Peruvian fishing boat full of anchoveta, Engraulis ringens, by far the most captured fish species in the world. 1999. (Photo by Jose Cort courtesy NOAA)
Considering the limited progress achieved in the last decade in this respect, restoring depleted stocks to healthy biomass levels by 2015, a goal set at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, represents "a high-order" challenge, according to the report.

Despite these challenges, global fish production reached a new high of 133 million metric tons in 2002, as a result of expanded production on fish farms, the report states.

The share of world fisheries production attributable to aquaculture increased from 25.8 to 29.9 percent between 1998 and 2002.

During the same period, production from capture fisheries grew by 6.3 percent while aquaculture production increased by 30 percent.

Most of the growth in capture fisheries occurred between 1998 and 1999. Since 2000, capture production has remained generally stable.

However, the fleet sizes of some major fishing nations are shrinking. This has been most pronounced in the EU-15 countries, whose combined fishing fleet decreased from 96,000 vessels in 2000 to 88,701 in 2003.

In 2003, the Russian Federation had the highest fleet capacity measured in gross tons - 24 percent of the total tonnage of the world fishing fleet - followed by Japan and the United States with seven percent each, Spain six percent, Norway 3.5 percent, and Ukraine three percent.


Juvenile cobia, Rachycentron canadum, responding to a feeding pipe in an offshore cage off of the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Snapperfarm)
Aquaculture could account for 39 percent of all fish production in 2015, the report projects.

But growth in aquaculture will not make improvements in current fishing practices and management any less important, says Nomura. "In light of current trends, the continued improvement of management of wild fish stocks is essential," cautioned Mr. Nomura. "Aquaculture may help reduce pressure on capture fisheries by reducing demand for wild fish and lowering prices, but that's only part of the solution."

At the same time as the fish are decreasing human appetite for fish and fish products is growing, the report found. Human consumption of fish increased from 93.6 million metric tons in 1998 to 100.7 in 2002.

Nomura noted that 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, a non-binding instrument that provides a blueprint for responsible fishing practices.

All 188 FAO member states have committed to use the Code to strengthen their own fishing policies and improve international cooperation on fishing management.

"Over the last 10 years we have seen countries and regional fisheries bodies around the world draw on the Code to improve fisheries management," Nomura said. "Much progress has been made, but more still needs to be done during the next 10 years. Ultimately, the only real tangible sign of success will be the clear reversal in the resource trends and related improvements in the situation of fishers."

Read "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture."