World fisheries reach crisis point

The last thirty years have seen a huge increase in man’s exploitation of the world’s fisheries. As the annual catch has escalated far beyond sustainable levels in many areas, we are provided with yet another reminder that capitalism is a huge obstacle to any kind of rational planning.

The Facts

In 1995, the Food and Agricultural Organisation acknowledged that 70% of the world’s fish stocks were “either fully exploited, over-fished, depleted or are rebuilding from previous overfishing.”(1) The Ecologist(2) explained that nine of the world’s seventeen major fishing grounds are now in precipitous decline and four are “fished out” commercially. Scientific American(3) reported that fish stocks have gone past the sustainable threshold in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific.

Industrialisation and the Drive for Profit

Fishing technologies developed rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s and a strong drive towards industrialisation followed. The world catch rose sharply between 1974 and 1989—from 60 million tonnes to—86 million tonnes.(4) In 1992, FAO recorded 16 major fishery species whose global catch had declined more than 50% over the previous 3 decades.

Governments, aware of the potential for short-term profit, have continued to direct huge subsidies towards the large corporations. European Union subsidies, for example, amount to $500 million per year, not including fuel, tariff protection and local government subsidies. In spite of the calls from environmentalists for protection of small scale fishing, development agencies such as the World Bank have

focused primarily on the purchase of equipment, with the major objective being to increase production for export and generate foreign exchange. Traditionally, more than 60% of the total went toward development of large-scale fisheries, including large vessels, fishing harbours, onshore fisheries, technical assistance, and marketing and processing capacities.(5)

The interests of transnational corporations and their worldwide networks of large-scale fleets are now dominant. Yet environmentalists’ anger at this is somewhat misplaced. The development of large-scale trawlers has been an inevitable result of their greater cost-effectiveness. They will usually be more profitable, as can be seen by comparing the incomes of those who work on them:-

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that the crew on the largest boats earn about $15,000 per person annually, while small-scale fishers may take in less than $500 per person per year;(6)

After all, is it the huge fishing trawlers that are to blame for the current crisis, or the economic system that forces them into unceasing competition for profits?


So what about the long term implications of this crisis for marine ecosystems? John Beddington (Professor of Population Biology at Imperial College, London) has argued that

if fishing continues at today’s levels, marine ecosystems will be radically altered, becoming less biologically diverse.” He observes that the top predators (e.g. cod and tuna) are disappearing and that lower organisms are now more dominant. This means a loss of food for higher species, including marine mammals.(7)

This threat to sustainability has also jeopardised long term profitability.

If fish populations were restored and properly managed, about 20 million tonnes could be added to the world’s annual catch.(8)

The Quota ‘Solution’

Quotas involve international agencies setting limits on the fish that may be caught within a certain area. They are favoured by many economists as an attempt to solve the problem of over-fishing, although their history has been one of failure. Quotas, have been around in international law since the 1950s when the concept of ‘maximum sustainable yield’ (MSY) was introduced. This is a conjectural highest amount of fish that can be caught in each season without preventing stocks from regenerating. As can be seen from the current crisis, it is one thing for such common sense principles to exist in legal documents and quite another for them to be enforced.

There are several fundamental problems which have undermined the ‘quotas’ policy within capitalism. Firstly, it is costly to monitor their success and it is not clear that governments are prepared to meet this cost. For example, the British government spent only £19 million/per year on fisheries research—less than 4% of the £500m British annual catch.(9) Lack of data means that we only have sufficient knowledge about the stocks of 39 of the 103 species for which the European Union sets quotas.

Most of the available information about the size of the catch comes from the fishing industry itself—the European Commission, for example, relies on a system of voluntary reporting. It is, of course, in the interests of fishermen to not declare their whole catch. As an example, Scientific American(10) reported that the Canadians found Spanish fishermen faking log books for this very reason.

Agreed quotas tend to be too high anyway, as profits come before the advice of scientists. For example, the European Union member states regularly ignore scientific advice when setting annual quotas. Scientists from the International Council for Exploration of the Seas recommended a 40% cut in 1995 hike catch, while European Union ministers agreed to a mere 5% cut.(11)

Quotas have also created a strong incentive to discard smaller and less valuable fish. This ‘by-catch’ can then be excluded from the official catch so that fishermen can maximise their revenue from a quota. The by-catch, which is of course entirely wasted in terms of meeting human needs, often exceeds the target catch. Annual global discards in commercial fisheries have been conservatively estimated at 27 million tonnes—equivalent to one third of the weight of all reported marine landings in commercial fisheries worldwide.(12)

A famous example of a by-catch were the 400,000 dolphins killed annually by tuna fishers in the Pacific. A dolphin-friendly method was then introduced due to a public outcry and this figure is now down to 50,000. Yet such public anger is all too often followed by half-adequate ‘solutions,’ sufficient only to detract the glare of the media spotlight. The dolphin-friendly method does not protect other species and the by-catch of which has increased sharply as a result of the dolphin-friendly method.(13)

Quotas intensify the need for fishermen to get ahead of the competition as they try to get as large a share as possible of the quota. The quota ceiling will be hit all the more quickly and if it is left unenforced the problem intensifies. Indeed the dependence upon nations to agree to implement quotas has been the major stumbling block. As the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) point out:

If a country does not wish to comply with restrictions imposed by an agreement, it can refuse to participate.(14)

The regional commissions have consistently failed to implement quotas over the past two decades…

Between 1986–92, distant water fleets on the international part of Grand Banks off Canadian coast, removed sixteen times the quotas for cod, flounder and redfish set by NWAFC (North West Atlantic Fishing Commission).(15)

The European Commission Common Fisheries Policy is failing to meet its conservation goals:—75% of their fish stocks are exploited at unsustainably high levels. An European Union survey found European efforts to crack down on illegal fishing by national fleets to be “woefully inadequate. “(16)

Some regions have not established any restrictions. The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, for example, abandoned it’s restrictions in 1977 after three years of failure to implement them. The South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is another which does not set any limit to the catch.(17)

This WCMC report concludes that

no country can be viewed as generally successful in fisheries management. International cooperation has been even harder to come by.(18)

The United Nations Law of the Sea (written in 1982 and finally enforced in 1994) requires states to “maintain harvested species at population levels sufficient to produce an MSY,” accounting for associated and dependent species. Yet the task of enforcing restrictions on fishing remains with the same regional commissions.


The United Nations are facing difficulties implementing their 1990 ban on high seas drift nets, estimated to have tangled 42 million animals annually. Italy, France and Ireland are known to have flouted the ban on nets longer than 2.5 km.(19) While the Italians face a possible trade ban the Italian government protest that the mafia-controlled fleets are beyond their control.


Aquaculture, the farming of fish both inland and in coastal enclosures, is a growing industry and now accounts for approximately 13% of the world’s total fish production (United Nations Environment Programme, 1994–5) It is largely agreed to have compounded the problem of over-fishing rather than representing a solution to it since the industry relies on the catch from wild populations to use as feed. Often, this catch are juvenile and so the capacity for species to reproduce is restricted. Other forms of environmental damage are caused by aquaculture. Construction of pens along the coast often requires ecologically valuable mangroves to be cut down. According to the Worldwatch Institute, aquaculture is one of major reasons why half of the world’s mangroves are now destroyed.

Year 2000 Update

  • In his study, published in the year 2000, Vaclav Smil at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that fishing levels had exceeded sustainable levels, even before the 1990s slowdown in the rate of growth of the global catch. He writes: The only prudent course is then to assume that long-term marine catches should not be boosted above the recent rate of 80–85 million tonnes a year.(21) The total global catch was 87.1 million tonnes in 1986.
  • Annual discards from the world’s fisheries are estimated to range from 17.9 million to 39.5 million tonnes. The F.A.O. estimate is 20 million tonnes, 25% of annual production.(22)
  • Share of global fish supply provided by aquaculture had increased to 20%.(23)
  • Sources:
  • (1) New Scientist, 25/3/95
  • (2) The Ecologist, July 1995
  • (3) Scientific American, November 1995
  • (4) FAO—The State of the World Fisheries
  • (5) State of the World 1996
  • (6) State of the World 1996
  • (7) Nature, 16/3/96
  • (8) Scientific American, November 95
  • (9) New Scientist, 10/2/96
  • (10) Scientific American, November 1995 issue
  • (11) The Ecologist July 1995
  • (12) Scientific American, November 1995
  • (13) Scientific American, November 1995
  • (14) World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • (15) Scientific American, November 1995
  • (16) Permissive EU states allow boats to flout fishing policy, The Guardian, 1996
  • (17) World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • (18) World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • (19) Scientific American, November 1995
  • (20) Feeding the World—V.Smil (M.I.T. Press, 2000.) p172
  • (21) The State of the World’s Fisheries—F.A.O. 1997
  • (22) The State of the World’s Fisheries—F.A.O. 1997 p51
  • (23) The State of the World’s Fisheries—F.A.O. 1997 p10

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