The chips are down for fish

Homera Cheema

Over-exploitation really could bring about complete depletion of global fish stocks. The immediate threats come from illegal and unregulated fishing, the rise of new industrial fishing capacity and the sheer inefficiency of the best-intentioned conservation policies

The depletion of the world’s fish stocks ranks as one of the greatest threats in the era of globalisation, on a par with the most unsustainable management practices in the extraction of other natural resources. The vast scale of fishing activity currently taking place is highlighted in Charles Clover’s book,The End of the Line (2004), which suggested that the world’s fish stocks could face depletion by 2048.

To check the accuracy of such predictions, the best indicators of stock assessment are in the patterns and projections gathered by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). In its most recent report, the FAO put ‘total capture fisheries production’ at around 80 million tonnes in 2008. Although this figure has been stable for the past decade, the proportion of marine fish stocks estimated to be under-exploited has declined from 40 percent in the mid-1970s to 15 percent in 2008.

As global fishing activity has intensified over recent decades, the numbers of over-exploited, depleted and recovering stocks have exceeded their maximum sustainable yield. Although some stocks can experience a temporary rise in abundance, they do so because of release from predation and competition. Once the stocks in abundance are over-fished, the next species down will be prey to excessive exploitation – a process known as ‘fishing down the web’. Such trends and statistics point to the conclusion that fish stocks are in serious jeopardy.

The issue of depletion is often cited as the most significant change in marine biomass, but it is also important to consider other causes of change. Some projections conclude that climate-induced redistribution of stocks will mean a 40 percent drop in maximum catch potential in the Tropics and a 30-70 percent increase in highlatitude regions such as Alaska and Greenland. The changes to water temperature and ocean currents mean that fisheries are likely to shift towards the High North and deeper water. Some argue that fish harvested from deeper water may assist in the management of stocks by exploiting under-utilised species, but studies show that many deep-water species are less resilient to over-fishing – which should make them new candidates for conservation instead of targets for exploitation.

The process of translating such negative trends into corrective management policies is slow, and compromises often have to be made to the original intentions. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sought to create legal mandatory regulation for the proper management of oceanic space and resources, but it took 12 years (from 1982 to 1994) to gain formal ratification. While creating a division between the High Seas and a series of maritime zones with different rules of jurisdiction, it created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles belonging to each adjacent coastal state. Subsequent policies have sought to deal with the limitations found in UNCLOS, but as yet it is only Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) that have the authority to govern the High Seas – and 67 percent of the fish stocks under RFMO jurisdiction are already depleted or over-fished.

A recent study evaluating the FAO’s 1995 voluntary Code for Responsible Fishing showed that compliance, by the 53 parties to the code, is at best weak. The reluctance and incapacity of states to enforce and implement these measures limits the effectiveness, as does the continuation of a vigorous fishing effort. At the same time, developing countries are fast appropriating new industrial fishing power to match that of the developed world. Fishing fleets from Asian countries more than doubled in size from 1976 to 2000. And, the access to global markets means that developing nations such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and China have become major exporters of fish and fish products.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is one of the biggest challenges to the sustainable management of marine ecosystems and it is estimated to cause losses valued between $10 and $23.5 billion each year, as well as leading to environmental degradation and undermining food supply. These activities seriously hamper the ability of the fisheries sector to meet economic, social and environmental objectives. With 37 percent of the global fish harvest entering international trade, there is a powerful opportunity for trade-based initiatives to counter such activities by banning unregulated products. But this needs to be developed into a regime that is uniform and consistent throughout the RFMOs, without it being used as a tool to make unnecessary restrictions on trade.

One strategy to restore depleted stocks, to enhance productivity by protecting key habitats, and to sustain human communities that depend on the ocean has been the introduction of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The Convention on Biodiversity in 2002 set the target of protecting 10 percent of the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, MPAs cover only 1.3 percent of global marine areas (4.2 million km2), and the goal of creating a network of MPAs seems unlikely since most exist within EEZ jurisdictions. The management of MPAs varies around the world and many issues regarding finance, government control and stakeholder involvement need to be addressed.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, is one solution to preserving fish stocks while addressing food security. Although this may be a viable option in places like Bangladesh, where natural disasters destroy agricultural harvests, the farming of fish like carp provide a meagre but regular income. However, aquaculture cannot be sustained in isolation or independent of species lower down the food chain. For example, it takes 5kg of anchovies to produce 1kg of salmon. As endangered marine species grow in number, many argue that eating smaller fish directly would raise the value of the smaller fish by marketing it for consumption rather than fishmeal.

The choices consumers make in supermarkets are likely to have a direct effect on the marine diversity of oceans and coastal fishing grounds. The Marine Stewardship Council introduced certification schemes of sustainable fish and eco-labelling. This has persuaded retail chains like Walmart to adhere to certification when buying fish, and the fast-food chain McDonalds to use the accreditation process for its white fish.

It is encouraging to note that good progress is being made in reducing exploitation rates and restoring over-fished stocks in areas such as the Newfoundland-Labrador Shelf, the Northeast US Shelf and the Southern Australian Shelf.

However, while MPAs, aquaculture and consumer action are important options in mitigating the effects of over-exploited fish stocks, there are still plenty of reasons for concern – developing nations continue to step up their fishing capacity, unregulated fishing carries on unabated, and the best-intentioned policies remain insufficient and inefficient.

Soufriere Marine Management Area, St Lucia

The Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA) in the Caribbean island of St Lucia is a network of five marine reserves along 11 kilometres of the eastern coast, and was created in 1995 by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), a pan-Caribbean NGO.

Covering 35 percent of the coral reef fishing grounds, the design of the protection scheme was to help rehabilitate the over-exploited reef fishery. The SMMA has won international recognition for its multiple-use design that has found a balanced solution to bringing in revenue from moorings (42 percent of the annual income) while still protecting the reef area and accommodating the traditional fishing communities. A stakeholder committee, consisting of government officials, fishing communities, and representatives of the tourist industry and diving/yachting interests, carries out the management of the SMMA, while a 24-hour monitoring system with patrolling rangers, empowered to make arrests for rule violation, adds to the success of the protection scheme.

Between 1995 and 2001, the reserve tripled the biomass of five exploited fish families. As a bonus, in adjacent nonreserve areas the biomass doubled. Interviews and surveys among the fishing community has revealed positive feedback to the protected multi-use management of the area. The organic and slow creation of the SMMA has allowed it to expand into research and to raise awareness of the benefits of protecting reef areas.

Ibrahim Hyedri fishing community, Sindh, Pakistan

This traditional fishing community located in Ibrahim Hyedri, situated on the Sindh coast and one hour away from the port city of Karachi, faces serious threats to its livelihood because of depleting fish stocks. Overall, 184,000 people depend on the fisheries found on the 1,000-kilometre Arabian Sea in both the Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Since the mid-2000s, the government of Pakistan has liberalised its fisheries regime under the World Trade Organization, to fully exploit pelagic species such as tuna and shrimp. Although the government of Pakistan under international law can sell fishing rights to foreign fleets, the trawlers, which use drag-nets, destroy much of the marine biomass, causing extensive bycatch.

Traditional fishing trips are made in wooden and largely unmechanised boats by groups of fishers who share the catch profits. But in recent times, many fishers claim that there has been a significant reduction in the catch, which means that fuel costs are barely covered. As extensive coastal development takes place and the city of Karachi expands, the quality of the coastal water is declining due to waste from local industries such as tanneries and slaughterhouses. The upshot is that displacement from fishery-based livelihoods takes place with fishers migrating to more urban areas with better chances of employment. Those who stay have resorted to catching small juvenile fish, which are marketed as chicken feed and which further exacerbates the problem of stock recovery.

About the author:

Homera Cheema worked as coordinator for the Commonwealth Fisheries Programme, 2008–2010.


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