EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Natural Systems Under Stress: Collapsing Fisheries

After World War II, accelerating population growth and steadily rising incomes drove the demand for seafood upward at a record pace. At the same time, advances in fishing technologies, including huge refrigerated processing ships that enabled trawlers to exploit distant oceans, enabled fishers to respond to the growing world demand.

In response, the oceanic fish catch climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to its historic high of 93 million tons in 1997. This fivefold growth—more than double that of population during this period—raised the wild seafood supply per person worldwide from 7 kilograms in 1950 to a peak of 17 kilograms in 1988. Since then, it has fallen to 14 kilograms. 56

As population grows and as modern food marketing systems give more people access to these products, seafood consumption is growing. Indeed, the human appetite for seafood is outgrowing the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Today 75 percent of fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable capacity. As a result, many are in decline and some have collapsed. In some fisheries, the breeding stocks have been mostly destroyed. 57

A 2003 landmark study by a Canadian-German science team, published in Nature, concluded that 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans had disappeared over the last 50 years. Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist at Canada’s Dalhousie University and lead scientist in this study, says: “From giant blue marlin to mighty blue fin tuna, from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left.” 58

Myers goes on to say, “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.” 59

Fisheries are collapsing throughout the world. The 500-year-old cod fishery of Canada failed in the early 1990s, putting some 40,000 fishers and fish processors out of work. Fisheries off the coast of New England were not far behind. And in Europe, cod fisheries are in decline, approaching a free fall. Like the Canadian cod fishery, the European ones may have been depleted to the point of no return. Countries that fail to meet nature’s deadlines for halting overfishing face fishery decline and collapse. 60

Atlantic stocks of the heavily fished bluefin tuna, where a large specimen headed for Tokyo’s sushi restaurants can bring $50,000, have been cut by a staggering 94 percent. It will take years for such long-lived species to recover, even if fishing were to stop altogether. The harvest of the Caspian Sea sturgeon, source of the world’s most prized caviar, has fallen from a record 27,700 tons in 1977 to 461 tons in 2000. Overfishing, much of it illegal, is responsible for the dramatic drop. 61

Overfishing is not the only threat to the world’s seafood supply. Some 90 percent of fish residing in the ocean rely on coastal wetlands, mangrove swamps, or rivers as spawning areas. Well over half the original area of mangrove forests in tropical and subtropical countries has been lost. The disappearance of coastal wetlands in industrial countries is even greater. In Italy, whose coastal wetlands are the nurseries for many Mediterranean fisheries, the loss is a whopping 95 percent. 62

Damage to coral reefs, breeding grounds for fish in tropical and subtropical waters, is also taking a toll. Between 2000 and 2004, the share of destroyed reefs worldwide expanded from 11 percent to 20 percent. As the reefs deteriorate, so do the fisheries that depend on them. 63

While oceanic fisheries face numerous threats, it is overfishing that directly threatens their survival. Oceanic harvests expanded as new technologies evolved, ranging from sonar for tracking schools of fish to vast driftnets that are collectively long enough to circle the earth many times over.

Commercial fishing is now largely an economics of today versus tomorrow. Governments are seeking to protect tomorrow’s catches by forcing fishers to keep their ships idle; fishing communities are torn between the need for income today versus the future. Ironically, one reason for excess fleet capacity is longstanding government subsidized loans for investing in new boats and fishing gear. 64

Fishing subsidies were based on an unfounded belief that past trends in oceanic harvests could be projected into the future—that past growth meant future growth. The advice of marine biologists, who had long warned that marine harvests would someday reach a limit, was largely ignored. 65

Even among countries accustomed to working together, such as those in the European Union (EU), the challenge of negotiating catch limits at sustainable levels can be difficult. In April 1997, after prolonged negotiations, agreement was reached in Brussels to reduce the fishing capacity of EU fleets by 30 percent for endangered species, such as cod, herring, and sole in the North Sea, and by 20 percent for overfished stocks, such as cod in the Baltic Sea, the bluefin tuna, and swordfish off the Iberian peninsula. The good news was that the EU finally reached agreement on reducing the catch. The bad news was that these cuts were not sufficient to arrest the decline of the region’s fisheries. 66

In January 2001, the EU went further, announcing a complete ban on fishing for cod, haddock, and whiting during the 12-week spring spawning period. With the annual cod catch falling from 300,000 tons during the mid-1980s to 50,000 tons in 2000, this step was a desperate effort to save the fishery. EU officials are all too aware that Canada’s vast Newfoundland cod fishery has not recovered since collapsing in 1992, despite the total ban on fishing imposed then. In December 2002, the European Union adopted a still stronger fisheries management plan. 67

When some fisheries collapse, it puts more pressure on those that remain. Local shortages quickly become global shortages. With restrictions on the catch in overfished EU waters, the heavily subsidized EU fishing fleet has turned to the west coast of Africa, buying licenses to fish off the coasts of Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. They are competing there with fleets from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Russia, and China. For impoverished countries like Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau, income from fishing licenses can account for up to half of government revenue. 68

Unfortunately for the Africans, their fisheries too are collapsing. In Senegal, where local fishers with small boats once could quickly fill their crafts with fish, on many days now they cannot catch enough fish to cover even their fuel costs. As one Senegalese tribal elder said, “Poverty came to Senegal with these fishing agreements.” 69

If the oceans cannot sustain a catch of more than 95 million tons and if world population continues to grow as projected, the oceanic fish catch per person will likely be declining for the foreseeable future. The generation that came of age during World War II saw the fish catch per person double during their lifetimes. Their grandchildren, the children of today, will experience a steady decline in seafood consumption. 70

The bottom line is that the growing worldwide demand for seafood can no longer be satisfied by expanding the oceanic fish catch. If it is to be satisfied, it will be by expanding fish farming. But once fish are put in ponds or cages they have to be fed, further intensifying the pressure on land resources.

 Previous Table of Contents Next


56. Calculations by Earth Policy Institute from FAO, FISHSTAT Plus, electronic database, at www.fao.org/fi/statist/FISOFT/FISHPLUS.asp, updated March 2005; United Nations, op. cit. note 28.

57. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2004 (Rome: 2004), pp. 24, 32.

58. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature, vol. 432 (15 May 2003), pp. 280–83; Charles Crosby, “‘Blue Frontier’ is Decimated,” Dalhousie News, 11 June 2003.

59. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 58; Crosby, op. cit. note 58.

60. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 58.

61. ‑Andrew Revkin, “Tracking the Imperiled Bluefin from Ocean to Sushi Platter,” New York Times, 3 May 2005; Ted Williams, “The Last Bluefin Hunt,” in Valerie Harms et al., The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994), p. 185; Konstantin Volkov, “The Caviar Game Rules,” Reuters-IUCN, 2001.

62. Lauretta Burke et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Coastal Ecosystems (Washington, DC: WRI, 2000), pp. 19, 51; coastal wetland loss in Italy from Brown and Kane, op. cit. note 43, p. 82.

63. Clive Wilkinson, ed., Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 (Townsville, Australia: Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, 2004), p. 9.

64. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD Environmental Outlook (Paris: 2001), pp. 109–20.

65. J. A. Gulland, ed., Fish Resources of the Ocean (Surrey, U.K.: Fishing News Ltd., 1971), an FAO-sponsored publication that estimated that oceanic fisheries would not be able to sustain an annual yield of more than 100 million tons.

66. Caroline Southey, “EU Puts New Curbs on Fishing,” Financial Times, 16 April 1997.

67. Dan Bilefsky, “North Sea’s Cod Grounds to be Closed for 12 Weeks,” Financial Times, 25 January 2001; Paul Brown and Andrew Osborn, “Ban on North Sea Cod Fishing,” Guardian (London), 25 January 2001; Alex Kirby, “UK Cod Fishing ‘Could be Halted,’” BBC News, 6 November 2000; “Reforming the Common Fisheries Policy,” European Union Web site, at europa.eu.int/comm/fisheries/reform /index_ en.htm, viewed 8 October 2003.

68. Diadie Ba, “Senegal, EU Prepare for Fisheries Deal Tussle,” Reuters, 28 May 2001; Charles Clover, The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat (London: Ebury Press, 2004), pp. 37–46.

69. Clover, op. cit. note 68, p. 38.

70. FAO, op. cit. note 56; United Nations, op. cit. note 28.

Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute