Worldwatch Paper #120: Net Loss: Fish, Jobs & the Marine Environment

July 1994
Peter Weber
ISBN: 1-878071-21-1
76 pages

With fisheries policy fiercely debated from the U.S. Congress to the United Nations, "Net Loss: Fish, Jobs & the Marine Environment," examines the ecological, social and economic crisis in world fisheries. Researcher Peter Weber describes a half- century of unsustainable fishing practices, reliance on exploitive technologies, and self-defeating government policies.

"This is a global problem," Weber said, "that has already caused armed confrontations between fishing nations, gunfire between fishers, and hunger in the developing world. If current mismanagement continues, we can expect a future in which millions of fishers are out of work. A future in which major fish consumers -- especially in the developing world -- lose access to their main source of protein. A future in which traditional fishing cultures from Nova Scotia to Malaysia disappear."

After decades of rapid growth, the marine catch has stagnated or fallen in all but two of the world's fifteen major fisheries. Worldwide, the marine catch is down five percent since 1989. For the first time since World War II, the fish catch has failed to stay ahead of population increase.

The current world crisis in marine fisheries is a clear-cut global example of the consequences of violating a principle of sustainability: if we harvest more than nature can replenish, the resource is diminished. It's the same with our bank accounts -- if we live on the capital, we soon run out of money.

The account we are overdrawing is a big one. Marine fish and shellfish provide nearly 6% of the world's protein intake -- and 16% of the animal protein intake. For some 200 million people around the world, especially in coastal and island regions, fishing and fish-related industries are the primary means of support.

But there are positive notes: Weber describes steps that could allow marine fisheries to continue to meet food needs in developing countries for the next 20 to 30 years, as well as maintain cultural diversity and the stability of coastal communities that depend on fishing. Central tenets are rehabilitation of depleted fisheries, environmental protection, and community-based management.

Yet despite success stories, the worldwide picture is bleak:

Declining catches have already cost more than 100,000 jobs in the last few years among the world's 15 to 21 million fishers - - a loss that could reach 9 out of 10 fishing jobs in the coming decades as countries struggle with the great gap between the capacity of the world's fleets and the limits of the oceans.

The cost of fish in local marketplaces worldwide has risen dramatically. Low-income consumers are losing access to affordable fish as supplies tighten and affluent markets attract a larger and larger portion of the world fish supply. For example, in Kerala, India's number one fishing state, prices for shrimp jumped from $50 a ton to $1,300 a ton between 1961 and 1981 because of the rise of commercial fishing. As a result, per person consumption of shrimp and other fishing products fell from 19 kilograms per person to 9.

Social unrest is increasing. Fishers are taking to the streets in Paris to protect their markets. Canada is intercepting foreign fishing boats outside Canada's waters. Honduran shrimp fishers are arming themselves against shrimp farmers in a battle over habitat.

Depletion of fish stocks is now a fact. The once abundant North Atlantic cod may be commercially extinct. Canada has closed its cod fishery to allow the fish to repopulate -- putting 30,000 people out of work. Western Atlantic bluefin tuna are down to only 10% of their former abundance. Now each bluefin commands $270 per kilogram in Japan -- a bounty that only adds to the desire to hunt it down. Oysters in the Chesapeake Bay number 4% of former levels.

Weber identifies three major causes for the decline world fisheries:

Overfishing. The most pervasive problem is that fishers catch more fish than nature can replenish. Too many fisheries are open to all comers, resulting in up to ten times the number of boats necessary to catch the available fish. "Serial overfishing" -- moving from one species to the next as each is depleted -- has become a worldwide problem.

Destructive fishing practices. From shrimp fishers discarding red snapper to "biomass trawlers" scraping the seabed and disturbing entire ecosystems, industry practices range from inefficient to devastating.

Pollution and coastal development. In the Baltic Sea, pollution is not only killing fish, but making it inedible. Destruction of coastal habitat in Indonesia has eliminated 60 to 80 percent of commercially desirable coastal species. In the Black Sea, an accidentally introduced jellyfish-like creature has disrupted the ecosystem and forced the closure of the Azov Sea fishery.

Reversing the decline in marine fishing, Weber shows, will require fundamental changes in an overcrowded industry. Finding the political will to change policies will be hard. Given the overcapacity of the world's fishing fleets, either industrial- style or community-based fishers will pay a heavy price. If countries continue to favor the world's 250,000 large-scale fishers, the 14-20 million small-scale fishers and their communities will be at risk.

But successful fisheries management is possible when national governments provide the legal framework, and fishing communities themselves retain day-to-day decision-making. Japan, for instance, has integrated traditional community-based management with modern fishery science and government regulation. Without combining national oversight with local control, marine fisheries will be depleted not only of fish, but of the social benefits they have long provided.

Weber notes that reducing government subsidies -- which primarily benefit industrial fishers -- could level the playing field and save money. The world marine fish catch in 1989 sold for $70 billion -- but catching the fish cost $124 billion. The difference of $54 billion was the amount of money national governments subsidized this industry out of taxpayers' pockets. In essence, these subsidies pay to deplete the world's supply of fish.