A new study published in Nature Communications, contradicts the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report on the world’s fish stocks for the last 60 years. It shows that the FAO has been severely underestimating the amount of marine life being fished out of the ocean each year. Led by Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us program, the study was a collaborative effort from 50 institutions worldwide who sought to determine how under representative the FAO data truly was. The team reexamined all fishing records from 1950-2010 in order to piece together a more accurate picture of the ocean’s health and state of the world’s fish stocks. What they discovered about overfishing is astonishing.
Though the initial intent of the project was to better understand how fluctuations in seafood catch would affect world food security and the lives of fisherman, the results have allowed a deeper understanding of what is and isn’t working to control overfishing. For instance, the FAO claimed that the peak year for fishing was 1996 where 86 million metric tons of seafood was caught, however it was found that 1996 was the peak year, but yielded 130 million metric tons of catch. To obtain these numbers the team underwent the process of “catch reconstruction” to accurately estimate the amount of seafood caught each year is a grueling process of speaking to local experts and analyzing fishing records worldwide. The gap between the official and reconstructed data is similar for most years, including 2010 where official data reports 77 million metric tons, while the reconstructed data estimates 109 million metric tons was caught.
One of the main factors that has driven this misrepresentation of data is that when countries report “no data” on a region or sector of fisheries this is translated into 0 catch in official FAO reports. Which is not always true in regions where small-scale fishing is more prevalent than large-scale industrial fishing. The second major factor in these miscalculations is the unreported sectors of fishing such as: recreational, discarded bycatch (accidental catch thrown back in the ocean), and illegal fishing. The combination of these factors has led to inaccurate estimates of how much we are actually draining from the ocean each year.
Surprisingly, the trend discovered was that humans are fishing more than the reported values, but the amount caught is decreasing at a higher rate. How can this be? To start, the FAO greatly underestimated how much small-scale fishing operations were contributing to the total catch worldwide. A lead scientist on the project, Pauly, says that, “the fact that we catch far more than we thought is…a positive thing” because it shows that the oceans are more productive and resilient than originally perceived. He also believes that we have a greater worldwide food security, and if we allow stocks to rebuild we will be able to adequately feed the growing human population. Many assumed that this yearly 1.2 million decline was due to stricter fishing quotas and regulations imposed by many nations, however it is due to fisherman completely exhausting one type of fish and then moving onto the next. Not only does it decrease biodiversity, but it will soon leave many fisherman out of business if this trend continues.
Ultimately it highlights that overfishing is only getting worse, and that unsustainable practices, especially from the industrial fishing sector, are going to drive themselves out of business. To maintain an accurate account of the world’s seafood stocks, the researchers recommend that small and large scale fishing operations submit their catch numbers separately. Additionally, it supports the growing theory that if we protect areas of biodiversity the stocks will naturally rebuild themselves, which benefits both the ocean and the people who depend on it.