Exporting the fisheries crisis?

Despite contrasting views of the state of the resources, and an apparent stability in fisheries production and status, our analysis shows a divergence in fishery patterns between developed and developing countries. Acknowledging this disparity and its causality is a first step to implement policies towards ending overfishing at the global level

Go to the profile of Nicolas L Gutierrez
Jun 05, 2017
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Fisheries provide food security, livelihoods, and nutrition to billions of people globally, offering opportunities to reduce hunger, alleviate poverty, generate economic growth and ensure better use of natural resources. On the other hand, fisheries are complex social-ecological systems that require substantial technical and financial resources to be managed sustainably. In many cases, and particularly in developing countries, these resources are scarce, increasing the likelihood of weak management and governance and often leading to overfishing.                                                      

More than 150 countries have committed to achieving sustainable use of marine resources and ending overfishing through the Sustainable Development Goal 14 and particularly target 14.4[1]. However, it is imperative that we first understand where we are with respect to this target, acknowledging the differences in capacities between developed and developing countries.


Artisanal fishery in Uruguay
A typical scene in the coastal fishing villages of Uruguay. Uruguayan fisheries are not an exception among developing countries: most fish stocks are fully exploited as a consequence of a marked increase in fishing effort during the early 1990s followed by a diversification of fishing targets[2] . Photo: Nicolas L. Gutierrez


For instance, how good or bad we are doing in managing our fishery resources has been part of a heated and controversial debate by scientists and academics in recent years[3]. Some argue that our oceans are dying, that fisheries management and governance are deemed unsuccessful, and jellyfish sandwiches is all we can expect in restaurant menus in the near future[4] (2048 precisely![5]). Others argue we have figured out the recipes for sustainable management of fisheries and it is just a matter of replicating and re-adapting these success stories across the world[6],[7].

Outside this academic divide stands the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which provides a biennial authoritative and impartial review of the state of the worlds’ fisheries (known as SOFIA report). In its flagship report, FAO uses several national, regional and global databases together with experts’ information to provide fisheries statistics, including global capture production, consumption, and stock status from 1950 to current times. In the last SOFIA[8], FAO stated that global capture has been stable since late 1980s and the percentage of overfished stocks declined from 1970 to 2008, and stabilizing around 30% thereafter. 


Is this apparent stability in global fish capture and stock status, the need to acknowledge the different realities and capacities in managing fisheries between developing and developed countries, and the incongruent academic views on the state of the fish resources, that spurred the question behind our paper: what can the available data tell us about how we are managing our fisheries in developing countries versus developed countries? How are fishery patterns between these two groups of countries interrelated? And finally, what kind of mechanisms could be implemented to move fisheries towards the zero-overfishing target agreed by the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goal 14?

By analyzing global, publicly available and/or published databases, my co-author Yimin Ye and I gathered country-by-country information on marine fish capture production, fishing capacity, production rate, consumption, seafood international trade, and governance indices. We also used databases on estimated or inferred fish stock status (often measured as the level of current biomass with respect to a sustainable biomass level) as a measure of fish resources sustainability. The main challenges encountered were the coarse level of the available data, and most importantly, the inconsistency across databases that made integration of information difficult.

Using this data, we show that such apparent stability in global production and resource status is masked by a divergence in fishery patterns between developed and developing countries. While developed countries have succeeded, to some extent, to reduce their local fishing capacity and rebuild many fish stocks, developing countries face the opposite situation: fishing capacity and subsequent catches keep increasing, leading to overexploited fish populations with lower production rates. In our analysis, we also show how such fishery divergence is fueled by telecoupled processes, including international seafood trade and distant fishing fleets through bilateral fisheries agreements and private partnerships. To some degree, developed nations are exporting the ‘overfishing’ problem to developing countries; the first to satisfy their need of high quality seafood protein, and the latter to promote economic development.



Diver collecting fisheries data
Peter Halmay, a commercial sea urchin diver in San Diego California measuring sea urchins as part of their community-based data collection program. Improving data is critical for fisheries monitoring and sustainable management. Photo: Nicolas L. Gutierrez

In this context of inequality in management capacities, governance, and economic needs, we suggest potential solutions to help developing countries to transition towards sustainable development of fisheries. These include transfer of knowledge and technology, strengthen of institutional capacity, elimination of harmful subsidies, and creation of a seafood international trading system that promotes both resource sustainability and economic development. Although we recognize some of these mechanisms are already in place or suggested, the strength of our recommendations lay on the policy redundancy, and multi-dimensional and multisectoral approach.

In summary, neither promoting an apocalyptic vision of the world’s oceans nor assuming what is working can be equally applied to all contexts, will truly contribute to solve the global fisheries crisis and achieve the SDG Targets. It is a matter of understanding the local and regional environments (e.g. through data collection and accessibility initiatives) to level the field between developed and developing countries and to design, support and implement effective policies in line with the globalized nature of fisheries.

Our paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution can be found here

[1] Sustainable Development Goal 14. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg14

[2] Horta, S., and Defeo, O. 2012. Fisheries Research 125: 121-128.

[3] Branch 2017. Fisheries controversies. What is the current global status of marine fisheries? Accessed at: https://sites.google.com/a/uw.edu/most-cited-fisheries/controversies/state-of-fisheries

[4] Pauly 2009. Aquacalypse now- the end of fish. New Republic 240: 24-27

[5] Worm et al. 2006. Science 314: 787-790.

[6] Worm et al. 2009. Science 325: 578-585.

[7] Gutierrez et al. 2011. Nature 470: 386-389

[8] FAO 2016. The state of the world fisheries and aquaculture, FAO, Rome.

Go to the profile of Nicolas L Gutierrez

Nicolas L Gutierrez

Fishery Resources Officer , Food and Agricultural Organization

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