Updated on April 21, 2016
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), an autonomous agency within the United Nations, is a forum where nations convene to debate and develop policies regarding farming, fishing, and aquaculture. On January 31st, they issued their most recent report regarding global fish consumption. The report included some facts and figures that got my attention and I wanted to share them with you.
The headline of the report reads “Fish consumption reaches all-time high.” This news did not surprise me in and of itself, but the hard data was still impressive: the global average per person fish consumption was 17 kgs, “supplying over three billion people with at least 15% of their average animal protein intake.” (In the U.S., however, the percentage is much less.) This represents an overall increase, due in large part to the growing production of seafood via aquaculture. Indeed, the supply of fish raised on farms is about to surpass the amount caught in the wild. If that’s not the definition of a tipping point, then I don’t know what is. Needless to say, this means that it’s more important than ever to be aware of the environmental impact of different fish-farming methods, consume it judiciously, and to advocate for best practices.
Given the enormous size of the global seafood industry – fish is the most traded commodity in the world – how many people depend on it for their livelihood? According to the report, 45 million work in the seafood industry directly, another 180 million indirectly (i.e., processors, transporters, etc.), and if you include the workers’ families, a full 540 million people depend on some aspect of catching, farming, processing, or distributing fish for their economic wellbeing – in other words, eight percent of the world’s population.
The report included some sobering news: “The overall percentage of exploited, depleted or recovering fish stocks in the world’s oceans has not dropped and is estimated to be slightly higher than in 2006. About 32 percent of the world fish stocks are estimated to be overexploited, depleted or recovering and need to be urgently rebuilt…”
On a more optimistic note, “15 percent of the stock groups monitored by FAO were estimated to be underexploited (three percent) or moderately exploited (12 percent) and therefore able to produce more than their current catches.” Unfortunately, however, this proportion is steadily decreasing over time.
The FAO reported that they examined efforts to control “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” One approach is to use trade measures to block the entry of fish that has been caught illegally. Another proposed approach is to give all vessels a unique vessel identifier that would remain constant regardless of ownership or flag changes (i.e., which nation issues a license to the vessel). In some fisheries, instances of IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) are being addressed aggressively. For example, Blue Ocean Institute recently updated the report for Patagonian Toothfish which shows that only a small percentage is now caught illegally, while a decade ago most of the catch was illegal.
In addition, the FAO report included a special chapter on inland fisheries. Policymakers often overlook the impact on inland fisheries (and those who make their livelihood through both farming fish and catching them there) when drawing up irrigation and hydroelectric plans.
Having taken all of this information into account, the report ultimately recommends an “ecosystem approach” to fisheries – an integrated approach that attempts to balance the need for stewardship of fish stocks and their surrounding ecosystems with the needs of the people who live near and depend upon the fishery.