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1 Fisheries Policy Division, FAO, Viale Terme di Caracalla 00100 Rome, Italy.

Abstract: Growing concern is being expressed world-wide about the impact of excess fishing capacity on the sustainability of many fish stocks and on the socio-economic performances of the fleets and industries concerned. In this connection, statements have been issued on the extent of the problem for world marine fisheries at large. This short document reviews the difficulties and limits associated with assessing excess fishing capacity at world-wide level.


While there is a basic definition of fishing capacity that describes it as the ability of a fleet (and all related inputs) to catch fish, there is still no generally agreed and standardized definition of how capacity should be quantified and measured, particularly for world-wide comparison2. In practice, capacity is often expressed in terms of the key technological or physical characteristics of fishing vessels (e.g. tonnage, power, etc. or combination thereof). It may also be expressed for a vessel or a fleet in terms of yield (catch) or in economic terms (e.g. capital costs). To assess overcapacity one must compare existing capacity to an optimal or desired level (e.g. in terms of catch and corresponding fleet size assuming ‘normal’ use of fishing units)3. Because of the mobile nature of fleet capacity, this comparison may be made at stock, fishery, area, or EEZ level. Capacity and overcapacity can also be determined at global level, lumping all fisheries together, but it should be understood that the higher the level of aggregation, the more questionable the assessment.

2 For further details on definition and measurement of fishing capacity, see previous chapters as well as: “Report of the FAO Technical Working Group on the Management of Fishing Capacity” FAO Fisheries Report No 586. Rome. FAO. 1998.

3 For further details, see Chapter 1.

Reference points may be used to indicate the “optimum” level , e.g. maximum sustainable yield (MSY), maximum sustainable revenue (MSR) or maximum economic yield (MEY) to respectively reflect biological, economic and societal concern about sustainability and economic efficiency. For a specific fishery taken in isolation, if existing capacity is 25% larger than required to catch MEY, the overcapacity will be 25% with respect to this criterion. In order to undertake a world-wide assessment of overcapacity one could use an analytical or a global synthetic approach. For a synthetic approach one would need to use a global model in which all yields and all capacities are lumped together (e.g. in a global surplus production bio-economic model). Alternatively, one could calculate the elementary capacities and overcapacities for each fishery, area, or country of the world, standardise them and account for possible reallocation in order to be able to sum them up in a global estimate. In practice, highly aggregated estimates (e.g. global or regional) are useful only to describe the issue and point to orders of magnitude. For capacity management and reduction purposes, only desegregated estimates are usable. In deciding on the appropriate level of aggregation, consideration should be given to the possibility for capacity to flow (spill over) between fisheries and areas. In this respect, while highly aggregated capacity estimates may be relevant for highly mobile tuna stocks and fisheries, they may not be relevant across fishing areas or fisheries that are too far apart or too different from a technological point of view to allow for any transfer of excess capacity.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that very few countries have undertaken a systematic assessment of their eventual fishing overcapacity, either by segments of the industry, by region or at national level. When they have, as in the European Union, the approach has been quite empirical and based on adding up for the EEZ as a whole and across major fisheries, the estimated portion of redundant inputs, eventually allowing for possible fleet reallocation. This analytic approach requires a joint assessment of fleet size and stock status by major fisheries (broadly defined so as to account for fleet interaction and mobility), as well as the determination of optimal or target reference points with respect to both resource status and catch levels and adequate fleet size to attain them. Unfortunately, in most cases such information is not readily available, preventing an integrated world-wide assessment of existing fishing capacity in analytical terms (fishery by fishery or country by country).

Any attempt to globally assess potential overcapacity has therefore to rely on a more synthetic and simplistic approach, essentially comparing the evolution of total world landings and the evolution of total fishing capacity. Obviously such aggregate figures would have to be qualified to be of any relevance, and at best can only be expected to give some index of the most likely direction in which world fishing capacity might have evolved with time.


A systematic analysis of existing world statistics on landings and fleet size that included some estimation of world fishing overcapacity was undertaken by Garcia and Newton4. The authors used 1989 as reference year because of the availability of global price and cost data for this year in FAO and concluded that at that date:

· With respect to MSY, and excluding from the analysis the 5 main pelagic and low value species, overcapacity was about 30% for major stocks representing about 70% of landings and an even greater percentage of total revenue as these stocks included demersals and most high value species;

· With respect to MSY, there was no apparent overall overcapacity if all stocks were considered globally, including major pelagic stocks; i.e. assuming perfect mobility of fleets amongst stocks;

· With respect to MEY, there was an overall overcapacity of 25 to 53% for all stocks combined;

· The overall MSR had been reached by 1989.

4 Garcia S.M. and C. Newton. 1997. “Current Situation, Trends and Prospects in World Capture Fisheries”, in E.K. PiKitch, E.D.Huppert and M.P. Sissenwine (eds), Global Trends: Fisheries Management (American Fisheries Society Symposium 20. Bethesda, Maryland. USA)
The approach followed by the authors was that of aggregating landings across a large sample of representative stocks and areas, and of relating the evolution of aggregated landings to that of total fishing capacity. This assumed the existence of one global fishery (for the world “global village”) with one global, highly diversified, and mobile fleet (measured in total GRT) targeting one single, complex, resource mosaic (measured in total landings). The procedure and the related assumptions (particularly when all the resources are lumped together) tend to “smooth” the problem, by summing in a non-transparent way, the chronic overcapacity in the exploitation of some major high-value stocks and the undercapacity in the more recent exploitation of low-value pelagic species. Such aggregation obviously masks overcapacity in some fisheries and under capacity in others, and implicitly assumes capacity reallocation amongst fisheries of different nature, thereby understating the problem. This is particularly the case for the global estimate of overcapacity made by Garcia and Newton when aggregating all main resources, which concludes that, overall, there was no GLOBAL overcapacity in 1989 in relation to MSY when, indeed, the same study and other studies by some of the same authors (Grainger and Garcia, 1996) indicate clearly that many elementary components of the world global resource are being overfished.


In May 1998, FAO issued a statement5 calling for a “drastic reduction of at least 30 percent of world fishing capacity” on main high value species. This statement was largely based on the previous work of Garcia and Newton and on FAO’s preliminary assessment of the evolution of fleet and stock status since 1989.

5 Reuters. May 19, 1998.
Since that date, FAO has not recorded a major change in the status of world fisheries resources6 except for the major collapse of cod stocks in the Northwest Atlantic and the El Niño-related changes on the Pacific coast of Latin America. Total landings have continued to increase but at a much slower rate (0.6% for 1994-96 compared with 1.5% per year for 1983-1996). The increase in total landings observed over the last decade essentially reflects increased landings of small pelagics and other low-value species [e.g., Anchoveta, Chilean jack mackerel, largehead hairtail (Trichiurus lepturus); and chub mackerel (Scomber japonicus)].
6 See “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture - 1996” Rome. FAO. 1997 and SOFIA-1998 (in press).
If capacity has not increased significantly since 1989, as indicated below, changes in stock status could eventually reflect shifts in fishing capacity amongst stocks and fisheries. Because of technological constraints, these shifts would essentially occur within the same broadly defined fisheries (e.g. amongst demersal or pelagic fisheries). While it is recognised that the capacity applied to most heavily exploited stocks may have been adjusted through management, it is most likely that overcapacity is still affecting a majority of stocks in spite of increasing management effort. The latest world-wide assessment7 of the state of world resources actually confirms that a large proportion of the main exploited stocks remains overexploited. It shows that of the 200 major fishery resources, 35% are senescent (showing declining yields), 25% are mature (having reached a plateau at a high exploitation level), and 40% are still being developed (catches are still increasing).
7 Grainger R.J.R. and S.M. Garcia. 1996. “Chronicles of Marine Fishery Landings (1950-1994): Trend Analysis and Fisheries Potential” FAO Technical Paper No 359. Rome, FAO.
A recent, but still preliminary, FAO assessment of world fleet size tends to show that fishing capacity, expressed in global terms, has been relatively stable since 1989. FAO has analyzed data from two databases: the Lloyds Register of Ships (fishing vessels over 100 tons) and the more extensive FAO fishing fleet database. The main results are the following:
· FAO fleet statistics show only a slight increase in world fleet size from 1990 to 1995 (around an estimated average of about 1.2 million decked vessels). A similar evolution is observed for non-decked vessels. This is a significant departure from the much higher expansion rates observed up to 1990.8 Average tonnage of decked vessels has also increased slightly over this period.
8 Fleet size for decked vessels increase from 0.6 million vessels in 1970 to: 0.8 million in 1980; 1.0 million in 1985 and 1.2 million vessels in 1990.
· Lloyds data shows a significant decrease in fleet size from about 26000 fishing vessels in 1991 to 22700 in 1997, with very little change in the tonnage per vessel but a net decrease in total tonnage. Once again, this is a significant departure from the evolution of this fleet prior to 1991, as reflected by Lloyds data. The evolution of this fleet is important as it is responsible for a significant portion of total landings.

· The two data sets tend to indicate relative steadiness, albeit with some divergence. This divergence may be partially explained by the evolution of the China fleet. Over the last 15 years, this fleet has undergone an impressive and sustained expansion in number and tonnage. It constitutes now about a third of the global fleet of decked vessels recorded by FAO and largely influences trends indicated by this database. On the other hand, only 1% of the Chinese fleet is recorded in the Lloyds database.

The evolution of the world fleet is a good indication of how global capacity (and overcapacity) may have evolved, in general, and since 1989 in particular. Overall, even if moderate gains in efficiency are considered, actual fishing capacity would appear to have either stayed steady or decreased slightly over the last 10 years - the continuing growth of the Chinese fleet being more or less compensated for by a decrease in the rest of the global world fleet. A further assessment of actual gains in fishing efficiency is required in order to complete this analysis of the evolution of fleet capacity.


The status of fishery resources and the overall fishing capacity deployed to exploit these resources appear to have stabilized over the past decade. In aggregated terms, for all resources combined, landings appear to have reached a plateau. This tend to confirm that, for the known stocks actually being exploited, the maximum level of aggregated world landings may have been reached. Remembering that this level is reached through overexploiting some resources and underexploiting others (which requires specific corrective action, fishery by fishery), the data available to FAO indicate that the level of excess capacity reported in 1989 in reference to MSY (e.g. 30% for high value species and 0% when considering all resources globally) has not changed significantly since. This general statement needs to be qualified by a number of observations:

· The view is that the previous estimate of 30% overcapacity in reference to the point at which MSY was reached in the major high-value stocks, representing about 70% of total landings, is still valid. The production from most of the high-value species, and from demersal stocks in particular, has plateaued since the mid 1970s, reflecting full or overexploitation overall. For these fisheries, improved management - especially in the form of effective control and reduction of fishing effort and fishing capacity - may lead to increased landings. Except for tuna and cephalopods, further growth in total landings observed since that period reflects mostly increased landings of lower value species - a large part of which is reduced to fish meal. The global analysis (by Grainger and Garcia) indicates that some 40% of the world resources, highly productive but of low-value, may still offer room for increased landings. There is, however, uncertainty as to whether the biomass of high-value top predators can be increased by management (reducing the 30% overcapacity) while increasing at the same time the pressure on their preys (to take advantage of the available potential). Adding potential gains from better management of predators to those from higher exploitation rates of their preys leads to a high risk of double counting.

· When considering the world wide zero overcapacity for all fisheries resources combined (over and under exploited), one has to account for the relative lack of mobility of the fleet (e.g. between generally overfished demersal fisheries and often still underdeveloped pelagic fisheries). It follows that, as overcapacity in the first may not easily be shifted to the undercapacity in the second, the overcapacity problem in the first group is more serious than it appears in global assessments. This is indeed illustrated by the fact that an overcapacity of 30% becomes evident when the high value species are considered separately. One can easily suspect that a further degree of desegregation in the analysis would show even higher levels of overcapacity for some stocks (e.g. cods, lobsters) and lower for others (e.g. some tropical coastal demersals). In global terms, the “exact” level of overcapacity for the world fishery (with all the caveats attached to such a concept) would largely depend on the degree to which the excess capacity on the overfished high value species in some regions can be transferred to underfished low value species in the same region or elsewhere. Assuming that part of the 30% overcapacity on high-value species is “transferable”, this value could be considered as a maximum estimate of the world overcapacity. This would not detract, however, from the fact that there may still be room, in many small pelagic fisheries, for precautionary expansion.

· The precautionary principle might require harvest levels to be set below MSY to take into account added unstability and reduced resilience of stocks at this level. Therefore, overcapacity calculated in reference to a more precautionary management target (e.g. F0.1) would be significantly higher than that calculated in reference to MSY. In this respect, this implies that the 30% FAO estimate can be considered a minimum.

· As the global maximum aggregated production for known stocks actually being exploited involves the overfishing of many high value stocks and increased reliance on species of lower value, maximum total landings in value is quite likely to have been reached earlier in the global fishery history. This implies that overcapacity calculated in relation to global Maximum Sustainable Revenue (MSR) would also be somewhat higher than that calculated in relation to global MSY.

· Garcia and Newton estimated that, in 1989, there was a global overcapacity of 25 to 53% with respect to MEY, meaning that important economic gains could have been achieved by a sizeable reduction in fleet capacity. Compared with the situation prevailing at the end of the 1980s, the economic viability of fishing seemed to have improved, reflecting the effects of higher prices and/or increased efficiency.9 Investment cost, however, may have increased significantly because of higher technological requirements, reduced subsidization, and higher entry cost in regulated fisheries (e.g. licence acquisition). Even if one considers that the fleet is globally nearer to economic equilibrium (cost = revenue) than in 1989 - a clear indication of changes in the structure of costs and revenue - previous estimates of overcapacity in reference to MEY have not been updated. These remain nevertheless indicative of the high degree of overcapitalisation in world fisheries.

9 “Economic Viability and sustainability of marine capture fisheries” FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No T 377. FAO; Rome (in press).


The elements presented above indicate how complex the issue is and how difficult the concept and the exact evaluation of global overcapacity can be. These difficulties are compounded by the lack of adequate data. The above analysis is based on what may be considered as the ‘best scientific assessment’ currently available. New assessments by FAO and others can improve our understanding but will require new and more detailed data. Because of the short and long term consequences of any action to adjust fishing capacity to sustainability requirements and socio-economic concern, these analyses should probably be conducted first at the national level and should preferably combine an analytical approach (fishery-by-fishery) and a more global perspective (for the whole fishery sector or by aggregated segments of the industry).

Recently, a document published by WWF10 indicated that the world fleet was globally two and a half times (150%) in excess of what the world stocks could sustain. While any effort to clarify the issue of overcapacity is indeed welcomed, this conclusion is very different from the FAO assessment and implies the need for a much more radical adjustment of fishing capacity, with possibly dramatic social and economic consequences.

10 Gareth Porter. 1998. “Estimating Overcapacity in the Global Fishing Fleet”. World Wildlife Fund.
The rationale of the WWF assessment is that “by 1970” there was already clear evidence of overcapacity in several important fisheries and in the fleets of some countries and that the 150% capacity added to the world fleet since then should be considered as overcapacity (in reference to MSY).

The document contains references to overcapacity in a number of fisheries and countries but does not specifically discuss “evidence of global overcapacity” in 1970 or at any other time. In addition, it is difficult to understand how the world fishery could have been globally overfished in 1970 when total landings have increased by about 50% since then and considering that this increase has happened through expansion of the world fisheries in the South and Eastern Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, and the Antarctic - areas very lightly exploited in 1970 (except for the Peruvian anchoveta). It would seem therefore that the analysis has considered local overcapacity - already rampant in 1970 in the North Pacific, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean - as a sign of global overcapacity over all oceans since that date. In some way, considering that local overfishing events in the Northern hemisphere concern mostly high-value demersals, the report has also implicitly assimilated the overcapacity on this group of species with overcapacity on all species.


The author is grateful for comments and suggestions received from colleagues from the Fisheries Department of FAO: Serge Garcia, Jorge Csirke and Andrew Smith.

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