FAO Fisheries Department - Committee on Fisheries
December 1996 COFI/97/2


Twenty-second Session
Rome, Italy 17-20 March 1997


Fisheries and aquaculture, which provide a significant source of food and livelihood for a large number of individuals, are facing a number of fundamental issues. This document reviews those issues which are considered a threat to the long-term sustainability of the sector, focusing on their socio-economic context. In particular, the issues of overfishing, discarding and environmental degradation are considered. The Committee is asked to advise the Fisheries Department on how to prioritize its work on major issues.

1.     Commercial and subsistence fisheries, including aquaculture, have a dual role. They are a source of livelihood and they provide food. Population increase and economic growth will modify these roles in coming decades.

Fisheries as a source of food

2.     As a source of food, the outlook for fish, crustaceans and molluscs is globally good. The main reason is the ease and speed with which aquaculturists in Asia have increased production during the last few years.

3.     Demand for seafood is growing rapidly. By the year 2010, population increase and growth in personal disposable income is likely to have brought worldwide demand - for fish as food - to between 110 and 120 million metric tons (at 1990 prices). In 1995 global supplies of seafood were estimated to have been 80 million t (live weight equivalent). Of these some 53 million came from marine capture fisheries, 6 million from inland capture fisheries and about 21 million from aquaculture (not including aquatic plants). In addition, some 31 million t of marine fish were used for fish meal.

4.     While the production of capture fisheries has been stable at between 85 and 90 million t during the last five years, aquaculture has expanded rapidly and at present is the most likely source of increasing supplies of fish for food. Relatively small increases in supplies are to be expected from capture fisheries. Rather, management, both of the effort and of the aquatic eco-system, must be improved (and this means costs must be incurred) to maintain supplies at present levels.

5.     However, although supplies of seafood may keep pace with demand worldwide this does not necessarily mean that the needs of all consumers will be satisfied. It is conceivable - though not inevitable - that the chronically poor and food insecure will be worse off in the short run as prices would increase and distribution problems might keep seafood, and other protein rich food, out of their reach.

6.     During coming decades, the globalization of the world economy in combination with the likely increase in real price of fish and fish products mean that an increasing proportion of seafood is going to be demanded by, and supplied to, consumers who can afford the higher price. This has potential beneficial effects on the economy of poor exporting countries - as they obtain hard currencies needed to pay for essential imports. The fishing community supplying the exported fish or fish products also benefits, provided that the increased purchasing power is used to supply nutritious food in quantities adequate to replace any reduction in village level availability of seafood or decline in incomes resulting from exports.

Fisheries as a source of livelihood

7.     Capture fisheries are facing a limit. The volume of fish that is harvested from the wild in oceans, lakes and rivers seem to be very close to the upper, sustainable, limit. However, future technological developments may make it economically feasible to harvest species for which now the markets do not pay the costs (e.g., mesopelagic fish and oceanic squids) and modest increases might come from improved management.

8.     As the recent past has amply demonstrated, fishermen do not "opt out" of economic growth. They will continue to do their best to increase productivity (expressed as income) per fisher. Some increase will come through higher real prices, but at least as much will come through higher landings per man. However, as the volumes produced per person increase, the total number of man-years of employment in harvesting an unchanging volume of landings will decrease. It is likely that by the year 2010 employment in capture fisheries will have decreased somewhat globally, while employment in aquaculture will have grown.

9.     This is a problem which, in the mid 1990s, is most evident in fisheries of developed countries. It will, however, become increasingly evident also in developing economies in the years to come.

Threats to fisheries

10.     International public concern with fisheries and aquaculture is focused on features of the sectors which may be seen as threats or remedies to their long-term capacity to provide both food and a source of livelihood. The main threats are:

11.     The first two issues tend to arise typically in the economic and political environment provided by open, market-driven economies. Such economies are generally managed on the understanding that most factors of production are either privately owned, or, if common property, their use is limited. An essential characteristic of most fisheries, and of some aquaculture production systems, is that they make much use of common, non-priced resources, the access to which is not effectively limited. As a result, fishermen and aquaculturists often exploit the commonly held resources beyond what would be efficient in the long run for the community as a whole. In the process, they impose - often unknowingly - costs on others, both inside and outside the fishery sector, including leisure fishers and non-consumptive users of the marine environment. This latter category of users is becoming increasingly vocal in its advocacy that capture fisheries, and aquaculture when relevant, should be made accountable for the costs they impose on others through their impact on the environment.

12.     As management frameworks now applied in the economy - through its price signals - may not, alone, guide fishermen and aquaculturists to economically and socially efficient long-term levels of effort in most fisheries, governments must intervene to provide guidance. This is a difficult task because fishermen and aquaculturists see themselves as being asked to bear the immediate costs, with little prospect of sharing in the long-term benefits; that is, they perceive guidance by government as an attempt to reallocate their income to others.

13.     Outside the fishery sector, the growing awareness of the threats facing fisheries, their resources, and their environment has led to a number of initiatives by civil society aiming at stopping undesirable practices of fisheries especially overexploitation. One of these (the establishment of a "Marine Stewardship Council") builds on the assumption that the promotion of fisheries products certified as coming from sustainably managed and environmentally sound fisheries and aquaculture, may provide some impacts to direct current fisheries practices toward those under better management, locally and globally.

14.     The nations of the world - meeting at the 1995 FAO Conference - adopted the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries as a guidance for achieving efficient, sustainable and responsible fisheries. The progress in implementation of the Code of Conduct is addressed in document COFI/97/3.

15.     Overfishing. Overfishing is not a recent issue. It was recognized internationally already in the early 1890s in the North Atlantic and the Pacific and was the subject of the London Conference on Overfishing in 1946. Subsequently, it has become prevalent in most fishing areas, affecting capture fisheries in developing and developed countries, and often becomes particularly severe in densely populated coastal zones and in productive offshore areas.

16.     There are no simple or cheap solutions to the problem of overfishing. It is increasingly recognized, however, that in wealthy economies hosting capital intensive fisheries, solutions which include market-based strategies for controlling fishermen's effort tend to be more effective than others. Unfortunately, initial effects of government measures to reduce overfishing are essentially negative: some unemployed fishermen, less fish and higher prices. With time, most of these effects would be reversed: more fish, lower prices and stable, economically attractive employment (see also The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: COFI/97/Inf.4).

17.     However difficult it may be, governments must regulate fishing effort. If this is not done more efficiently than at present, global yields of capture fisheries will decline. FAO has estimated that - if management does not improve substantially - annual catches could soon be reduced by 10 million t. Until now, declines in the yield of one stock have been compensated by shifting exploitation to others. This is not possible any longer for high value species. However, some substitution is still possible by shifting effort to low value stocks.

18.     Effective management may also make it possible to increase production from presently overfished resources as these recover, and thereby contribute to an increase in landings. FAO has estimated that better management of the fisheries could yield an additional 10 million t. Thus, within a decade, the difference between the gains which might be achieved through efficient management and the losses which will come from the pursuit of present practices could be of the order of 20 million t of fish landed per year. Therefore it is highly desirable that management know-how and capacity be upgraded and, that regional fishery bodies be strengthened (see document COFI/97/4).

19.     The economic benefits from improved management could be as spectacular. As effort limitations become effective, the use of capital and labour will fall (as will annual costs) more rapidly than will income from the fishery. As stocks recover, revenues will grow in absolute terms. These effects will translate into higher disposable income for those fishers who remain, as well as expanding tax revenues. Worldwide, the order of magnitude of these potential gains (recovery of resource rents) are tens of billions of dollars annually.

20.     Discarding. A large amount of living marine resources are captured/harvested and then thrown back into the sea. The quantitative information available on this phenomenon is incomplete. However, they are likely to amount to no less than the equivalent of 20 to 25 percent of the catch (that is, landings plus discards). The issue of discards is more specifically addressed in Document COFI/97/Inf.7.

21.     Discarding is made up of unwanted or illegal (small size, protected species, damaged or spoiled) fish of both target species and by-catch. By-catch is virtually unavoidable in most fisheries. Discarding causes fishermen costs - sorting and dumping of the discards - and generates no revenues. While improvements in gear selectivity and use have reduced by-catch in many fisheries, and more use is now made of by-catch, this has not eliminated discarding.

22.     Solutions to the problem of discarding can be technological, economic and/or legal and are likely to be a combination of these. Rationalized systems for monitoring, control and surveillance are likely to be a part of the solution (see COFI/97/Inf.6).

23.     Environmental degradation. It is now quite common that the health of aquatic ecosystems in coastal zones are deteriorating. In the coastal zone - as elsewhere - environmental degradation is the result of deficient economic signals to those using the coastal environment. The cost of exploiting the coastal zone (including coastal wetlands) is well below its value to the economy (either in the short or long run), and as a result the coastal zone is overexploited - or overloaded with waste. As the coastal ecosystems constitute essential environments for reproduction and growth of a large number of marine species, the impact of degradation on the volumes of marine resources - including those of commercial importance - is direct and negative.

24.     Nevertheless, those charged with the task of managing commercial capture fisheries on behalf of the State have virtually no control over the state of health of the coastal (or fresh water) ecosystem. The little control they have consists in regulating environmental impacts originating in capture fisheries, but as such impacts are often deemed to be minor, this is seldom a lever important enough to convince other polluters, or users, to change behaviour.

25.     Most aquaculture is exposed to pollution and some modern aquaculture production technologies can - and sometimes do - contribute to environmental degradation. In the developing world particularly aquaculturists who use river or lake water are increasingly confronted with rising levels of pollution as a result of industrialization and population growth. The aquaculture sector is seldom strong enough to extract compensation. Traditional, usually Asian, aquaculture technologies were well integrated in the surrounding biological and social systems. However, this is changing. Economic growth has led to intensification of culture practices. Often this takes the form of substituting artificial feeds for those naturally occurring in the water body. This means that smaller volumes of water and less space are needed. Where the use of these modern systems have not been regulated, they have caused aquatic pollution, which, frequently has boomeranged back on the production units causing considerable losses. The high profits recorded in culture of tropical marine shrimps made it particularly difficult to control this activity, which caused environmental degradation as shrimp ponds were constructed in coastal wetlands. These effects - particularly the clearing of mangroves - have drawn considerable attention and sparked requests for remedial measures, also from consumer groups in shrimp importing countries.

Suggested action by the Committee.

26.     Given the importance of fisheries as a source of food and a source of livelihood, the conflicts which arise over how to solve the issues confronting fisheries can be intense. FAO's major role in this context is that of providing up-to-date and reliable information on, and analysis of, the matters under dispute and to provide professional know-how useful in their resolution. It is suggested that the Committee consider: (i) to which issues the Fisheries Department should give priority; and (ii) for these issues, which type of information and know-how should be generated and provided to, and by, Members.