Q&A: Fish counters wade through oceans of data
FAO's collection of fisheries statistics, largest and oldest in the world, marks a milestone
This month FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department marks a milestone with the publication of the 100th volume of its Global Fisheries Statistics Yearbook. The UN agency has been collecting and publishing data on fishing and fisheries for over 60 years, amassing a wealth of information that is simply not available elsewhere. In this Q&A interview, FAO chief of fisheries information and statistics Richard Grainger discusses this work and why it is important in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
Why count fish?
Well, first of all, fisheries statistics involve a lot more than counting fish. We're talking about all sorts of data, ranging from how many fish there are produced in a given area to how many boats are fishing for them to how much of a country's protein consumption comes from fish and living aquatic resources, etc..
OK. But why do it?
This is really about people, not fish. Millions of people around the world depend on fishing and fish farming for food and income. Of particular concern to FAO are those in the developing world, who make up the vast majority -- around 40 million people. Another 100 million are involved in the small-scale post-harvest sector, with millions more working in seasonal or occasional fishing activities. All that activity means a lot of food and jobs for people who often urgently need both.
So, fisheries and aquaculture are important, and we need to manage them well and responsibly in order to make sure that future generations will still be able to rely on them. Collecting and analysing fisheries statistics provides a basis for doing that. Without the statistics, policy and management amounts to taking stabs in the dark.
A lot of numbers. We're talking about oceans of data. FAO is the only repository for global fishing data and regularly collects a wide range of fisheries information from over 200 countries.
We spend a great deal of time making sure countries are measuring the same things in the same way. If one person measures landings of whole “Cornish salmon” in one place and another person fillets of “hake” someplace else, well that doesn't tell us much, even though they are, as it turns out, measuring different products of the same kind of fish. Now imagine this on a global scale across scores of different languages. Some fish have dozens of different names just within the same country or region.
This means international classifications and standardized data submission procedures have to be developed, maintained and improved in order to ensure that the collected statistics are comparable across countries.
Then there's the collection of data. Fisheries statistics are obtained from national reporting offices and, wherever possible, verified from other sources such as regional fishery bodies or field projects. Additional research is often required so that estimates can be produced when data are lacking or unreliable.
Next comes managing the data and making them available, which involves creating databases, undertaking analyses, publishing statistical yearbooks, writing reports, and creating online dissemination systems.
Fisheries statistics would not seem to be controversial, but there are sometimes rows over them, aren't there?
All the time. There are arguments and discussions as different teams compare data and methods, all of them working towards the same goal: getting the best possible picture of the state of world fisheries and aquaculture so that humankind can responsibly manage them. There's a lot at stake, and so discussions about who's got the numbers right and what should be done about them can become heated.
Some of these controversies have centred on the reliability of the information that governments provide to FAO...
Indeed, and there are some valid concerns.
FAO is dependent on countries to be provided with reliable data; to collect them ourselves would be an impossible task. FAO Members have expressed concern about the quality of some sets of fishery statistics and have adopted a strategy to improve them.
We do run the data we receive through a strict quality control process, comparing it to alternative sources of information, past trends, etc., and make the necessary adjustments and corrections whenever called for to ensure that the numbers are as solid as possible. But obviously getting reliable source data in the first place is of paramount importance, particularly for policy-making and management at the national and regional levels.
How do you do that?
Well, one crucial element is to send experts to countries to help bring them up to the state of the art in terms of collection and reporting of data and organization. This is something that FAO is uniquely qualified to be doing, with 60 years in the field and vast experience working in different countries to build local resource management capacity. Starting in 2005 we launched a new project aimed at expanding this work, country by country, region by region.
We also maintain an ongoing international working party that regularly looks at these issues and makes proposals on data collection and reporting. And we vigorously discuss concerns with governments during FAO meetings and conferences as well as in other fora.
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