Environment Conventions and agreements

Posted February 1998


Fish and aquatic life

Introduction Crops Plants Animals Forests Fish Soil


This Special is an extract from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (December 1997). The full publication is available in Portable Document Format (PDF)
Oceans, coastal waters and estuaries cover 71% of the earth's surface, but we know relatively little about their biotic wealth. Named terrestrial species outnumber those in marine environments by seven to one [1]. But as recently as 1992 scientists speculated that the deep sea could harbour 10 million species that have not been described and named, a diversity of species rivaling that of lowland tropical forests [2]. Nearly half of all animal phyla are exclusively marine. The most recently identified - a new form of life that dwells on the lips of the Norway lobster - was discovered in 1995 [3].

Freshwater ecosystems cover less than 2% of the earth's surface, and account for about 0.009% of Earth's water - a tiny pool of water that is disproportionately rich and vital to sustain life. An estimated 12% of all animal species and 40% of all recognized fish species (8400 species) inhabit freshwater ecosystems [4]. Worldwide, freshwater ecosystems are imperiled. At least one-fifth of all freshwater fish are already extinct or seriously endangered [5]. Because of these losses, and the extent to which freshwater ecosystems are degraded, R.S.V. Pullin of the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) in the Philippines warns that it is increasingly difficult for fish breeders to locate and collect genetic materials from healthy or relatively undisturbed populations in the wild [6].

Fish genetic resources must be conserved and utilized because they are the key to maintaining the viability of cultured and natural fish populations. They enable species to adapt to environmental change and they provide the opportunity for genetic improvement programs in aquaculture.

Tropical waters are the richest in terms of species diversity [7]. The Indo-West Pacific Ocean, for example, contains an estimated 1,500 species of fish and over 6,000 mollusc species, compared to only 280 fish and 500 mollusc species in the Eastern Atlantic [8]. Brazil claims more than 3,000 freshwater fish species, three times more than any other country [9]. An estimated 40 percent of freshwater fishes in South America have not yet been classified [10]. Thailand may have as many as 1000 species of freshwater fish, but only 475 have actually been documented [11].

Aquatic harvest

Over 75% of the fish consumed by people still comes from the hunting of wild species in natural environments [12]. Aquaculture, which accounts for the remainder of the catch, refers to all types of farming in enclosures such as ponds, tanks, pens, etc., as well as inland culture-based fisheries. Over the past decade, the fastest growing portion of the world fish supply has come from aquaculture [13]. Approximately 85 percent of the global catch is finfish, with shellfish (molluscs and crustacea) accounting for most of the remainder. Numerous other resources such as aquatic plants (seaweeds) and turtles, though important for local economies, account for a small percentage of harvested organisms.

The contribution of aquaculture to world fish production is increasing dramatically, and has offset losses from capture fisheries over the past decade. Fisheries experts believe that future expansion of aquaculture offers the best hope for maintaining per caput fish consumption levels in the future. In 1993, aquaculture accounted for 16 percent of total world production of fish, and 23 percent of food fish supplies [14]. Aquaculture production of freshwater fishes already exceeds that of production from freshwater capture fisheries. Globally, half of all salmon is no longer caught in the wild, but farmed; the same is true of shrimp culture. By contrast, aquaculture supplies only 5% of the total marine fish production. Aquaculture production is heavily concentrated in the South; Asia accounts for 84% of world aquaculture, and China accounts for about half of the total world production.

Importance of fisheries

Fishing, fish processing and fish trading have provided the basis for food security, employment, income and cultural traditions in coastal and inland communities for centuries. Fish contribute substantially to the world food supply, either directly for human consumption, or as feedstuff for livestock (about 28% of the total world catch is used as animal feed) [15]. Worldwide, fish provides about 17% of the animal protein in the human diet. Over 200 million people around the world depend on fishing and related industries for their livelihoods [16].

For millions in the South, fish is often the main source of animal protein. According to FAO, fish provides 29% of the total animal protein consumed by Asians, 19% by Africans and 8% by Latin Americans. Fisheries also provide a significant source of employment: Fisheries Specialist, Brian O'Riordian, of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (UK) estimates that 100 million people in the South, mainly poor people, depend upon small-scale fishing for all or part of their livelihood [17].

Threats to marine biological diversity

The loss and degradation of biodiversity in marine ecosystems has profound implications for food and livelihood security - particularly in the South. In 1990, eminent marine biologists solemnly concluded that "the entire marine realm, from estuaries and coastal waters to the open ocean and the deep sea, is at risk" [18]. Tragically, no place in the ocean is so remote that it has not been marred by human activities - pollutants have even been found on the deep-sea floor [19]. Though fish stocks are a naturally-renewable resource they are being depleted at a non-sustainable rate, and aquatic ecoystems are being destroyed. The marine species and ecosystems suffering most are in coastal waters closest to humankind. Already 66% of the Earth's population lives within 60 km. of coasts, and migration towards these areas is increasing [20]. Inland pollution and other environmentally-degrading activities ultimately affect marine biodiversity because oceans function as a sink for carbon dioxide, eroded soils, contaminants, fertilizers, human and industrial wastes. More than 90% of the global fish catch comes from the 10% of the oceans closest to land. An estimated 44% of all pollution entering the ocean is from runoff and discharges from land (mainly through rivers), 33% from atmospheric pollution, 12% from maritime transportation (oil spills and discharges), 10% from the deliberate dumping of wastes, and 1 percent from offshore mining [21].

Over-exploitation and over-capacity of fisheries, pollution and habitat destruction, and the introduction of exotic species are the primary activities that imperil fish genetic resources worldwide. Both marine and freshwater ecosystems are imperiled; but the following section focuses primarily on marine genetic resources.

Fished beyond limits - overexploitation and overcapacity

FAO's 1995 world fisheries report estimates that 70% of the world's marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, depleted or recovering from overfishing. Since 1989, the global fish catch has stagnated and its quality has declined. Virtually all commercially valuable marine species are overexploited. Of the world's 15 major marine fishing regions, productivity in all but two has fallen. In four of the Atlantic fisheries and one of the Pacific fisheries total output has dropped over 30%. Only the Indian Ocean fisheries are still increasing total output - though these are likely pushing the limit [22]. Declining catches have translated directly into job losses for over 100,000 people in recent years - and now threaten the livelihoods of millions more [23]. With the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery, for example, some 80,000 fishermen and women have gone on welfare [24].

Fueled by huge capital investments, abundant fossil fuels and modern technology, the global fish catch has increased more than four-fold in the past 40 years. The world's industrial fishing fleet has doubled in size since 1970 - from 585,000 to 1,200,000 vessels - and now has twice the capacity needed to bring in the maximum sustainable catch [25]. Experts predict that if Iceland and the European Union cut their fleets by 40%, and Norway by two-thirds, these countries would still catch as much fish as they do today [26]. The over-capacity of industrial fleets is a direct result of government subsidies that underwrite the growth of national fleets. But bigger, high-technology fleets have not proved a sound investment. The FAO estimates that in 1989 government subsidies world-wide amounted to a staggering US$54,000 million - resulting in a catch valued at only $70,000 million [27]. An estimated 46% of the value of all fish landed is required as return on capital invested in industrial fleets [28]. Government subsidies in both the North and the South favor commercial fishers over small-scale, traditional ones. These subsidies not only consolidate fish resources in the hands of the rich and powerful, but they also threaten the future livelihoods of 15 to 21 million small-scale and traditional fishers (90% of all fishers), who are the mainstay of coastal communities worldwide [29].

The threat to marine biodiversity from over-exploitation cannot be measured in extinct species. While no commercially fished marine species is known to have become extinct in modern times, non-sustainable fishing practices have devastasted fish stocks, genetic diversity and marine ecosystems [30]. Experts conclude that "overexploitation not only diminishes species' populations and reduces economic return, but also causes genetic changes in the exploited populations and alters ecological relationships with the species' predators, symbionts, competitors, and prey" [31].

Using costly and sophisticated technologies such as depth-sounding equipment, satellite data and spotter aircraft, high-intensity lamps, 100-metre factory-freezer trawlers, non-selective drift nets, and bottom trawls, industrial fleets are driving some species to the brink of extinction and destroying natural ecosystems in the process. The following are just two examples:

Inefficient and wasteful practices capture fish that are too small, and leave too few capable of reproducing. As a result, stocks are being depleted to the point where they cannot recover. Shrimp trawl fisheries have one of the highest levels of bycatch and discard rates: 70 to 100% of the catch is thrown back into the sea either dead or dying. The FAO estimates that some 27 million tons of fish, or about 25% of all reported marine landings are discarded annually as bycatch [34].

International fish trade: net loss for the poor?

The impact of over-exploitation of fisheries will be felt disproportionately by poor people in the South. The net flow in world fishery trade is from the poorer to the richer countries. No other animal protein source is exported in such massive quantities from South to North. Approximately 38% of all fish landed enters into international trade. In 1993, developing countries accounted for approximately 66% of the global catch, and 49% of the value of world fish trade; the South's export earnings from fish in 1993 amounted to US$20,109 million, out of the world total of US$41,193 million [35]. The South increased its share of exports between 1970 and 1989 from 32 to 47 percent of the world total [36]. The North imported 76% of all fish traded as food on the international market from 1988-1990 [37]. Japan, the European Union and the USA together account for 75% of the total value of world fish imports in 1993 [38].

Increased participation in commercial markets can generate valuable foreign exchange for developing nations. According to FAO, in 1993 the net surplus of the South's exports over imports of all fish traded as a commodity was more than US$11,000 million - exceeding tropical export earnings from coffee, tea, rubber and cacao combined. But global trade driven by market forces can also lead to intense competition and declining catch rates for traditional and small-scale fishers, and less food for protein-deficient people in the South. The combination of rising fish prices due to increasing world demand, and scarcity due to overfishing is making fish unaffordable to increasing numbers of poor people.

In search of sustainable fisheries

If managed correctly, fish can provide a sustainable source of food and livelihood security. FAO estimates that the marine environment could sustainably yield about 100 million tons of fish per year - but only if fisheries are given time to recuperate. Unfortunately, modern fisheries management has been likened to "controlled plunder" because governments are often ill-equipped or lack the political will to define, monitor and enforce regulations. As the Economist magazine put it, "after 18 years of management, overfishing in developed-country waters is worse than ever" [39]. Quotas and licenses tend to concentrate access to fishery resources in the hands of powerful interest groups, and often ignore or disadvantage small-scale and traditional fishers.

New approaches are needed if fishing is to continue to provide food for poor people and sustain livelihoods of coastal communities. A "precautionary approach" to fishery management, which aims to protect fish populations before they crash, is now being discussed in international fora. Action must also be taken to restrict if not ban destructive and wasteful fishing technologies, and to address the industry's excess capacity by phasing out government subsidies.

Who will fish?

Fishing policy can no longer be made without regard for its social impacts. Greater recognition and support of small-scale fisheries and fishing communities is imperative. Peter Weber of the Worldwatch Institute makes a strong argument for public policies in support of small-scale and traditional fishers [40]. Of the world's 15 to 21 million fishers, over 90% are small-scale fishers, who use traditional equipment or operate small, relatively modern boats. This sector of the world's fishing industry has about the same capacity to bring in fish as the 1% (200,000 to 300,000) of fishers who work in large-scale industrial operations. Weber points out that small-scale fishers, who are the mainstay of local communities, offer a number of clear advantages: To catch a given amount of fish, smaller-scale fishermen and women tend to employ more people, produce less waste, require less capital and support a diversity of coastal communities. On the other hand, if governments continue to favor large-scale, industrial-style fishing, millions of small-scale fishers and their communities are at risk, and fish catches will increasingly serve only the affluent.

Reservoirs of hope: traditional knowledge and community-based management

It is widely acknowledged that traditional knowledge of fishers and their community-based management systems hold immense value for sustainable fisheries management [41]. Over thousands of years traditional fishing communities in many parts of the world have evolved numerous social systems - often unwritten - to regulate their fisheries and maintain biological diversity. In Indonesia's Molucca islands, for example, the traditional sasi principles restrict the harvest of various marine species to ensure their survival [42]; traditional systems of reef tenure and harvest management are practised throughout the Pacific Islands. On Borneo's Kapuas River, traditional communities have developed a system for controlling the harvest of valuable red Asian arawana fish [43]. Customary laws may govern who is permitted to fish in what season and in what areas; some stipulate what sort of fish may be caught; others relate to what kind of fishing gear may be used; and still others govern onshore activities such as processsing, net making, and marketing [44]. Today, traditional management systems are increasingly threatened by modern management practices, population pressures, or environmental changes which disrupt social patterns and usurp local control.

If marine genetic resources are to be conserved, the skills, knowledge and needs of traditional fishers must be built upon. Conversely, traditional management systems can gain from the integration of new technologies and practices. Local, community-based control is an indispensable element for sustainable fisheries, which also requires protection of national governments. Increasingly, the concept and practise of "co-management" is being promoted. Co-management refers to a dynamic partnership where NGOs and organizations representing fishing communities participate with the State in running and regulating the coastal commons [45]. While community-based management remains a central feature, the role of the State in managing and regulating fisheries is also essential.

Efforts have also been made to establish management systems which recognize traditional user rights. The governments of Chile, Senegal, and Malaysia, for instance, have recognized the rights of small-scale fishers and have established exclusive "artisanal fishing zones" within coastal areas. In 1989, New Zealand reinforced the traditional fishing rights and legal recognition of the Maori people by passing the Maori Fisheries Act. The Maori people now own 10% of national fish quotas and a 50% stake in New Zealand's biggest fishing company [46]. None of these examples provide perfect solutions, but they demonstrate policy alternatives designed to further the concept of community-based coastal fisheries management.

The International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), based in the Philippines, is tapping traditional knowledge to conserve and utilize fish genetic resources. ICLARM, together with FAO, is assembling a comprehensive database on all of the 24,000 species of cartilaginous and bony fishes in the world. In addition to standard database information, the project will incorporate indigenous knowledge (i.e., common names, traditional management practices, practical or symbolic uses of each species) as a tool to promote research, conservation and utilization of fish species worldwide. FAO and ICLARM deserve credit for their ongoing efforts to include indigenous knowledge in their global database, but they must also take care to protect the rights and knowledge of indigenous communities, and to insure that the information is not commercially exploited without full consent of indigenous peoples.

A new world order for fisheries

Coming to grips with the limits of a finite sea, finding the political will to restructure the global fishing industry and addressing the loss of biodiversity in the global marine and coastal environment, can only be achieved through inter-governmental cooperation and commitment. At the international level, progress has been made in defining problems and setting the course for "a new world order in fisheries." Among the most important institutions and intergovernmental fora are the following:

The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), opened for signature in 1982 and entered into force in November, 1994 establishes the exclusive rights of coastal nations to manage marine resources within 200 miles of their coastline. The concept of "Exclusive Economic Zones," established by UNCLOS, gives coastal states sovereignty over marine resources within their jurisdiction, but does not impose management practices or conservation guidelines.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and its Agenda 21 (Chapter 17 on Oceans) stressed that further measures are required to implement the UNCLOS. Beyond ownership and fishing rights, States also have a duty to manage and conserve aquatic resources for present and future generations. The concept of sustainable fisheries defined at UNCED provided direction for the elaboration of FAO's Code of Conduct on Responsible Fisheries.

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development will conduct a comprehensive review of the Oceans Chapter of Agenda 21 - including living marine resources - in April 1997.

While most people associate the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with terrestrial ecosystems, the legally-binding Convention also covers aquatic biodiversity. At the Second Conference of Parties to the CBD meeting in Jakarta (November, 1995), the spot-light focused on marine and coastal ecosystems, with the adoption of the Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity. The Jakarta Mandate is significant because it is the first time the international community has addressed - in a comprehensive way - the global crisis of marine and coastal biodiversity loss [47]. The Mandate gives governments who are parties to the Convention a checklist of concrete measures that should be taken to fulfill their obligations under the CBD in marine and coastal environments. It also gives policy guidance to international bodies, and sets in motion a three-year process under the CBD to address the most urgent threats to marine and coastal biodiversity.

International Code of Conduct on Responsible Fisheries: Since 1992, FAO has played a key role in drafting a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. The concept of "responsible fishing" embraces sustainable utilization of fisheries resources in harmony with the environment, and the use of capture and aquaculture practices which are not harmful to ecosystems, resources or food quality. The Code of Conduct, ratified by member states at the FAO Conference in October 1995, is voluntary, and focuses mainly on the responsibilities of states with regard to the sustainability of fish resources, technical management measures, conservation and environmental concerns. Many NGOs participating in the process on the Code's development believe that critical issues such as the rights of fishing communities to livelihood and food security, and the importance of traditional knowledge and management systems, are overshadowed by the Code's emphasis on more technical and biological objectives [48]. Still, the Code is the most comprehensive document that exists on fishing related activities, including management and trade.

UN Conference on Straddling and Migratory Fish Stocks expands on the Law of the Sea and complements the Code of Conduct by addressing conservation and management practices in high seas fisheries - those areas outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone under the jurisdiction of coastal States. A final Agreement was opened for signature on 4 December 1995, and will enter into force when ratified by 30 member states. The legally-binding agreement: 1) Spells out principles for a precautionary approach to managing fish stocks both within and beyond the areas under national jurisdiction; 2) Advocates the setting up of subregional and regional fisheries management organizations as a mechanism to ensure that conservation and management measures are adopted and complied with; and, 3) Provides for peaceful settlement of disputes between nations.

UN drift net ban: The so-called "Drift Net Ban" adopted by the UN General Assembly in December, 1989 called for an immediate halt to the expansion of large-scale pelagic drift-nets in all regions of the high seas, and for a moratorium on large-scale drift-net fishing in all ocean regions by 30 June 1992. Though an important step, the UN action amounts to a moratorium on increasing driftnet size under certain conditions. It is not a ban. No UN body (including the FAO) has called for a worldwide blanket ban on "wall of death" driftnets, although some nations now limit the length of drift-nets [49].

ICLARM - The International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management, based in the Philippines, is the CGIAR research centre devoted to aquatic genetic resources and sustainable fisheries management. ICLARM has conducted extensive research on genetic improvement of tilapia, a fish species of special importance to small-scale aquaculture in the South. ICLARM recently formed an International Network on Genetics in Aquaculture (INGA) with a focus on genetic improvement of fish species that are farmed in the South.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - FAO is widely acknowledged for its expertise in world fisheries, for which it has gained considerable credibility and stature. Some NGOs have praised FAO for the way it has involved NGOs in the elaboration of the Code of Conduct on Responsible Fishing, describing the process as "a watershed in relations between NGOs and FAO" [50]. At the FAO World Food Summit in November, 1996 NGO's and peoples' organizations put special emphasis on the need for policies to promote and protect the rights of small-scale and artisanal fishing communities as a strategy for addressing food and livelihood security for the poor.


1. Global Biodiversity Assessment , p. 141.
2. Norse, Elliott A. Global Marine Biological Diversity, Island Press, Washington, 1993, p. 6.
3. "Taxonomy Hits the Jackpot" The Guardian Weekly, Vol. 153, No. 26, (24 Dec. 1995), p. 6.
4. Abramovitz, J.N. "Freshwater Failures: The Crises on Five Continents", World Watch, September/October 1995, p. 28.
5. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 965.
6. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 965.
7. Norse, Elliott A., p. 10.
8. International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), et al. Conserving the World's Biological Diversity, 1990, p. 88. See table 12: "Species Richness in Tropical Waters", source: Vermeij, 1978.
9. Conserving the World's Biological Diversity, p.92, box20.
10. Global Biodiversity Strategy, p. 9
11. Global Biodiversity Strategy, p. 10.
12. Wilson, E.O. The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (US), 1992, p. 298.
13. Weber, Peter. "Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment", Worldwatch Paper 120, 1992, p. 16.
14. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, Rome, 1995, p. 5.
15. FAO, Fishery Statistics, Commodities, Vol. 77, 1993.
16. Weber, Peter, p. 6.
17. Brian O'Riordian of Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) says that there are an estimated 10 million full time fishermen, with an equal number of part time fishermen. With wives, children, extended family and other dependents, there are probably at least 100 million people directly dependent upon small-scale fisheries for a significant part of their livelihoods. Personal communication, Brian O'Riordan, ITDG, Rugby, UK, 26 Feb. 1993.
18. Norse, Elliott A., p. 87.
19. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 394.
20. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 771.
21. Norse, Elliott A., p. 121.
22. Weber, Peter, p. 13.
23. Weber, Peter, p. 6.
24. Cited in David Pimentel, et al, "Environmental and Economic Benefits of Biodiversity," unpublished manuscript, dated April 12, 1996, p. 24.
25. Pollack, Susan. "No More Fish Stories", The Amicus Journal, Spring 1994, p. 29.
26. "The Tragedy of the Oceans", The Economist, 9 March 1994, p. 21.
27. Weber, Peter, p. 29.
28. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, p. 1.
29. Weber, Peter, p. 30.
30. The 24 February 1996 issue of New Scientist reports that the spotted handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus, which lives only in the coastal waters of southern Tasmania, may soon become the first known species of marine fish to become extinct since biological records began. (Anderson, Ian "Stowaway drives fish to brink of extinction," New Scientist, 24 February 1996, p. 4.)
31. Norse, Elliott A, p. 90.
32. Norse, Elliott A, p. 93.
33. Norse, Elliott A, p. 110-111.
34. State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, p. 21.
35. FAO. Fishery Statistics: Catches and Landings, Vol. 76 (1995), and Commodities, Vol. 77. (1993).
36. FAO. Fisheries Circular No. 853, p. 26.
37. O'Riordan, Brian. "Reconciling International Trade with Food Security", DEEP, FAO, Rome, October 1995, p.17.
38. Filhol, Agnes. "Impact of the Uruguay Round on International Fish Trade," FAO, Rome, July, 1995, p. 3.
39. The Economist, 19 March 1994, p. 22.
40. Weber, Peter, p. 27-32.
41. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 960.
42. For background on sasi, see article based on the writings of Eliza Kissya, "Sasi, a traditional Indonesian way of managing fishery resources," in DEEP, published by FAO, October 1995, p. 42-44.
43. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 1039.
44. Thomson, David. "Sustaining Livelihoods in Coastal Fisheries," Appropriate Technology, Vol. 22, No. 2 (September 1995), p. 3.
45. O'Riordan, Brian, p. 18.
46. Thomson, David, p. 4.
47. Information on the Jakarta Mandate comes from the Biodiversity Action Network. Sheldon Cohen and Kate Steen, "User-Friendly Guide to the Jakarta Mandate," February, 1996.
48. "International Fisheries Law", Appropriate Technology, Vol. 22, No. 2 (September 1995), p. 29.
49. "International Fisheries Law", p. 29.
50. "NGOs and FAO" contributed by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, in DEEP, October 1995, p.8.

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