World Fisheries: are we managing an effective decline?

Fishing companies are travelling further in search of more productive fishing grounds, but at what cost?
Fishing companies are travelling further in search of more productive fishing grounds, but at what cost?
UNEP says overfishing has destroyed some of the world's most fishing regions
UNEP says overfishing has destroyed some of the world's most fishing regions

With more fishing grounds around the world reaching the point of depletion, are there any productive areas left to fish or are those being over-targeted too? Adrian Tatum reports.

The global fishing industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. Fishing and aquaculture supplied the world-wide market with 148 million tonnes of fish in 2010 with that expected to rise to 154 million tonnes when final figures are released for 2011.

According to FAO’s, The State of Fisheries and Aquaculture report for 2012, with sustained growth in fish production and improved distribution channels, world fish food supply has grown dramatically in the last five decades, with an average growth rate of 3.2% per year in the period 1961-2009, outpacing the increase of 1.7% per year in the world’s population. World per capita food fish supply increased from an average of 9.9kg (live weight equivalent) in the 1960s to 18.4kg in 2009, and preliminary estimates for 2010 point to a further increase in fish consumption to 18.6kg.

In 2009, fish accounted for 16.6% of the world population’s intake of animal protein and 6.5% of all protein consumed. Globally, fish provides about 3.0 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15% of such protein. Differences among developed and developing countries are apparent in the contribution of fish to animal protein intake.

Overall, global capture fisheries production continues to remain stable at about 90 million tones, although there have been some marked changes in catch trends by country, fishing area and species. In the last seven years (2004-2010), landings of all marine species only ranged between 72.1 million and 73.3 million tonnes.

But the question is, as catch volumes still increase year on year; where do fishing businesses go to meet that continuous need to fulfil the demand for more fish, given the state of some of the most popular fishing grounds in the world?

Most productive
The Northwest Pacific is still by far the most productive fishing area. Catch peaks in the Northwest Atlantic, Northeast Atlantic and Northeast Pacific temperate fishing areas were reached many years ago, and total production had declined continuously from the early and mid-2000s, but in 2010 this trend was reversed in all three areas.

As for mainly tropical areas, total catches grew in the Western and Eastern Indian Ocean and in the Western Central Pacific. In contrast, the 2010 production in the Western Central Atlantic decreased, with a reduction in United States 100,000 tonnes, probably mostly attributable to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since 1978, the Eastern Central Pacific has shown a series of fluctuations in capture production with a cycle of about 5-9 years. Both the Mediterranean-Black Sea and the Southwest Atlantic have seen declining catches, with decreases of 15 and 30%, respectively, since 2007. In the Southeast Pacific (excluding anchoveta) and the Southeast Atlantic, both areas where upwelling phenomena occur with strongly varied intensity each year, historical catch trends have been downward in both areas. In the Eastern Central Atlantic, production has increased in the last three years, but there are some reporting inconsistencies for this area.

In contrast, Atlantic cod catches have increased by almost 200,000 tonnes in the last two years. In fact, in 2010, the whole group of gadiform species (cod, hake, haddock, etc.) reversed the negative trend of the previous three years in which it had declined by 2 million tonnes. Preliminary data for this group also report growing catches for 2011. Capture production of other important commercial species groups such as tuna and shrimp remained stable in 2010. The highly variable catches of cephalopods resumed growth after a decrease in 2009 of about 0.8 million tonnes. In the Antarctic areas, interest in fishing for krill resumed, and a catch increase of more than 70% was registered in 2010.

“The problem fishing companies face,” says Irish skipper, Robert Jamerson, “Is they will have to go increasingly further away from their home waters to fish and with that comes investment and risk. With more waters depleted and/or overfished we have no choice but to look for more productive areas to fish but they are becoming increasingly difficult to find.”

Another fishing company, which did not wished to be named in this piece, told World Fishing & Aquaculture that companies would have to invest heavily to target the most productive areas. “And with the tightening of legislation and catch limits in all parts of the world that is not going to be that easy,” says the company.

Rich populations
Namibia still has one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world, despite increased fishing over the past decade. The area is based on the Benguela Current System, one of the four eastern boundary upwelling systems in the world (the others are off North-West Africa, off California and off Peru). These systems support rich populations of fish, which form the basis for the Namibian marine fisheries sector.

Namibia’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)’s commercial biomass contain about 20 different species consisting primarily of small pelagic species (pilchard, anchovy, horse mackerel and mackerel) and lobster along the shallower onshore waters on the continental shelf, as well as large pelagic species including adult mackerel, demersal hake and other deep-sea species (monkfish, sole and crab) in the waters further offshore.

Out of the 20 fish species commercially exploited in Namibia, eight species are regulated through TACs. Resources available in quantity for export are horse mackerel and hake. Namibian horse mackerel is the dominating species in terms of volume in the Namibian waters. It contains only three to 8% body fat, it is both healthy and highly nutritional as well as a vital staple food source for many nations in the region. Hake products are of good quality and increasingly in demand in EU and other international markets for the catering and retail markets.

The orange roughy is another of Namibia’s marine resources. This fish, often referred to as the ‘diamond of the sea’, is a rare, high-priced addition to Namibia’s exports in this sector. Only commercially exploited in 1994, Namibia has become the world’s second largest supplier of orange roughy, however the catches of the species have been small in recent years.

Other marine exports include rock lobster; crab; oysters; monk; tuna; pilchards, seaweed, anchovy, redeye, snoek, sole, kingklip, panga, John dory, angelfish, shark, swordfish, kob, barbel, squid, cardinal fish, Cape guarnard, grenadier, Jacopever, chub mackerel, octopus and mullet.

In 2010, catches in the Southeast Pacific (excluding anchoveta) decreased whereas in the Southeast Atlantic they grew, but examination of historical trends from an earlier period reveals clear downward trajectories in both areas.

Improved evidence over the last few years that the areas around continental shelves are become more important for fisheries but at the same time that has led to overfishing, rapidly eroding away productive areas. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the continental shelves and underwater mountain ranges, so called seamounts, are of immense importance to fisheries. Indeed, over half of the world’s marine landings are associated with ca 7.5% of the oceans, concentrated on the continental shelves.

The subsurface waters where upwellings occur are typically colder, rich in nutrients, and biologically productive. The relation between primary production and coastal upwelling, caused by the divergence of coastal water by land or along-shore blowing winds, is clearly shown in ocean primary production maps. Therefore, good fishing grounds typically are found where upwelling is common. For example, the ecosystems supporting the rich fishing grounds along the west coasts of South America and Africa are maintained by year-round coastal upwelling. However, these systems are affected by changing oceanographic conditions and how they – and the dependent fisheries – will respond to sea temperature change as a consequence of climate change is highly uncertain. These upwelling fishing grounds, especially in South America provide the raw materials for feeds used in intensive animal production and so any decreases in production will have effects on the price of farmed fish, chicken and pork. 

The far largest share of all life in the oceans is in direct contact with or dwells just above the sea floor. Continental shelves and seamounts host – in addition to petroleum and mineral reserves – by far the largest share of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. Technological advances have made continental shelves and shallow seamounts easily accessible to the world’s fishing fleet and to coastal communities all across the planet. However, says UNEP, they are also critically placed in relation to threats from (land-based) pollution, seabed and habitat destruction from dredging, trawling and climate change. With traditional fishing grounds depleted and/or heavily regulated, fisheries are increasingly targeting productive areas and new stocks in deeper waters further offshore, including on and around seamounts, according to UNEP.

Seamounts are common underwater features, numbering perhaps as many as 100,000, that rise 1,000m or more from the seabed without breaking the ocean’s surface, The rugged and varied topography of the seamounts, and their interaction with nutrient-rich currents, creates ideal conditions and numerous niches for marine life. Compared to the surrounding deep-sea plains and plateaus, they are some of the primary biodiversity hotspots in the oceans.

Seamounts can be home to coldwater corals, sponge beds and even hydrothermal vents communities. They provide shelter, feeding, spawning and nursery grounds for thousands of species, including commercial fish. Separated from each other, seamounts act like marine oases, often with distinct species and communities. Some, like the Coral Sea and Tasman seamounts, have endemism rates of 29-34%.

Lucrative target
These unique features make seamounts a lucrative target for fisheries in search of new stocks of deepwater fish and shellfish, including crabs, cod, shrimp, snappers, sharks, Pacific cod, orange roughy, jacks, Patagonian toothfish, porgies, groupers, rockfish, Atka mackerel and sablefish. Knowledge of seamounts and their fauna is still very limited, with only a tiny fraction of them sampled and virtually no data available for seamounts in large areas of the world such as the Indian Ocean. For a short time period, sometimes less than three years, the catches around seamounts can be plentiful. However, without proper control and monitoring, especially in areas beyond national jurisdiction, stocks are exploited unsustainably and collapse rapidly, says UNEP. The reason for this ‘boom and bust’ are the characteristics of many deepwater organisms: unlike their counterparts in traditional, shallow-water fishing grounds, the deepsea fish targeted around seamounts are long-lived, slow to mature and have only a few offspring.

UNEP says lack of good governance, particularly of the high seas, but also in many exclusive economic zones (EEZs) where the primary focus is economic gain, and has resulted in limited flexibility or incentive to shift to ecosystem based management. The potential for climate change to disrupt natural cycles in ocean productivity, adds to the urgency to better manage our oceans. The loss and impoverishment of these highly diverse marine ecosystems on Earth and modification of the marine food chain will have profound effects on life in the seas and human wellbeing in the future.

“Substantial resources need to be allocated to reducing climate and non-climate pressures. Priority needs to be given to protecting substantial areas of the continental shelves. These initiatives are required to build resilience against climate change and to ensure that further collapses in fish stocks are avoided in coming decades,” says the organisation.

“Urgent efforts to control accelerating climate change are needed, but this alone will not be sufficient. A substantially increased focus must be devoted to building and strengthening the resilience of marine ecosystems. Synergistic threats and impacts need to be addressed in a synergistic way, via application of an ecosystem and integrated ocean management approach.”

“Actions for a reduction of coastal pollution, establishment of marine protected areas in deeper waters, protection of seamounts and parts (likely at least 20%) of the continental shelves against bottom trawling and other extractive activity, and stronger regulation of fisheries have all to go hand in hand. Unless these actions are taken immediately, the resilience of most fishing grounds in the world, and their ability to recover, will further diminish. Accelerating climate change and in-action risks an unprecedented, dramatic and wide-spread collapse of marine ecosystems and fisheries within the next decades,” says UNEP.


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