Home > World in crisis > CRISIS: Overfishing

CRISIS: Overfishing



Picture this… 

“Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering endangered herbivores such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and wildebeest, family groups of warthogs and wild dogs. 

Pregnant females would be swept up and carried along, with only the smallest juveniles able to wriggle through the mesh. 

Picture how the net is constructed, with a huge metal roller attached to the leading edge. This rolling beam smashes and flattens obstructions, flushing creatures into the approaching filaments. 

The effect of dragging a huge iron bar across the savannah is to break off every outcrop and uproot every tree, bush, and flowering plant, stirring columns of birds into the air. Left behind is a strangely bedraggled landscape resembling a harrowed field. 

The industrial hunter gatherers now stop to examine the tangled mess of writhing or dead creatures behind them. There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don’t taste good, or because they are simply too small or too squashed. 

This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by scavengers.” Charles Clover, Author, The End of the Line

Many marine ecologists think that the biggest single threat to marine ecosystems today is overfishing. Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits with devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. Scientists are warning that overfishing results in profound changes in our oceans, perhaps changing them forever. Not to mention our dinner plates, which in future may only feature fish and chips as a rare and expensive delicacy.

The fish don’t stand a chance

More often than not, the fishing industry is given access to fish stocks before the impact of their fishing can be assessed, and regulation of the fishing industry is, in any case, woefully inadequate.

The reality of modern fishing is that the industry is dominated by fishing vessels that far out-match nature’s ability to replenish fish. Giant ships using state-of-the-art fish-finding sonar can pinpoint schools of fish quickly and accurately. The ships are fitted out like giant floating factories – containing fish processing and packing plants, huge freezing systems, and powerful engines to drag enormous fishing gear through the ocean. Put simply: the fish don’t stand a chance.

Ocean life health check

Populations of top predators, a key indicator of ecosystem health, are disappearing at a frightening rate, and 90 percent of the large fish that many of us love to eat, such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder – have been fished out since large scale industrial fishing began in the 1950s. The depletion of these top predator species can cause a shift in entire oceans ecosystems where commercially valuable fish are replaced by smaller, plankton-feeding fish. This century may even see bumper crops of jellyfish replacing the fish consumed by humans.

These changes endanger the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems, and hence threaten the livelihoods of those dependent on the oceans, both now and in the future.


Fisheries collapse

The over-exploitation and mismanagement of fisheries has already led to some spectacular fisheries collapses. The cod fishery off Newfoundland, Canada collapsed in 1992, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs in the industry. The cod stocks in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are now heading the same way and are close to complete collapse.

Instead of trying to find a long-term solution to these problems, the fishing industry’s eyes are turning towards the Pacific – but this is not the answer. Politicians continue to ignore the advice of scientists about how these fisheries should be managed and the need to fish these threatened species in a sustainable way.

1.The world’s marine catch has increased more than four times in the past 40 years — from 18.5 million tons in 1950 to 82.5 million tons by 1992. This staggering growth has resulted in overfishing and wasteful, destructive fishing practices worldwide which now threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people who are vitally dependent on fishing for food and livelihoods. They face resource depletion, competition from industrial and distant water fleets, and loss of access to traditional marine food supplies.

2. Seven out of ten (69%) of the oceans’ commercially targeted marine fish stocks are fished beyond ecologically safe limits, being either fully or heavily exploited, overexploited, depleted, or very slowly recovering from collapse after previous overfishing.

3. One-quarter of the planet’s biological diversity is in danger of extinction within the next 30 years. In the ocean environment, commercial fishing stands as one of the greatest biodiversity threats.

4.Overfishing damages much more than fish populations. Extracting too many fish from an ecosysten can reduce the survival chances of other predators in the marine food web, including populations of marine mammals, seabirds, turtles, sharks and a host of other species. Large-scale commercial fishing is robbing them of their food source — fish.

5. The depletion of food supplies is not the only threat to marine wildlife posed by fishing operations. Many millions of animals other than fish are severely injured or killed each year through deadly interactions with fishing gear. For instance, millions of dolphins have died in Tuna purse seine nets in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean. An estimated 44,000 albatrosses are killed each year by

 Japanese tuna longliners.

6. One-quarter (25%) of all the fish pulled from the sea never make it to market. 27 million tons of unwanted fish catch are thrown back each year on average. Most don’t survive. Twenty seven million tons of wasted fish represent more than half of all fish produced annually from marine capture fisheries for direct human consumption. It is also about equivalent to the predicted shortfall in fish for human consumption expected by the year 2000 (an anticipated shortfall of some 20 to 30 million tons means fish is fast becoming a luxury food only the relatively few can afford!).

7.Since 1970, the worlds fishing fleet has expanded twice as fast as world catches. As a result, excess fishing capacity has reached alarming proportions (for instance, the fishing fleet in China is now around six times the size it was in 1979). Today, there are over three-and-a-half million fishing vessels operating in the world’s oceans, all engaged in a desperate competition over dwindling supplies of fish. Little wonder then that the aggregate global fleet of over a million industrial and semi-industrial vessels has been operating at an annual loss of some $50-billion each year — a collosal loss that is being compensated by government subsidies to vessel owners, and all at taxpayers’ expense.

8.With so many fishing vessels in the world, massive fleets are migrating away from overfished areas and are stalking the planet on a desperate search for less exploited fishing grounds. They are like an invasion armada, disrupting the lives of millions of traditional fishing peoples, especially in less developed countries, destroying fish stocks and eco systems wherever they go.
But coastal peoples are fighting back: Millions of fisherfolk from coastal villages in India have been staging national strikes to overturn the national government’s policy of licensing thousands of these foreign fishing vessels to fish in Indian waters.

9. Fish is an important part of the daily diets in many nations, providing roughly 40 per cent of the protein consumed by nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. For example, over a billion people throughout Asia depend on fish and seafood as their major source of animal protein. Yet, of the approximately 78 million tons produced from marine capture fisheries each year, only 50 million tons is available as food for direct human consumption; the remainder, approximately 28 million tons, is reduced to fishmeal which is fed to livestock such as pigs and poultry, and to other creatures like farmed trout, shrimp and mink for luxury markets. Odd, when we live in a world where a billion people suffer from malnutrition.

10. Worldwide, about 13 million people make all or a major part of their living from fishing. More than 10 million of them work in coastal waters on little boats powered by paddles, sails or sometimes outboard motors, with only a few crew members. Together with their immediate families they comprise some 50 million people directly dependent on fishing for their livelihoods. Another 150 million people are employed on land processing fish and servicing fleets. When the fish go, the jobs do too. In one such calamity, more than 20,000 Canadian fishworkers living in Newfoundland lost their jobs literally overnight when the government banned all fishing for cod in order to protect what remained of badly depleted stocks.

11.Greenpeace is not opposed to commercial fishing. Greenpeace supports ecologically responsible fishing. To achieve this, sweeping institutional, social and economic changes are required. Ecologically safe fishing levels must be set in a precautionary way that takes into account our incomplete understanding about the workings of complex ecosystems. This, and other keystone principles have been brought together in the ” Greenpeace Principles for Ecologically Responsible Fisheries”.



One of the world’s biggest trawl nets could encircle more than a dozen “jumbo jet” Boeing 747 aircraft at its opening. The net’s circumference measures a mammoth 2048mtrs, producing a mouth opening area of 22,900 sq. mtrs. Ships deploying such nets have a capture rate of about ten tons of fish per hour. A modern ‘factory’ super trawler can be longer than a football field and capable of catching and processing into various products up to 200 tons of fish daily. 

Eighty percent of the world’s marine catch is produced by just 20 fishing nations.


Establishment of addittional marine protected ares will support sustainability, and a good guide was produced in 2011 summarising the global MPA position and expansion plans…

NY TIMES 25th January 2012

In Mackerel’s Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse

TALCAHUANO, Chile — Eric Pineda, a dock agent in this old port south of Santiago, peered deep into the Achernar’s hold at a measly 10 tons of jack mackerel — the catch after four days in waters once so rich they filled the 17-meter fishing boat in a few hours.

Mr. Pineda, like everyone here, grew up with the bony, bronze-hued fish they call jurel, which roams in schools in the southern Pacific.

“It’s going fast,” he said as he looked at the 57-foot boat. “We’ve got to fish harder before it’s all gone.” Asked what he would leave his son, he shrugged: “He’ll have to find something else.”

Jack mackerel, rich in oily protein, is manna to a hungry planet, a staple in Africa. Elsewhere, people eat it unaware; much of it is reduced to feed for aquaculture and pigs. It can take more than five kilograms, more than 11 pounds, of jack mackerel to raise a single kilogram of farmed salmon.

Stocks have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than a tenth of that in two decades. The world’s largest trawlers, after depleting other oceans, now head south toward the edge of Antarctica to compete for what is left.

An eight-country investigation of the fishing industry in the southern Pacific by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shows how the fate of the jack mackerel may foretell the progressive collapse of fish stocks in all oceans.

In turn, the fate of this one fish reflects a bigger picture: decades of unchecked global fishing pushed by geopolitical rivalry, greed, corruption, mismanagement and public indifference. Daniel Pauly, an eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, sees jack mackerel in the southern Pacific as an alarming indicator.

“This is the last of the buffaloes,” he said. “When they’re gone, everything will be gone.”

Delegates from at least 20 countries will gather Monday in Santiago for an annual meeting to seek ways to curb the plunder.

The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization was formed in 2006, at the initiative of Australia and New Zealand along with Chile. Its purpose was to protect fish, particularly jack mackerel. But it took almost four years for 14 countries to adopt 45 interim articles aimed at doing that. Only six countries have ratified the agreement.

Meanwhile, industrial fleets bound only by voluntary restraints compete in what amounts to a free-for-all in no man’s water at the bottom of the world. From 2006 through 2011, scientists estimate, jack mackerel stocks declined 63 percent.

The fisheries convention needs eight signatures to be binding, including one South American coastal state. Chile — prominent in getting the group together — has yet to ratify.

The South Pacific fisheries organization decided at the outset that it would assign future yearly quotas for member countries based on the total annual tonnage of vessels each deployed from 2007 to 2009.

To stake claims, fleets hurried south. Chinese trawlers arrived en masse, among others from Asia, Europe and Latin America.

One newcomer was at the time the biggest fishing vessel afloat, the 14,000-ton Atlantic Dawn, built for Irish owners. Parlevliet & Van der Plas of the Netherlands bought it, renaming it the Annelies Ilena. Such “supertrawlers” chase jack mackerel with nets that measure up to 25 meters by 80 meters at the opening. When they are hauled in, fish are pulled into the hold by suction tubes, like giant vacuum cleaners.

Gerard van Balsfoort, president of the Netherlands-based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, which represents nine companies and 25 vessels flagged by states in the European Union, confirmed the obvious: The Dutch, like others, went to mark out territory.

“It was one of the few areas where still you could get free entry,” Mr. van Balsfoort said.

“It looked as though too many vessels would head south, but there was no choice,” he added. “If you were too late in your decision to go there, they could have closed the gate.”

By 2010, the South Pacific fisheries organization tallied 75 vessels fishing in its region.

The mackerel rush also attracted the leading commercial player, the Pacific Andes International Holdings: PacAndes. The company, based in Hong Kong, spent $100 million in 2008 to rebuild a nearly 230-meter, 50,000-ton oil tanker into a floating factory called the Lafayette.

The Russian-flagged Lafayette sucks fish from attendant trawlers with a giant hose and freezes them in blocks. Refrigerated vessels — reefers — carry these to distant ports.

The Lafayette alone has the technical capacity to process 547,000 metric tons a year, if it operated every day.

In September 2011, scientists for the fisheries organization concluded that an annual catch beyond 520,000 metric tons could further deplete jack mackerel stocks.

One of those scientists, Cristian Canales of the Chilean fisheries research center, Instituto de Fomento Pesquero, said a safer limit would be 250,000 metric tons. Some dissenting experts say the only way to restore the fishery is to impose a total ban for five years.

Trachurus murphyi, Chilean jack mackerel, are fished west of Chile and Peru, along a 6,500-kilometer, or 4,100-mile, coastline, to about 120 degrees longitude, halfway to New Zealand.

They range widely in open waters, eating plankton and small organisms, and are food for bigger fish.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that global fishing fleets “are 2.5 times larger than needed.” That estimate was based on a 1998 report; since then, fleets have expanded.

Much of that overcapacity has been driven by government subsidies, particularly in Europe and Asia, experts say.

A landmark report by Rashid Sumaila, along with Dr. Pauly and others at the University of British Columbia, estimated total global subsidies in 2003 — the latest available data — at $25 billion to $29 billion.

From 15 percent to 30 percent of the subsidies went toward paying for ships’ fuel, while another 60 percent went to increase size and upgrade equipment.

The study calculated China’s subsidies at $4.14 billion and Russia’s at $1.48 billion.

A report by the environmental group Greenpeace issued in December 2011 looked hard at the Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, the Netherlands-based group. It found that it had received fuel tax exemptions, mostly from the Dutch government, of between €20.9 million and €78.2 million, or $27.2 million and $101.7 million, from 2006 to 2011.

Mr. van Balsfoort, the president of the group, did not dispute the subsidy numbers but said that fuel tax exemptions were routine in the fishing industry.

Meanwhile, Unimed Glory, a subsidiary of the Greek company Laskaridis Shipping, operates three trawlers in the southern Pacific. They are owned in Greece, a member of the European Union. But, flagged in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, they operate outside the control of Brussels and can catch more jack mackerel than a share of the E.U. quota would allow.

Per Pevik, Unimed Glory’s Norwegian manager, said in an interview that because Vanuatu did not meet E.U. sanitary standards, his fish could not be sold in Europe. Instead he sells jack mackerel to Africa. Asked whether the European authorities objected to his Vanuatu flags, he said, “No, they don’t bother me about that.”

In the southern Pacific, after years of aggressive fishing, industrial fleets find fewer and fewer jack mackerel. E.U.-flagged vessels collectively caught more than 111,000 metric tons of jack mackerel in 2009; the next year, the ships hauled in only 60 percent as much; by last year, vessels reported just 2,261 tons.

Looking back, Mr. van Balsfoort said vessels fished too hard at a time when jack mackerel stocks were on a natural downward cycle. “There was way too big an effort in too short a time,” he said. “The entire fleet,” including the Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, “has to be blamed for it.”

Inside PacAndes

PacAndes’s 50,000 gross ton flagship, the Lafayette, is registered to Investment Company Kredo in Moscow and flies a Russian flag. Kredo — via four other subsidiaries — belongs to China Fishery Group in Singapore, which, in turn, is registered in the Cayman Islands.

China Fishery and Pacific Andes Resources Development belong to Pacific Andes International Holdings, based in Hong Kong but under yet another holding company registered in Bermuda.

PacAndes, which is publicly traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, reports more than 100 subsidiaries under its various branches, but a nearly impenetrable global network includes many more affiliates.

One of its major investors is the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, which purchased $150 million in shares in 2010.

Ng Joo Siang, 52, a jovial Louisiana State University graduate who is hooked on golf, runs PacAndes like the family business it is despite its public listing.

His Malaysian Chinese father moved the family to Hong Kong and started a seafood business in 1986. When the executive board meets in its no-frills conference room overlooking the harbor, the father’s portrait gazes down at his widow, who is chairwoman, his three sons and a daughter.


“My father told me the oceans were limitless,” Mr. Ng said in an interview, “but that was a false signal. We don’t want to damage the resources, to be blamed for damage. I don’t think our shareholders would like it. I don’t think our children would like it very much.”

But he snorted when asked about the limit of 520,000 metric tons for jack mackerel recommended by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization.

“Based on what, on this?” he replied, thrusting a moistened finger into the air as if checking the wind.

“There is no science,” he said. “The S.P.R.F.M.O. has no science. How much money has Vanuatu or Chile or whoever put in to understand about fisheries?”

Chile, in fact, spent $10.5 million in 2011 on Instituto de Fomento Pesquero — one-fourth of its fisheries budget. In the intrigues of fish politics, PacAndes sides with Peru, where it operates 32 vessels and has a share of the anchoveta quota, an anchovy-sized sardine and crucial source of fishmeal for aquaculture.

Power Plays in Chile and Peru

The jack mackerel crisis has hit hardest in Chile, where industry leaders and the authorities admit to serious excesses during the unregulated years in what they call “the Olympic race.”

In 1995 alone, Chileans fished more than four million tons. That is eight times the amount S.P.R.F.M.O. scientists said could be landed in a sustainable way in 2012. From 2000 to 2010, Chile landed 72 percent of all jack mackerel in the southern Pacific.

“The slaughter was tremendous, unbelievable,” said Juan Vilches, who scouts fish for a large company. “No one had any idea of limits,” he added. “Hundreds of tons were thrown overboard if nets came up too full for the hold. Boats came in so loaded that fish were squashed, their blood so hot it actually boiled.”

Reporters and staff of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, working with the Chilean investigative journalism center Ciper, traced how eight groups with a near monopoly had pressured the Chilean government to set quotas above scientific advice. Six of these groups are controlled by powerful families. And, together, the eight of them own rights to 87 percent of Chile’s jack mackerel catch.

Eduardo Tarifeño, a marine biologist at the University of Concepción, said that Chile now had only sardines in relative abundance.

“We have no more jack mackerel or hake or anchoveta,” he said. “Fisheries that produced a million or more tons a year have simply run out from overfishing by big companies.”

He added: “If we don’t save jack mackerel today, we won’t be able to do it later. We need a total ban for at least five years.”

At the fisheries secretariat in Valparaiso, Italo Campodonico said: “As a marine biologist, I have to agree. We should have a five-year ban. But as a civil servant, I must be realistic. For economic and social reasons, it won’t happen. Outsiders can go fish in other waters. We can’t.”

Peru is the world’s second-largest fishing nation after China. Its biggest port, Chimbote, lands more fish than the entire Spanish fleet catches in a year.

Here the issue is not just the overfishing of jack mackerel but also anchoveta.

While fishmeal exports are big business in Chile — about $535 million annually — in Peru they are three times as big: $1.6 billion a year.

Working with the investigative reporting group IDL-Reporteros in Lima, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained records from the official database of catches. Analysis of more than 100,000 weighing records from 2009 to the first half of 2011 found that most of Peru’s fishmeal companies systematically cheated on half of the landings — in some cases, underreporting catches by 50 percent.

In all, at least 630,000 metric tons of anchoveta — worth nearly $200 million in fishmeal — “vanished” in the weighing process over two and a half years.

Saving Fish or Industry?

Roberto Cesari, the European Union’s chief envoy to the S.P.R.F.M.O., which meets next week, said he expected ratification of its conditions only in 2013 — seven years into precipitous decline for jack mackerel.

The S.P.R.F.M.O. cut voluntary quotas 40 percent for 2011, but China, among others, opted out. Beijing later agreed to reduce by 30 percent.

Mr. Cesari said the European Union tries to exert pressure, but its clout is limited. China and Russia, he noted, “are giants.”

Bill Mansfield, a New Zealand international lawyer who has chaired the S.P.R.F.M.O. since 2006, said that voluntary restraints had not protected fish stocks and that it was time to put the convention into force. The Santiago meeting must limit the 2012 catch to 390,000 metric tons or less, he said.

Martini Gotje, a Dutch expatriate who was a crew member aboard the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior when French agents sank it in Auckland harbor in 1985, works from the idyllic island of Waiheke, near Auckland. Like other activists, he mostly faults overcapacity — legal and yet devastating.

The first priority, he said, should be saving fish, not the fishing industry. “The Lafayette raised the game to an incredible level, and Holland is very much involved,” he said. “There are way too many boats, just simply way too many boats.”

In the end, argues Dr. Pauly, the oceanographer, this global trend will not change unless a major power — the European Union or the United States — takes firm action. “Somebody has to take the high ground,” he said, “and others will follow.”

This article was supported by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists,an independent network of investigative reporters who collaborate on cross-border stories. It is a project of The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization. Milagros Salazar (Peru), Juan Pablo Figueroa Lasch (Chile) and Irene Jay Liu (Hong Kong) contributed to this report.

Friday was the last day of the World Oceans Summit hosted by The Economist here in Singapore.  One certainly expects a pro-business stand, or a capitalist markets solution orientation, from The Economist. While that frame can sometimes seem a little narrow, there has thankfully been a robust focus on fisheries.  Wild-caught fish capture peaked at 96 million tons in 1988.  Since then has only remained semi-stable in volume by fishing down the food chain (successively targeting less desirable fish) and too often, by following the motto “fish ‘til its gone, then move on.”

“We are hunting down large fish the same way we did our terrestrial animals,” said Geoff Carr, Science Editor for The Economist.  So right now, fish populations are in deep trouble in four ways:

1) We are taking too many out for them to maintain population, much less regrow them;
2) Many of the ones we are taking out represent either the biggest (and therefore most fertile) or the smallest (and the key to our future); and
3) The ways in which we capture, process, and transport fish are destructive from the ocean floor to the high tide line.  It is no surprise that the ocean’s life systems are thrown out of balance as a result.
4) We still manage fish populations and think of fish as crops that grow in the oceans that we simply harvest. In fact, we are learning more and more how fish are integral parts of ocean ecosystems and removing them means we’re removing part of the ecosystem. This is causing significant changes to the way marine ecosystems function.

So, we need to talk about fisheries if we are going to talk about saving the ocean.  And where better to talk about it than in a place where the risk and threats are being recognized both as a conservation issue and a business issue . . . an Economist conference.

Sadly, it is well established that industrial/commercial harvesting of wild fish may not be sustainable environmentally:

– We cannot harvest wild animals at a scale for global human consumption (on land or from the sea)
– We cannot eat the apex predators and expect the systems to stay in balance
– A recent report says our unassessed and least known fisheries are the most damaged and gravely depleted, which, given the news from our well-known fisheries…
– Collapse of fisheries is on the rise, and the once collapsed, fisheries do not necessarily recover
– Most small-scale sustainable fisheries are near areas of population growth, so it is only a matter of time until they are at risk of overexploitation
– Demand for fish protein is growing faster than wild seafood populations can sustain it
– Climate change is effecting weather patterns and fish migration
– Ocean acidification endangers the primary food sources for fish, shellfish production, and vulnerable habitat such as the coral reef systems that serve as home for at least part of the lives of nearly half of the world’s fish.
– Effective governance of wild fisheries depends on some strong non-industry voices, and the industry, has, understandably played a dominant role in fishery management decisions.

Nor is the industry very healthy or sustainable:
– Our wild catch is already over-exploited and the industry over-capitalized (too many boats chasing fewer fish)
– Large-scale commercial fisheries are not financially viable without government subsidies for fuel, shipbuilding, and other industry components;
–These subsidies, which have been recently under serious scrutiny at the World Trade Organization, create an economic incentive to destroy our ocean’s natural capital; i.e. they currently work against sustainability;
– Fuel and other costs are rising, along with sea level, which affects the infrastructure for fishing fleets;
– The wild-caught fish industry faces a radically more competitive arena, beyond regulation, where the markets require higher standards, quality, and tracking of product
– Competition from aquaculture is significant and growing.  Aquaculture already captures more than half of the global seafood market, and nearshore aquaculture is set to double, even as more sustainable onshore technologies are being developed that address the challenges of disease, water pollution and coastal habitat destruction.
– And, it must face these changes and challenges with rusting infrastructure, too many steps in its supply chain (with risk of waste at each stage), and all with a perishable product that needs refrigeration, speedy transport, and clean processing.

If you are a bank looking to reduce risk in your loan portfolio, or an insurance company looking for lower risk businesses to insure, you are going to increasingly be shying away from the cost, climate, and accident risks inherent in wild fisheries and enticed by aquaculture/mariculture as a better alternative.

Food Security Instead
During the meeting, there were a few well-timed moments to remind the sponsors and their chosen speakers that overfishing is also about poverty and subsistence. Can we restore the ocean’s life systems, re-establish historic levels of productivity, and talk about its role in food security—especially, how many of our 7 billion people can depend on wild seafood as a significant protein source, and what are our alternatives for feeding the rest, especially as the population grows?

We need to be constantly aware that the small-scale fisher must still be able to feed his family—he has fewer protein alternatives than suburban Americans, for example.  Fishing is survival for many people around the world.  Thus, we need to think about rural re-development solutions.  The good news for us in the conservation community is that if we promote biodiversity in the ocean, we increase productivity and thus some level of food security.  And, if we ensure we do not extract resources in a way that simplifies the ecosystem (leaving too few and too genetically similar species), we can also avoid further collapse amid changing conditions.

So we need to:
– Expand the number of countries who are working towards sustainable management of commercial fisheries in their waters
– Set the Total Allowable Catch correctly to allow the fish to reproduce and recover (only a few well developed states have done this pre-requisite yet)
– Take the market distorting subsidies out of the system (under way at the WTO)
– Have the government do its job and go after illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing
– Create incentives to address the overcapacity problem
– Create marine protected areas (MPAs) to set aside places for fish and other species to reproduce and recover, without risk of capture or damage from fishing gear.


Back from the brink: experience of a fishing village in Rayong, Thailand

08 March 2012 | Article

The following story was based on a field trip organized as part of the first European Union Building Coastal Resilience (BCR) Forum in Chanthaburi, Thailand on February 28-March 2, 2012. 

Six years ago, the 160 fishermen that live in Tha Ruea Klaeng – Aow Suan Son Community, Tha Ruea Klaeng Sub-district, Mueang District, Rayong on the Gulf of Thailand were in deep trouble. Commercial fishing boats using ever smaller mesh sizes had fished out their waters and the fishermen were deep in debt. Today, they catch more than even before, from a wider range of species, and make a profit of $30/day. The day before our visit, they caught seven large rays that they sold for $130.

How did this turnaround come about? In 2006, the local fishermen made two decisions. First, they banned the commercial boats from their traditional fishing grounds and second, they installed fish attraction devices in 15 semicircles each made of 20 devices located 1-5 km out to sea in depths of 8-10 meters. They only use fish hooks and traps; nets are banned. The fish attraction devices are made of palm fronds attached to a stick or bamboo pole and anchored with a bag of rocks. Cheap to make and easy to deploy, they make excellent spawning and nursery grounds. The combination of reduced demand (banning commercial fishing) and increased supply (installing fish attraction devices) has caused the recovery of the local artisanal fishing sector.

The local fishermen monitor the fish sanctuary from the shore. After the sanctuary was established, a commercial fishing boat used a push net to destroy some of the fish attraction devices. The village called the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) who arrested the captain and confiscated the boat. Commercial boats haven’t encroached since. The DMCR’s quick response was critical because it strengthened local confidence in the fish sanctuary and encouraged compliance with the new rules. The inability or unwillingness of governments to enforce the rules against outsiders is a key weakness of many community-based management systems.

Despite these positive changes, several issues remain. First, it is unclear if the increase in fish catch is due to an increase in fish stocks and/or displacement of fish toward the fish attraction devices. Second, the success of the fish sanctuary has encouraged locals to abandon farming and start fishing. Currently, fishermen can fish for as long as they want. But as demand increases, some form of managed access may be required. Finally, local success stories cannot disguise the fact that Thailand’s fishing industry suffers huge over-capacity. The government is trying to reduce capacity by buying back fishing boats (but this is expensive: the commercial boats we saw cost $300,000) and by encouraging the use of larger mesh sizes. Ultimately, these measures need to succeed if the industry is to move to a more sustainable footing. Community initiatives such as the one we saw in Rayong can buy time for national policies to take effect but they cannot substitute for them.

Author: Jake Brunner, IUCN’s Program Coordinator for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.  


JUNE 2012

The other Blue.. oceans, acidification and overfishing…


The practice of pillaging wild stocks of small forage fish like sardines and anchovies, isn’t just about feeding our appetite for cheap farmed salmon or omega-3 fatty acid supplements. It’s also driven in large part by our hunger for cheap pork and chicken. According to a 2011 Oceana report, as much as a third of the entire annual global fish catch represents forage fish snatched away to be converted into fish meal—and nearly half of that fish meal ends up as feed in our land-based factory farms. Forage fish are a key component of the oceanic food web—they convert plankton into ready food for the bigger species that feed on them. We’re removing them from the ocean at unsustainable rates.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean of Life

 BBC Audio

We are living on borrowed time. We can’t cheat nature by taking more than is produced indefinitely, no matter how fervently politicians or captains of industry might wish it. In essence, what we have done in the last few decades is to mine fish, bringing them in at rates faster than they can replace themselves. Sharks, bluefin tuna, cod, Chilean sea bass, all have declined steeply as a result of excessive fishing. The price that must be paid for today’s rapaciousness will be tomorrow’s scarcity, or in some places, seas without fish. If we follow our current trajectory, that point may be only 40 or 50 years away.

Most people are unaware that some of the species that show up on the fishmonger’s slab simply cannot sustain productive fisheries in the long run. They grow and reproduce too slowly. Most sharks and the bigger skates and rays fall into this category. So does almost everything caught more than 1,600 feet down—deep sea beasts like Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, or roundnose grenadier. They are caught because they are there, and when they are gone, they disappear from markets.

A World Bank report aptly titled “The Sunken Billions” highlighted the madness of overfishing when it calculated that major fish stocks of the world would produce 40 percent more if we fished them less. It sounds paradoxical—fish less to catch more—but that is the simple message


There is an old adage, much loved of self-help books, that says “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” If we change course by a few degrees now, it will take us to a very different place in 50 years’ time from where we are headed now.


The Indian Ocean is rapidly emerging as an essential crossroads of the global market and a key focus of international politics. Rising flows of trade, investment, people, and ideas around the region are linking the Indian Ocean countries to each other and to the rest of the world ever more closely.  Already more than two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of its container traffic, for example, pass through Indian Ocean waters.  Yet the natural riches residing beneath the Indian Ocean’s waves will be as important to securing the region’s future welfare as the commercial wealth traveling over the sea.  

Fisheries represent one of the Indian Ocean region’s most important assets.  Fisheries nourish hundreds of millions of people and provide livelihoods to coastal communities around the Indian Ocean rim.  Overfishing, habitat destruction, and mounting environmental pressures, however, increasingly place these vital natural resources – and the populations that rely on them – at risk.

Regional fish catches have grown tremendously in recent decades. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), from less than 900,000 tons in 1950, Indian Ocean marine capture fisheries supplied 11.3 million tons of fish in 2010, about 14.6 percent of the world catch. Harvesting the ocean’s bounty contributes substantially to many regional economies.  In Indonesia, for example, fishing and fish farming employ nearly 6 million people, more than work in the country’s vaunted textile and apparel industries.  In addition, the FAO calculates that for each person directly employed in fishing, another three to four find jobs in related activities such as boat construction, gear maintenance, and fish processing. Equally importantly, fisheries furnish a crucial food source for communities around the Indian Ocean region.  On average, for instance, Egypt, Malaysia, Mozambique, Seychelles, Singapore, Tanzania, and Thailand obtain 20% or more of their animal protein from fish. The people of Bangladesh, Comoros, Indonesia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka get more than half of the animal protein in their diets from fish.

Yet despite their importance to economic development and food security, Indian Ocean fisheries face significant threats. Growing stresses include overfishing and illegal fishing, habitat destruction and pollution, and the gathering strains of global warming.

Catch data in many areas are inadequate to evaluate the health of specific stocks, but signs of over-fishing are increasing.  In the Eastern Indian Ocean, landings reached their highest tallies ever in 2010, but more than 40% of catches were classed as “unidentified,” worrisomely suggesting that the growing numbers may reflect not sustainable trends but a largely unregulated expansion into new areas and species.  In the Western Indian Ocean, the Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission conducted assessments of 140 species in its area, concluding that 65% of stocks were fully exploited in 2010, and 29% were overexploited.

Illegal and unreported (IU) fishing complicate efforts to effectively monitor and manage the region’s fisheries. A British study of selected species representing about half of the total catch in the Indian Ocean figured that some 16 to 34% of the catches in those stocks were illegal or unreported.  IU fishing often occurs at the expense of local fishers.  The FAO, for instance, estimates that 700 foreign vessels were fishing without license in Somali waters over recent years. Tragically, foreign ships were thus likely illegally removing more protein from Somali waters than they were delivering to Somalia in food aid and famine relief.

Myriad other human pressures increasingly endanger the underlying ecosystems that sustain the region’s fisheries. Coastal development for ports, roads, and urban infrastructure is damaging or demolishing mangroves, coral reefs, and other habitats.  Asian coastlines, for example, lost 1.9 million hectares of mangroves from 1980-2005, while Africa lost another half million.  Pollution, destructive fishing practices (such as the use of dynamite and poisons), coral mining for construction materials, and coral bleaching have already destroyed or critically endanger as much as two-thirds of the Indian Ocean’s 12,070 km2 of coral reefs.

Oceans are also among the most vulnerable of all environments to continuing global climate change. As humanity relentlessly pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans will in turn absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have taken up 25 to 30% of society’s cumulative CO2 emissions.  This extra carbon dioxide alters the ocean’s chemistry, making it more acidic (measured by a lower pH value).  From preindustrial levels, the surface ocean pH has already fallen by 0.1 units. If emissions continue unabated, acidity levels will tumble another 0.2 to 0.3 points by 2100, a drop 30 to 100 times greater than any previous pH change and at a rate unprecedented in the geological record. By the same token, as climate change warms global average temperatures, the oceans will also absorb more heat from the atmosphere. Over the past 50 years, the oceans have soaked up some 90% of the added heat generated by global warming, boosting surface ocean temperatures by about 0.10C.

LOCAL NEWS: Thai fishing trawler update

Three years ago the European Union’s drive to bring more accountability to the Thai fishing industry seemed like a sensible solution to curtailing illegal fishing and ensuring viable fish stocks. But today, the situation is mired in controversy with thousands of small-scale fishermen in Thailand lining up against new regulations proposed by the Fisheries Department that are intended to bring the trawlers under control.


Under threats of an EU ban, the Fisheries Department in late 2009 started certifying seafood products from non-IUU (illegal, unregulated, unreported) fishing for export to Europe. The tougher guidelines enabled the EU to trace the origins of fishery products, including catch certificates of trawlers, boarding ports and processing venues.

The Fisheries Department now wants to increase the number of registered trawlers in Thai waters by 2,017 vessels. There are currently 3,619 registered and licensed trawlers and thousands more estimated to be operating illegally.

The department bases the increase on the number of 7,968 registered trawlers in 2003, when it estimated that fish stocks were over-harvested by 33%. They calculate that having a fleet of just over 5,600 would strike the right balance. The department says it has coupled the permits with new measures to better protect the marine environment.

“Those trawlers to be licensed are already fishing in Thai waters,” said Surachit Intarachit, deputy director-general of the Fisheries Department.

“Despite illegal fishing, the department has no manpower to arrest them at sea. The best method is to register them and to equip them with a vessel monitoring system to monitor their operations”.

Over the past 30 years, there have been five Fisheries Department moratoriums for unlicensed trawlers _ in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1989 and 1996.

“We were authorised to grant them licences without getting approval from the cabinet and without any conditions,” said Mr Surachit.

“But this time, to be transparent and to be efficient, the department sought approval from the cabinet.”

He said the registration would be conducted by provincial committees in the provinces where the trawlers are registered to ensure they conform with the environmental measures and restrictions laid down by the department.

“For example, the trawler owners must contribute to the conservation fund,” said Mr Surachit. “The permit will be immediately withdrawn if any trawlers encroach on the three kilometre coastal zone.”

But many small-scale fishermen are unconvinced by the logic behind the registration increase. They say trawlers, both registered and illegal, already encroach on the three kilometre coastal exclusion zone using environmentally damaging fishing techniques such as drag and pull netting. They also argue that making more trawlers “legal” by registering them doesn’t come with a guarantee of improved enforcement by the Fisheries Department.

“We all know that trawlers are decimating and pillaging the marine resources, the sea is almost empty,” said Piya Tesyeam, of the Small-Scale Fishermen’s Network in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. “They really destroy fisheries”.

The cabinet has asked the department to review the trawler registration plan, and last week the Small-Scale Fishermen’s Network put its concerns to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) subcommittee on Community Rights and Natural Resources. They also sent a petition to parliament and the EU representative in Thailand.

Representatives of the Fisheries Department and the Commercial Fisheries Association of Thailand attended the NHRC meeting.

Mr Surachit said conservation measures would be proposed in the trawler permit plan. They include a ban on the use of destructive fishing gear such as push and drag nets in the upper part of the Gulf of Thailand during breeding season and an extension of the three kilometre coastal protected zone to 5.4km.

But his arguments did not satisfy the NHRC subcommittee and the small-scale fishermen. The subcommittee asked the Fisheries Department to submit the full study so its scientific viability could be analysed.

Supaporn Anutipachawa, an independent researcher on agriculture and fisheries, said that giving permits to trawlers contradicted studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Fisheries Department in 2004 which found that fishing would have to be reduced by 40% to 50% to maintain viability.

Studies show a severe decline of fish stocks in recent years. Catches in the upper Gulf of Thailand dropped from 298kg per hour in 1961 to 49kg in 1982, 23kg in 1992 and 14kg in 2006. Ms Supaporn said that the reduction of 33% called for by the Fisheries Department may not contribute to a reduction of catches because it does not control their catching periods.

“As we know, the trawlers not only damage marine life, but also their coral and reef habitats. In addition, [the FAO research] found that 50% of the catch is comprised of ‘trash fish’, and 50% of the trash fish are juvenile fish of commercial species.”

Banchong Nasae, chairman of the Thai Sea Watch Association, who has worked with small-scale fishermen for 30 years, said that the Fisheries Department’s plan to permit more trawlers would worsen fishermen’s livelihoods. Drag and push net trawlers and nocturnal anchovy fishing have been destroying marine resources for a long time.

He said that 60% of fish from trawlers is sent into the fishmeal industry, while another 40% is sold to local and foreign markets.

Small-scale small fishermen have been fighting destructive fishing practices and encroachment of trawlers into the three kilometre exclusion zone for 20 years.

“Even though the use of the push net was banned by law in 2000, the practice of push-net fishing continues to grow. In Songkhla Lake, more than 100 push trawlers are operating,” he said.

Supaporn Banrai, a fisherman from Songkhla Lake, said his catch had dropped significantly.

Rather than registering more trawlers, the Fishery Department should extend the three kilometre coastal zone to 5.4km to protect some 300,000 small-scale fishermen nationwide and to help the ecosystem recover, the committee was told.

NHRC commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara said the conflict needed a proper solution as it involved a great number of people and had the potential to lead to violence.

A study by the Department of Fisheries in 2003 concluded the number of trawlers in Thai waters should be capped at a maximum of 5,730 vessels to minimise impacts on marine ecology, however, the survey found that there were more than 6,700 trawlers in the Gulf and another 1,145 trawlers in the Andaman Sea.

This Andaman number is probably 50% conservative.

Leave a comment


callum roberts new book on ocean problems

world ocean day

world ocean day, you can be a heroe

bring peace to oceans

Turn the tide on our ocean

new video cartoon on why sharks are important

how we wrecked the ocean