Global Fish Crisis Looms

Conservationists warn the world is facing a global fish crisis and reversing course will require strong action and difficult choices.

The race to feed the world's growing appetite for fish has pushed many commercial stocks to the brink of extinction and has put added pressure on millions of small scale fishers in Southeast Asia, according to a report released today by scientists with the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The study by the U.S. based research group says consumers, in particular those in the developed world, must be active agents for achieving sustainable fishing practices and healthy fish stocks.

"Most people have little idea of what the 'fisheries crisis' is, or what it means to them," said co-author Yumiko Kura. "From a consumer's point of view – at least in most developed nations – the sad condition of fish stocks is not obvious. There are still plenty of fish available in markets and restaurants, although the types may have changed and the prices may be higher."

Global consumption of seafood is at an all time high – in excess of 90 million metric tons – and is set to increase even as stock conditions continue to worsen, Kura said.

Demand for seafood products has doubled during the last 30 years and is projected to continue growing at 1.5 percent per year through 2020. Although it is difficult to determine the exact condition of all marine fish stocks, the researchers say there is ample cause for concern.

"As of 2002, 75 percent of the 441 fish stocks for which information was available are in urgent need of better management," said co-author Carmen Revenga. "Analysis reveals that of the 200 fish stocks that are commonly most valuable, 35 percent show declining yields, indicating that the state of these fisheries continues to deteriorate."

Fishing predates agriculture as a human activity, but "the nature of the fishing enterprise and the condition of the marine and freshwater resources it relies on could hardly have changed more radically in the last 100 years," according to the report.

Modern fishing techniques, population growth and economic pressures have brought a rapid expansion of commercial fishing and greatly increased the capacity to exploit fish stocks. New technologies allow for massive hauls from waters often far from the coasts and the result "has been a rapid depletion of key stocks, and serious disruption and degradation of the marine and freshwater ecosystems they live in."

WRI's report, "Fishing for Answers: Making Sense of the Global Fish Crisis," indicates that failure to sustainably manage fish stocks could have stark consequences and is already putting additional pressure on the world's poor.

Some one billion people, largely in developing countries, rely on fish as their primary animal protein source, and an estimated 35 million people are directly engaged in fishing and aquaculture.

Fishing is big business – the international fish trade was worth $55 billion in 2001 – and the developing world will play a vital role in the future of the world's fish stocks. Developing countries produce more than 70 percent of the fish consumed by humans and are taking an increasing interest in aquaculture – seen by many as a way to meet future demand for fish and mitigate the overexploitation of wild fish stocks. Fish farming has boomed in the past three decades and now supplies some 40 percent of the world's total food fish supply.

But there is concern that aquaculture is poorly regulated and is not the ultimate answer to the fish crisis.

"The heavy dependence of intensive systems on human inputs – water, energy, chemicals – and on wild fish for feed and seed, as well as the effects on ecosystems and species are major constraints to the sustainability and future growth of this industry," the report said.

The aquaculture challenges could prove in particular difficult within the developing world, where many nations are ill equipped to regulate fish farms. Some of these operations are already sparking conflicts between commercial fishing interests and local subsistence fishers.

The report details that in the rural provinces around Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, violent conflicts are increasingly becoming routine between small scale fishers and operators of large scale, commercial fish pens. The local fishers accuse the wealthy outsiders of having corrupt ties to the government and using destructive fishing methods. The commercial owners counter that the locals poach their stocks.

WRI's report says many small scale fishers in the developing world also face pressures from pressures from agriculture, dams and coastal development.

"Rights and responsibilities of resource users are not well defined, and the competition among the fishers intensifies as the resources become scarcer," Revenga said. "Even where clear laws and regulations defining rights exist, enforcement is a challenge for industrial nations and developing countries alike, often resulting in conflicts between different user groups."

Solving the fish crisis will require international cooperation, according to the report, but the primary responsibility for change lies with individual nations. Some 90 percent of commercial fish are harvested within coastal waters controlled by national governments. Commercial fishing is driven by demand and the authors contend that consumers need to be more conscious of which fish are sustainably harvested.

"People need to make the best of what is in season or abundant, and not focus on the top five fish in the market," said Kura. "For instance, consumers in the U.S. do not eat a lot of mackerel, but there are plenty of them. At the very least, consumers can be aware and start asking where the fish came from and whether they are farmed or wild."

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