Fish crisis: A problem of scale

Directorate for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries

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The earth is mainly ocean, yet our seas are being overfished. The tools to help the fishing sectors adjust are there. Now it is time to implement them. 

Fishers have good cause to be unhappy these days. Their resource is dwindling for a start, and yet their prices are being forced lower by competition from alternative cheap food sources. Environmental pressures to go easy on the seas are intensifying, in particular to allow recovery of fish stocks and certain species of fish that are in danger of depletion. Add to the list the growing problem of marine pollution and even global warming, and there really seems to be no end to the plight of fishing communities.

Still, there are ways forward, though they demand tough measures both to stop the massive overuse of national fishing resources and to tackle the global problem of illegal fishing by displaced fleets.

The world’s fish harvest has reached a plateau of 100-120 million tonnes of fish with about three-quarters of that going to human consumption and the remainder to feed compounds to feed pigs, hogs and for farming fish. The amount of fish harvested has not changed much over the past five years and so it would seem that the sea’s harvest capacity has been reached and will yield no more fish.

With fewer fish and less income policymakers have responded all too quickly to calls from fishers for subsidies. Rather than restructure and institute appropriate management regimes, the result has been increased fishing capacity. In the meantime the fish have not come back and the underlying economic situation has worsened.

Consequently fishers’ incomes have continued to fall. There are exceptions: over the past decade Iceland reformed its fishing sector by squeezing capacity and imposing strict catch quotas and today profitability is rising and fish stocks recovering. Same in New Zealand where the introduction of an efficient fisheries management regime has adjusted the sector and made it a profitable business. But it takes political courage and bold decisions.

Granted, natural phenomena have also taken their toll on the marine fisheries environment: El Niño – a disruption of the ocean and atmosphere in the tropical Pacific – has ravaged both Chilean and Peruvian fisheries; likewise some fishers in the North West Atlantic blame warmer waters and pollution for the scarcity and erratic migration patterns of coldwater fish like cod. But it is inadequate fisheries management and policies that are mostly to blame.

Quite bluntly, too many fishers are chasing too few fish. Over 30 million fishers around the world make a living directly from the sea, with an additional 200 million or so being dependent on fisheries through family or work in related activities and industries. This means that a worldwide population nearly the size of that of the United States depends on fish. Some of these people need fish not just for income but are totally dependent on the seas for their subsistence. Quite apart from some African coastal countries that would simply starve without fish, even wealthier countries, like Iceland, as well as parts of Canada or Japan, would probably suffer considerable hardship were they suddenly to stop fishing.

Yet, something has to be done to secure the sustainability of fisheries and the people that depend on this living resource. At least two problems need addressing: the first is reforming domestic fishing industries and fisheries management, and the second is to stop the spread of uncontrolled fishing on the high seas

National capacity

The FAO reported in 2000 that, globally, an estimated 25% of the fish stocks are under or moderately exploited, 50% of stocks are fully exploited, 15% are over exploited and about 10% have been depleted or are recovering from depletion. OECD countries are responsible for 25-30 million tonnes of fisheries or about a fifth of the world total. As most of the fish stocks are under national jurisdiction (in excess of 90%), it is at the national level where policy reforms, in partnership with fishery stakeholders, have to take place.

The trouble is, there is such an enormous mismatch between excess fishing capacity (vessels, gear and fishers) and the ability of the sea to produce fish that the only option is to radically reform the sector. Everyone would benefit; with efficient management systems, more fish could be taken out of the sea for less, while at the same time replenishing and securing the future of the resource. But while the immediate adjustment might hurt fishing communities, the price to pay of doing nothing would be even higher in the long run.

On the plus side, many new legal instruments, guidelines and so forth have been developed. International organisations have provided economic analysis, assessments of the consequences of action or non-action and sets of guidelines for sustainable and responsible management regimes. One such is the FAO Code of

Conduct for Responsible Fishing from 1995, which seeks to guide national authorities contemplating fisheries reform. It suggests clever arrangements, like government buy-back of vessels that are then decommissioned, or tradeable fishing quotas, which several OECD countries are now applying to help reduce capacity.

The OECD has also analysed measures to assist fishers in transition. An important lesson has been that policymakers should cover all aspects of fisheries, from harvesting, to marketing to consumers. Such a holistic approach involves a realignment of the various sets of policies that affect both harvesting and post-harvesting sectors, like distribution. Market intervention, for instance, that lowers prices on undersized fish or roe-bearing crustaceans, would remove the incentive for fishers to catch them and for distributors to market them. Labelling may be another instrument, as witness the advent of dolphin-safe tuna, which won consumer support to such an extent that tuna without that label cannot be sold nowadays.

OECD countries spent US$5.5 billion on government financial transfers to the fisheries sector in 1999, most of which (74%) was for general services, including monitoring, research, and enforcement, which are prerequisites for sustainable fisheries. However, most of the money could be used more effectively to get fishers and fleets out of the sector, with retraining programmes into other related occupations like coast guarding, tourism or recreation. And quite clearly for some fishers early retirement is yet another option. The solutions are there. What’s missing so far is the political will to carry them through.

For developing countries, the situation may be more complicated, particularly financially. And yet neither can they afford not to adjust. For some of them, the incentive to change is very great indeed, given their stake in managing the future of fish as their main source of food and protein. OECD countries have to show the way though, and help poorer countries acquire the knowledge and capacity they need. It will not be easy. Some fishing countries in the developing world not only lack proper fisheries management regimes and institutions to manage fish stocks, but many simply cannot afford to monitor and survey fisheries even in their own Exclusive Economic Zones. Also, there may be no alternative to fishing in the local economy. In other words, adjustment at sea must happen as part of a wider development drive. Nevertheless there are developing countries, like Senegal, Indonesia and Argentina, that do well out of fishing and export their products to the OECD area. These countries could perhaps benefit from some finance to help them adjust, though their main requirement would be in management and know-how.

A positive step would be to use occasions like the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development for participating countries to strengthen their commitments to the various fisheries treaties and other international negotiated texts that have been carved out over recent decades. Again, the FAO Code of

Conduct is a prime example. Although only a voluntary code, countries should seriously consider implementing it and explicitly incorporating its philosophy and recommendations into national legislation.

One luxury we do not have is time. Perhaps the moment is right to make such voluntary codes more binding? Such a move would send an important signal to the world about the seriousness with which we treat our oceans and fisheries. And in the long run, it will cheer up the world’s fishers too.


• OECD (2000), Transition to Responsible Fisheries: Economic and Policy Implications, OECD, Paris.

• FAO (1995), Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, FAO, Rome.

• FAO (2000), The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, FAO, Rome.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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