FAO SOFIA report highlights concern over situation of high-seas fish species

Aquaculture accounts for 43 percent of all fish consumed
March 6, 2007

FAO SOFIA report highlights concern over situation of high-seas fish species
Aquaculture accounts for 43 percent of all fish consumed
Although the proportion of the world’s marine fish stocks rated by FAO as overexploited or depleted has remained stable over the past 15 years, the status of certain highly migratory and high-seas species is cause for serious concern, a new report from the UN agency warned today.

Out of all the marine fish stocks monitored by FAO, 25 percent are either overexploited (17%), depleted (7%) or recovering from depletion (1%), according to the Organization’s latest "State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture" (SOFIA) report, released today. These figures have stayed roughly stable for the past 15 years.

But the condition of stocks of certain species that are fished either solely or partially in high seas areas outside of national jurisdictions is cause for serious concern -- particularly some stocks of so-called "straddling stocks", which regularly traverse national maritime boundaries and high-seas areas as well as highly migratory oceanic sharks.

More than half of stocks of highly migratory sharks and 66 percent of high-seas and straddling fish stocks rank as either overexploited or depleted, the report shows, including stocks of species such as hakes, Atlantic cod and halibut, orange roughy, basking shark and bluefin tuna.

"While these stocks represent only a small fraction of the world's fishery resources, they are key indicators of the state of a massive piece of the ocean ecosystem," said FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries Ichiro Nomura.

SOFIA additionally notes that monitoring of fish captures in high seas areas is inadequate, with catch statistics being reported only for very large areas, making accurately assessing the state of specific high seas stocks difficult and handicapping efforts to manage them more responsibly.

Trouble spots

Looking at all marine species, the percentage of stocks exploited at or beyond their maximum sustainable levels varies greatly by area, SOFIA shows.

Among the most troubled areas are the Southeast Atlantic, the Southeast Pacific, the Northeast Atlantic and high seas tuna fishing grounds in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In these areas the proportion of stocks falling into the overexploited, depleted or recovering category runs from 46 to 66 percent of the total.

"These trends confirm that the capture potential of the world's oceans has most likely reached its ceiling, and underscore the need for more cautious and effective fisheries management to rebuild depleted stocks and prevent the decline of those being exploited at or close to their maximum potential," Mr Nomura said.

Multilateral management falling short of the mark

Today's report also argues that reforms are needed in order to strengthen the world's regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), multilateral institutions established by governments in order to promote regional cooperation on fisheries management.

These organizations -- 39 already exist and new ones are in the works -- represent the only realistic means of governing the exploitation of fish stocks that occur either as shared or straddling stocks between zones of national jurisdiction, between these zones and the high seas, or exclusively on the high seas, SOFIA says.

Yet despite efforts to improve their management capacity in recent years, "a lack of political commitment by the members of some RFMOs and unyielding positions that mitigate against sound regional fisheries management has thwarted, if not stalled, efforts by some RFMOs to meet and address conservation and management challenges," it adds.

"Strengthening RFMOs in order to conserve and manage fish stocks more effectively remains the major challenge facing international fisheries governance," the report concludes.

The issue of RFMO reform will be the subject of discussions this week among high-level fisheries authorities from a large group of countries participating in the 27th meeting of FAO's Committee on Fisheries (COFI, 5-9 March 2007). COFI will be looking at a number of other issues as well, including the ecosystem approach to fisheries and aquaculture, deep-sea fisheries, marine protected areas, risks posed by lost or abandoned fishing gear, and the fight against illegal fishing.

Key findings

The state of global stocks of marine fish:

- 52% of stocks are fully exploited, meaning they are at or near their maximum sustainable production levels.
- 20% are moderately exploited,
- 17% are overexploited
- 7% are depleted
- 3% are underexploited
- 1% is recovering from depletion

Captures of fish in the wild have reached a record high of 95 million tonnes a year, with 85.8 million tonnes coming from marine fisheries and 9.2 million tonnes from inland fisheries.

Overall, global fisheries production (marine and inland capture fisheries plus fish farming) totals 141.6 million tonnes annually. Around 105.6 million tonnes of this (75%) is used for direct human consumption; the rest is used for non-food products, in particular the manufacture of fishmeal and oil.

Aquaculture remains the world's fastest growing food production sector, with 47.8 million tonnes of production each year. And with capture fisheries levelled off, fish farming is providing ever-greater amounts of fish for food. While in 1980 just 9 percent of the fish consumed by human beings came from aquaculture, today 43 percent does.

Fish and fishery products are widely traded. The global trade in fish and fishery products has also reached a record high, with an export value of US$71.5 billion -- up 23 percent compared to 2000.