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Is the planet approaching “peak fish”? Not so fast, study says

Significant production increases in the fish sector are foreseen worldwide over the coming decade.

HEAVY LOAD: 90.9 million tonnes of fish was captured in the wild in 2016

Global fish production will continue to expand over the next decade even though the amount of fish being captured in the wild has levelled off and aquaculture’s previously explosive growth is now slowing, a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has shown.

The latest edition of the agency’s The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report projects that by 2030 combined production from capture fisheries and aquaculture will grow to 201 million tonnes. That’s an 18 per cent increase over the current production level of 171 million tonnes.

But future growth will require continued progress in strengthening fisheries management regimes, reducing loss and waste, and tackling problems like illegal fishing, pollution of aquatic environments, and climate change, the report adds.

“The fisheries sector is crucial in meeting FAO’s goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition, and its contribution to economic growth and the fight against poverty is growing,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

“The sector is not without its challenges, however, including the need to reduce the percentage of fish stocks fished beyond biological sustainability.”

Trends in global fish supply

The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture reports that 90.9 million tonnes of fish was captured in the wild in 2016 — a slight decrease of 2 million tonnes from the year before, mainly due to periodic fluctuations in populations of Peruvian Anchoveta associated with El Niño.

Generally, the amount of fish being captured in the wild plateaued starting in the 1990s and has remained largely stable since.

Despite that fact, the world has for decades been consuming ever greater amounts of fish – 20.4 kg per capita in 2016 versus just under 10 kg/pc in the 1960s — thanks in no small part to increased production via aquaculture, a sector which expanded rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2016, production from aquaculture reached 80 million tonnes, according to SOFIA 2018 — providing 53 per cent of all fish consumed by humans as food.

While aquaculture’s growth has slowed — it experienced 5.8 per cent annual growth between 2010 and 2016, down from 10 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s — it will still continue to expand in the coming decades, especially in Africa.

Efforts to reduce the amount of fish being discarded at sea or thrown out post-capture — for example by using discards and trimmings to produce fishmeal — will also help meet ongoing increases in demand for fish products.

The status of wild fish stocks

Some 59.9 per cent of the major commercial fish species that FAO monitors are now being fished at biologically sustainable levels, while 33.1 per cent are being fished at biologically unsustainable levels — a situation that SOFIA 2018 describes as “worrying.” (The other 7 per cent are underfished).

Just 40 years ago, 90 per cent of FAO-monitored fisheries were being used at biologically sustainable levels, and just 10 per cent were being fished unsustainably.

These trends do not necessarily mean that no progress has been made toward achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14, which calls on the international community to effectively regulate fish harvesting end overfishing, illegal fishing, and destructive fishing practices, and to implement science-based management plans aimed at restoring stocks.

But FAO’s report warns that the world has diverged in its approach to sustainable fisheries, with worsening overcapacity and stock status — too many boats chasing too few fish — in developing countries offsetting improved fisheries management and stock statuses in developed ones.

Counteracting this will require building effective partnerships, particularly in policy coordination, financial and human resource mobilization and deployment of advanced technologies (e.g. for monitoring fisheries).

Other challenges

Climate change and pollution are also cause for concern.

While research suggests that climate change might cause overall global fish catch levels to vary by under 10 per cent, significant shifts in where fish are caught are anticipated, SOFIA 2018 notes. Catches are likely to drop in many fisheries-dependent tropical regions and rise in temperate areas of the north.

Shifts in the distribution of fisheries will have major operational, managerial, and jurisdictional implications, the report says. Research will be needed to develop strategies for allowing both fisheries and the species they exploit to adapt smoothly to climate change.

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