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Overfishing


Over the last 30 years, global consumption of fish has doubled. There are many reasons for this: the growing world population, industrial fishing’s economies of scale allowing wider access to cheap seafood (without taking into account any environmental and social costs), increasing purchasing power in countries with emerging markets and greater awareness about the nutritional benefits of eating fish.

Between growing demand and extraordinary technological progress in the sector, fishing has become a colossal global industry. Though it has no more than a few thousand factory fishing boats, the industry is still capable of radically changing the natural equilibrium of marine ecosystems, stripping nature of its ability to renew resources.

There is unanimous recognition in the scientific – and political – world that the natural capital of marine fauna, including the fish consumed by humans, is under intolerable attack. Even the World Bank, certainly not known in the past for its environmental conscience, has been forced to acknowledge the problem.

According to the FAO, more than 80% of fish stocks for which analyses and data are available are fished to the maximum allowable level or overfished. And beyond the statistics, people around the world who make their living from fishing have noticed that catch quantities are diminishing at alarming rates.

For the last ten years, the increase in fishing potential has not been matched by any increase in global production. And the stagnation or decline in catch volumes hides a very significant development: Small fish (including juveniles) and species at the bottom of the food chain – often thrown back into the sea because they are of little commercial interest – are making up a growing percentage of catches.

Despite all this, governments (particularly in Asia, but also Europe), use heavy subsidies to continue to provide an absurd amount of support to industrial fleets, which often operate without any regulation, far from national waters. 

Given the scale of the planet, the number of fishing boats currently operating is double what would allow the sector to develop in a sustainable and balanced way. Some of these fishing boats are effectively floating factories. They use sonar, aircraft and satellites to identify fish shoals, before descending on them with drift nets or lines with thousands of hooks, many kilometers long. The caught fish can be frozen and packaged on board. The biggest boats, up to 170 meters long, have a storage capacity equivalent to several Boeing 747s.

The boats most responsible for unsustainable fishing are those from the former Soviet Union, especially the Russian Federation or the Ukraine, which sail under flags of convenience from countries like Belize or Panama, and the unregistered pirate ships, many of which come from the fleets of the Russian Federation, Japan, Belize, Panama and Honduras. 

The problem of overfishing comes from the fact that beyond the first 200 nautical miles off a country’s coast (the country’s exclusive economic zone), access to resources is not regulated. So anyone with a boat can fish and exploit marine resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, makes the freedom to fish in international waters conditional on countries’ willingness to cooperate amongst themselves to guarantee the conservation and healthy management of fish stocks. Currently these stipulations are little more than empty words.

The consequences on marine biodiversity are evident. If fisheries management does not change radically, marine diversity will suffer a significant impoverishment, a process which has already begun.

Industrial looting of the seas also directly threatens the areas fished artisanally by coastal communities, who are heavily dependent on marine resources.

International and regional authorities are unable to limit the capacity and intensity of global fishing. The powerlessness of institutions is obvious; the endemic practice of pirate fishing offers sad confirmation.  

It will be impossible to reverse current trends if the current intensity of fishing is not drastically reduced, halting the operations of a large part of the global fleet, and if the precautionary principle is not introduced into the regulations and legislation governing the fishing industry. The FAO has drawn up a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, but the political will behind its enforcement is lacking. This reluctance is increasingly incomprehensible, given the incessant pace at which businesses in the sector are failing, while catches keep getting smaller and smaller. 

 


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