A new way of thinkingThe situation is grave, but not without hope. The days of rampant overfishing are over in many regions. After stocks began to collapse in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, leading to the loss of many jobs, it gradually became clear to the fishing industry and policy-makers in various countries that overfishing is not only an environmental but also an economic problem. Some nations took the necessary steps to avoid any repeat of the situation. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, for example, developed fisheries management plans which limit catches to the extent that overfishing will be largely avoided in future. Europe has also learned from some of its mistakes. After massive overexploitation of the North Sea herring in the 1970s the fishery was completely closed for several years. The stocks recovered. Here too a fisheries management regime was introduced to prevent any renewed collapse. Even today, however, many other maritime regions and stocks are still not fished sustainably. One such area is the Bay of Biscay where the European hake (Merluccius merluccius) remains under heavy fishing pressure. Many stocks in the Mediterranean are also overfished. Currently, therefore, the overall picture is mixed. Attempts are being made to maintain stocks in some regions through good management and sustainable fishing practices. In others, short-term profits still take priority over the precautionary approach to ensure the long-term productivity of stocks. It is therefore likely that stocks will continue to collapse. It is true that depleted stocks can recover when fishing is closed or drastically limited, but this can sometimes take many years. The herring stocks off the coast of Norway took about 20 years to recover from overfishing. Luckily, however, stocks of North Sea herring increased after just a few years, so that the fishing ban could be revoked. Nonetheless the effect of overfishing on the fishing industry is the loss of previously productive stocks for an extended period of time.
- 3.7 > The FAO divides the oceans into 19 major fishing areas which differ markedly in their annual catches (in tonnes living weight). The bar charts show the conditions in the corresponding maritime regions. The FAO figures (based on about 500 stocks) are compared with those of an American-German research group (based on about 2000 stocks). Despite the fact that the stock conditions were ascertained using different methods, it is still possible to compare the datasets. The Arctic is not shown in detail due to its limited catches. The red figures show the FAO number of the corresponding area. These areas differ considerably in their level of productivity. The coastal areas, or more accurately the continental shelves, are usually much more productive than the open seas. In FAO area 81, for example, there are few shelf areas, and the catch is correspondingly low, but the fish stocks are in a good condition (according to FAO data). Therefore, a low catch is not necessarily indic-ative of poor stock condition.
Areas with fluctuating catch volumesThe first group includes the Eastern Central Atlantic (FAO fishing area 34), the Southwest Atlantic (41), the Northwest Pacific (61), the Northeast Pacific (67), the Eastern Central Pacific (77) and the Southeast Pacific (87). In the past five years these areas provided, on average, 52 per cent of the total global catch volume. The most important area today is the Northwest Pacific. In 2010 a total of 21 million tonnes of fish were caught in this region – more than a quarter of the world’s total marine catch. Small pelagic fish such as the Japanese anchovy make up the largest proportion of the total catch. The Eastern Central Pacific and the Southeast Pacific are also prolific due to the nutrient-rich upwelling areas off the coast of South America. Catches are prone to huge fluctuations, sometimes from one year to the next. One reason for this is the large numbers of small schooling fish (sardines and anchovies), stocks of which rely heavily on the current in the upwelling areas. Nutrient-rich water rises to the surface from the depths, stimulating the growth and reproduction of the plankton on which fish feed. When the current weakens due to climatic fluctuations, there is less plankton and thus less food for the fish.
Spawners “Spawners” is the term used for sexually mature male and female fish which help to maintain stocks by producing young. If spawner numbers decrease as a result of intensive fishing or adverse environmental conditions, insuffi-cient young are produced and stocks can collapse.
- Compared with the general situation of world fish stocks, things are looking particularly grim in the Eastern Central Atlantic: 53 per cent of stocks in this area are considered overexploited, 43 per cent fully exploited and only 4 per cent non-fully exploited – off the coast of Senegal for example. The sardine (Sardina pilchardus) is the dominant species here. The Southwest Atlantic is also under heavy pressure. Important fish species are the Argentine hake and the anchovy off Brazil. Both are thought to be overfished. However, according to experts, the latter appears to be recovering. In this area, 50 per cent of stocks are considered overexploited, 41 per cent fully exploited and 9 per cent non-fully exploited. In contrast, the FAO data for the Northeast Pacific is comparatively positive. The annual catch peaked here in the 1980s. The largest proportion of the catch is made up of Alaska pollack, cod and hake. Today 80 per cent of the stocks in this region are considered fully exploited and 10 per cent each are over-exploited and non-fully exploited.
Areas with falling catchesThe areas in which catches have decreased over the years include the Northwest Atlantic (FAO fishing area 21), the Northeast Atlantic (27), the Western Central Atlantic (31), the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (both 37), the Southeast Atlantic (47) and the Southwest Pacific (81). In the past 5 years these areas provided an average 20 per cent of the world’s total catch. In some areas reduced catches were a result of fisheries management regulations, and stocks are expected to recover here. If the annual statistics indicate diminished catch volumes, this does not always mean that a stock is being depleted or has been overfished. In the Northeast Atlantic, for instance, the pressure on cod, plaice and sole has been reduced. Management plans are in place for the most important stocks of these species. Fortunately the spawning stocks of the Northeast Arctic cod have increased again here – particularly in 2008. Apparently the stocks have recovered following the low levels of the 1960s to 1980s. The future is looking a little brighter for the Northeast Arctic pollack and the Northeast Arctic haddock, but other stocks of these species continue to be overexploited in some regions of the Northeast Atlantic. Catches of blue whiting have decreased dramatically – from 2.4 million tonnes in 2004 to 540,000 tonnes in 2010 and 100,000 tonnes in 2011. This decline can be ascribed to the fisheries reacting too slowly to a sudden change in reproduction. Between the years of 1997 and 2004 the blue whiting for unknown reasons produced masses of young. During this period the species was fished intensively. But following a sudden drop in reproduction rates after 2004, the fishing industry continued to exploit the species at the same rate as before. The marked reduction of catch volumes in recent years, however, has helped the stocks to regenerate. In 2012 a harvest of almost 400,000 tonnes is expected. The situation of some deep-sea fish species is critical. All in all, 62 per cent of the stocks assessed in the Northeast Atlantic are fully exploited, 31 per cent overexploited and 7 per cent non-fully exploited.
- Fish stocks also remain in a poor condition in the Northwest Atlantic. Cod and ocean perch, for example, have not yet recovered from the intensive fishing of the 1980s, despite the Canadian authorities having completely banned the commercial fishing of these species. Experts ascribe the situation to adverse environmental conditions and competition for food (Chapter 1). Other stocks which are protected by fisheries management regimes appear to be regenerating. These include the spiny dogfish, the yellowtail flounder, the Atlantic halibut, the Greenland halibut and the haddock. Stocks in the Northwest Atlantic are considered 77 per cent fully exploited, 17 per cent over-exploited and 6 per cent non-fully exploited. Catch volumes in the Southeast Atlantic have declined considerably since the 1970s, from a previous 3.3 million tonnes to only 1.2 million tonnes in 2009. This can be ascribed partially to overfishing, and partially to catch reductions as a result of sustainable fisheries management. This applies in particular to the hake which is particularly important in this area. Thanks to the fishery measures introduced in 2006, some stocks of hake such as the deep sea Merluccius paradoxus off South Africa and the shallow water Merluccius capensis off Namibia appear to be recovering. In contrast, stocks of the formerly prolific South African sardine appear to be overexploited following a phase of intensive fishing. In 2004 the stock was classified as fully exploited. In the years since then, however, it has declined again as a result of adverse environmental conditions. This example highlights the speed at which a fully exploited stock can become overexploited, and the importance of forward-looking and sustainable fisheries management plans. The condition of the mackerel off the coast of Angola and Namibia has also deteriorated, since 2009 being considered overexploited. The Mediterranean and the Black Sea are combined into a single FAO fishing area. Similarly, its situation is not particularly good. Of the stocks analyzed by the FAO, 50 per cent are overexploited, 33 per cent fully exploited and 17 per cent non-fully exploited. All stocks of the European hake (Merluccius merluccius) and the red mullet (Mullus barbatus) are classified as overexploited. Too little information is available about the condition of the sea breams and sole to categorize, but these are also suspected to be overexploited. The most significant stocks of small pelagic fish (sardines and anchovies) are considered fully exploited or overexploited.
Areas with increasing catchesIn only three of the FAO major fishing areas have catches been continuously increasing since the 1950s. These are the Western Central Pacific (FAO fishing area 71), the Eastern Indian Ocean (57) and the Western Indian Ocean (51). Catch volumes in the Western Central Pacific have constantly increased since 1970 to a peak of 11.7 million tonnes in 2010 – about 14 per cent of the total global catch. The situation has changed in the meantime, however, and stocks are now in a critical condition. Most are assessed as fully exploited and overexploited – particularly in the western regions of the South China Sea. It is thought that the high annual catches are due to China’s intensive fishing industry expanding into this area where there was little commercial fishing in the past. But the FAO points out that the high catch numbers could be misleading. For many years China’s catch statistics were adjusted upwards to comply with official output targets. It is assumed that fish were counted twice during transportation. For this reason it is conceivable that flawed data is masking an actual trend reversal – i.e. a reduction of fish stocks in the Western Central Pacific region. The annual catch in the Eastern Indian Ocean has also escalated over the years, and this trend is continuing. Between 2007 and 2010 alone, the catch volume increased by 17 per cent. In the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea catch volumes are steadily increasing. About 42 per cent, however, is not ascribed to any specific species and simply registered as “marine fishes not identified”. This practice gives cause for concern because it is then impossible to assess the stocks of the different fish species in this heavily exploited region.
- Each of the FAO’s 19 major fishing areas comprises numerous sub-areas which are developing in different ways. Even when the total catch is increasing in one particular area, the trend for stocks of individual sub-areas can be the exact opposite. For instance, the catch volume in the Eastern Indian Ocean is increasing overall, but that of one sub-area, Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is decreasing in response to management plans. As far as the protection of fish stocks goes, Australia and New Zealand are now regarded as models of best practice. The trigger was a 2005 ministerial decision which ended overfishing in the EEZ and made it possible for stocks to recover. The Western Indian Ocean has long been considered an area in which the catches have increased appreciably. A temporary peak was reached in 2006. Since then, catch volumes have slightly decreased. The volume for 2010 was 4.3 million tonnes. Current investigations show that the widespread Narrow-barred Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson) found in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and off India and Pakistan, is overfished. Catch figures from these areas are incomplete, making it difficult to estimate the population. Attempts are being made to gather valid data in other regions. The Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission responsible for the southwestern sub-area of the Western Indian Ocean carried out a systematic estimate of 140 species in 2010. Although there are some gaps in the data, the attempt to assess the region’s stocks deserves recognition. Overall, 65 per cent of the stocks in the Western Indian Ocean are fully exploited, 29 per cent overexploited and 6 per cent non-fully exploited. >