Counting the Fish in 2048

I still remember my feelings of disbelief when my high school AP Environmental Science teacher told me that if the world kept fishing at its current rate, most of our capture fisheries would be depleted by the year 2048.

Wait, no more tuna fish sandwiches?

It’s a valid question. According to the FAO’s 2012 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, world per capita food fish supply almost doubled between the 1960s and 2009, increasing from an average of about 9.9 kg to 18.4 kg respectively. The average annual growth rate of world fish food supply during this period was 3.2 percent, far surpassing the world’s annual population increase of 1.7 percent. This vast growth in production can be attributed to technological innovations such as the mechanization of fishing equipment in the 1950’s, improved net materials, echo sounders and sonars, and eventually computer technology and automated fishing ships in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Fishing fleets were able to venture into unexplored areas and handle greater volumes of fish, greatly increasing catch capacity and making more seafood readily available to consumers. Most developed countries now also provide large subsidies for fisheries, yielding to great investments in boats, gear, and port infrastructure, allowing for even further utilization of marine fisheries resources. In a report published in 2010, Pew charitable trusts estimated global fishing subsidies in 2003 at nearly $27 billion.

Though these changes have increased global fish consumption as a healthy source of protein and provided new employment opportunities, they have also harmed many marine ecosystems. Harmful fishing methods such as bottom trawling, dredging, cyanide poison, dynamite blasts, and others have caused the destruction of marine habitats and high levels of bycatch. It is estimated that 20 million metric tons, or one fourth of the world’s fish catch, is discarded as bycatch every year. Not only is bycatch wasteful, it also hurts the reproductive capacity of these non-targeted species, causing further harm to ecosystem dynamics.

What’s more, these overfishing practices have landed the global fishing market in a sticky situation. I first learned about Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons phenomena by running around a field with 17 of my classmates to seewhich team, or ‘fishing fleet’, could ‘catch’ the most plastic spoons, or ‘fish’. We quickly understood the unfortunate reality: independent parties will knowingly and rationally deplete a shared resource as the benefits are plentiful and the costs of exhaustion are divided amongst them. Unlike oil reserves and farmland, countries cannot purchase oceans and fisheries. As a result, this tragedy of the commons phenomena, combined with general lack of regulation, has led to vast overexploitation of the world’s capture fisheries.

In the mid-1970’s, FAO reported 50% of the world’s fisheries as fully exploited, 10% as overexploited or depleted, and 40% as moderately or underexploited. In 2009, fully exploited fisheries increased to 57%, overexploited or depleted rose to 29.9% and 12.7% were reported as underexploited or moderately exploited. Additionally, this latter portion of stocks have a fairly low production potential, and the majority of stocks of the top ten species, representing 30% of world marine capture, are fully exploited and have no potential for increases in production. So, you’re saying I should savor my tuna sandwich for all it’s worth?

Well, you might not have to go that far. Although most capture fisheries are fully exploited and therefore only predicted to increase by 3% from 2012-2021, there is still increasing demand from a growing world population. As a result, world per-capita fish consumption is expected to reach 19.6 kg in 2021, 16% higher than the average for 2009-2011. You might be wondering how this is possible. Say hello to aquaculture, most commonly known as fish farming. Aquaculture only represented 6% of the production of fish in 1970, but has grown steadily to 31% in 1997; furthermore, FAO predicts that “by 2018, farmed fish is expected to exceed captured fish for human consumption for the first time, and its share is projected at 52 percent in 2021”. Problem solved, right?

Not so fast. While aquaculture will provide a means to adequately respond to increasing demand, this method of fish production comes with a whole other slew of problems. The conversion of coastal habitats for fish farming can damage and disrupt entire ecosystems, as can be seen by the decrease of 2606 hectares of mangrove area between 1973 and 2006, while aquaculture areas increased by 3657 hectares. It can also displace poor and landless families, ruining the livelihood of those who use these habitats for their own fishing and dwelling purposes.

Because fish farming concentrates populations in a given area, waste, feed, and any growth hormones or antibiotics added to waters is highly concentrated and can cause water pollution and damage to local habitats. The escape of farmed fish is also problematic, as they are likely to be genetically modified, and therefore might outcompete with capture fisheries that are still intact. Farmed fish populations will be increasingly susceptible the spread of disease as they will lack the space of the vast ocean waters that allow natural migration to occur.

Lastly, aquaculture has high production costs. Competition for land and marine resources in which to grow the fish is increasing, and as more and more areas become degraded by poor land-use practices, the fight for access will worsen. Fishmeal and fishoil are in high demand and prices continue to rise. Though production of fishmeal is also predicted to increase, most of the growth will derive from improved use of waste, cuttings and trimmings. In fact, FAO predicts that fishmeal produced from fish waste will represent 43% of the world fishmeal production in 2021. As I remember, it didn’t work out so well when we tried to do the same thing to make cattle feed. Mad-fish disease, anyone?

The unfortunate state of global fisheries is also likely to have a disproportionate effect on the poor, particularly those living in coastal communities. Due to their less advanced infrastructure, coastal communities in developing countries are more exposed to human accidents such as chemical and oil spills. They are also much more vulnerable to natural disasters: in the period from 1970 to 2008, more than 95% of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. These issues, combined with the increasing unpredictability of climate patterns, pose a threat to the sustainability of both aquaculture and capture fisheries, and therefore to the livelihood of those relying on them. Increasing prices will also prove to be problematic for this demographic, as fish contributed about 19.2 percent of animal protein for developing countries in 2009 and 24 percent for low-income food-deficit countries. Yikes. Is there any good news?

Odds are, if you live in a developed country and are relatively well off, you won’t have to say goodbye to your childhood lunch staple. However, it will be increasingly likely that the fish you consume will come from a farm rather than the ocean, be genetically modified, and be raised on a diet made from other fish remains. What’s more, be prepared to break the bank for that filet, as FAO predicts fish will become more expensive than red meats the closer we get to 2021. And as climate change renders weather patterns more unpredictable, the fish market will be too.

So what can you do? There’s no doubt that there has to be an increasing and more stringent national and international focus on the management of global fisheries. As with most issues regarding resource consumption, the solutions are not usually easy or clear-cut. At the same time, you can make a difference by being aware of where the things you eat come from and demanding more transparency from producers about where and how your fish is sourced. You can use Food and Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide to get a better idea of the types of seafood you should keep consuming and others you should shy away from. Being more mindful about these choices will allow you to support sustainable and local fisheries, as well as better your own personal health.


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