A new study carried out by researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests that fishing fleets across the world have taken much larger catch from the oceans than what official figures suggest.
The study reveals that fish catch over the last six decades has been under-reported by about 53%, and this under-reporting may be hiding considerable declines in fish stocks around the world. Experts believe the results of sharp decline in fish stocks could have major consequences on fisheries management across the world.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is the only international institution which keeps a record of global fishery statistics. It is the responsibility of all countries, along with their industries, to report the amount of fish they catch to FAO.
For many years, several experts have argued that the figures revealed by the Food and Agriculture Organization don’t represent a complete picture.
Professor Daniel Pauly, the lead author of the study, suggests there are several reasons for what he describes as “systemic underestimation”. He argues that FAO gets figures only from large scale “industrial” fishing activities, which don’t include estimates for illegal fishing, small scale commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, subsistence fisheries, and discarded by-catch.
In their study, researchers collaborated with partners all over the world to help them analyze the official Food and Agriculture Organization data. They used “catch reconstruction” method to tap into other sources of information to identify areas where data might be misrepresented or missing. The researchers claim this method was able to provide far more accurate picture of the scale of the impacts of fishing across the world. They explored regional data, and also contacted local experts and agencies before finally coming up with estimates of fish catches for the period between 1950 and 2010 – which appear to be more realistic. The study suggests that every year, about 32 million tonnes of fish catches go unreported.
“The catches are all underestimated”
said lead author Prof Daniel Pauly.
“The FAO doesn’t have a mandate to correct the data that they get – and the countries have the bad habit of reporting only what they see – if they don’t have people who report on a given fishery then nothing is reported. The result of this is a systematic underestimation of the catch and this can be very high, 200-300% especially in small island states, in the developed world it can be 20-30%.”
Prof Pauly gives the example of Bahamas where fish caught by small scale fishers are not reported at all. But when researchers visited big hotels and resorts, they were able to find invoices for the fishes sold by small scale fishermen to hotels directly.
The study observed that before 1996, the annual rate of fish catch from ocean was much higher than was reported by the United Nations. New stocks of fishes were discovered between 1950s and 1990s which increased the overall global catch, despite the fact that fish stocks were depleting continuously. Then 1996 was the year when fish catching was at its peak, with 86 million tonnes of fish catch being reported by the UN organization. Researchers, however, found the actual figure to be around 130 million tonnes – a difference of 44 million tonnes for that year. By then, fish populations had already experienced much loss, and a period of decline started.
“In other words, it was never really sustainable.”
“We went through one stock after the other, for example around the British Isles, the stocks in the North Sea were diminished right after the Second World War.”
“And then British trawlers went to Iceland and did the same thing there, and so on and so did the Germans, the Americans, so did the Soviets.”
“They had to expand to survive and now the fisheries are in Antarctica.”
For the period after 1996, the UN data reveals the global catch to be constant or dropping slightly, but the UBC study observed that the actual catches were probably dropping off more sharply.
The authors suggest that the FAO might consider, in the future, asking all countries to report catch figures separately for both small-scale and large-scale fisheries to ensure that catches from small-scale fisheries don’t go unreported. They also emphasize the significance of stock rebuilding and introducing fishing quotas to allow fish stocks to replenish themselves.
This study was led by researchers Dirk Zeller and Daniel Pauly of the UBC’s “Sea Around Us” project. The detailed results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Communications.