Figure 1. Stagnant Capture Fishery Supply: Growing Aquaculture Production 1950-2005
The Economic Health of Fisheries
The focus on the declining biological health of the world’s fisheries has tended to obscure the even more critical economic health of the fisheries. Economically, healthy fisheries are fundamental to achieving not only the restoration of fish stocks but other accepted objectives for the fisheries sector, such as improved livelihoods, exports, fish food security and economic growth. When fish stocks are fully exploited in the biological sense, the associated fisheries are almost invariably performing below their economic optimum. In some cases, fisheries may be biologically sustainable but still operate at an economic loss. The depletion in fish capital resulting from overexploitation is rarely reflected in the reckoning of a nation’s overall capital and GDP growth.
For over three decades the world’s marine fish stocks have come under increasing pressure from fishing, from loss of habitats and from pollution. Rising sea temperatures and the increasing acidity of the oceans is placing further stress on already stressed ecosystems. Illegal fishing and unreported catches undermine fishery science while some subsidies continue to support unsustainable fishing practices.
Declining Productivity – Increasing Pressures
Long before the fuel price increases of 2008, the economic health of the world’s marine fisheries has been in decline. The build-up of redundant fishing fleet capacity, deployment of increasingly powerful fishing technologies and increasing pollution and habitat loss has depleted fish stocks worldwide. Despite this increased fishing effort, the global marine catch has been stagnant for over a decade, while the catch per fisher, or per fishing vessel has declined. In many cases the catching operations are buoyed up by subsidies, so that the global fishery economy to the point of landing (the harvest sub-sector), is in deficit. Labor and fleet productivity has declined even as fishing technology has advanced (Fig. 2).Figure 2: Declining productivity, but increasing fishing fleets and fishing power
Half the fishing – half the fuel
If fish stocks were rebuilt, the current marine catch could be achieved with approximately half of the current global fishing effort. This illustrates the massive overcapacity in the global fleet. The excess fleets competing for the limited fish resources results in stagnant productivity and economic inefficiency.
In response to the decline in physical productivity, the global fleet has attempted to maintain profitability by reducing labor costs, through subsidies and by increased investment in technology. Partly as a result of the poor economic performance, real income levels of fishers remain depressed as the costs per unit of harvest have increased.
Declining real value and share of value
Over the last decade real landed fish prices have stagnated. The recent increases in food and fuel price have further depressed the fishery economy. The value of the marine capture seafood production at the point of harvest is some 20 percent of the $400 billion global food fish market. The growing market strength of processors and retailers and the growth of aquaculture (Fig. 1), which now accounts for some 50 percent of food fish production, have contributed to the downward pressure on producer prices.
Reform of the fisheries sector can generate economic growth and alternative livelihoods
Marine fisheries reform can recapture a substantial proportion of the economic losses. Rather than being a net drain on the global economy, sustainable fisheries can create an economic surplus and be a driver of economic growth, both in the marine economy and other sectors. The biological sustainability of fish stocks has often occupied the centre stage of international efforts, for example, the Plan of Implementation of the WSSD makes specific reference to recovery of fish stocks. However sustainable fisheries are not only a problem of biology and ecology, but one of managing political and economic processes and replacing pernicious incentives with those which foster improved governance and responsible stewardship.
The comprehensive reforms required imply political, social and economic costs. Fisheries reform is a long-term process and will require political will founded on a consensus vision built through broad stakeholder dialogue.