Long-term solutions to sustainable fisheries

This article is part of our series of posts on short-termism, and has been written by guest-writer Marika Vilisaar.

Unless we act now, scientists speculate that, due to unsustainable fishing practices, seafood may disappear by 2048 [1]. This would not only impact global food security, but also the global economy. The report "Reviving the Ocean Economy: The case for action - 2015" underlines the ocean’s role as an economic powerhouse with a worth of USD24 trillion (equivalent to €19,8 trillion). Current underperformance due to inefficient governance and overexploitation of fish stocks costs us an estimated annual loss of € 41 billion [2].

This article points out the incremental benefits derived from global fisheries reform and shows how fisheries possess a remarkable potential for recovery. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that within merely ten years, 79% of the world’s fisheries could recover and increase the profits in the fishing sector by USD51 billion (equivalent to a 115% increase) a year compared to today, if case fisheries are managed sustainably. By 2050, this translates into USD 74 billion (equivalent to EUR61 billion) or a 168% increase [3]. This proves important economic potential through a long-term sustainable management of the world’s fisheries.

Challenges to achieving sustainable fisheries

The world is in need to find long-term environmentally and socially sustainable solutions to a fourfold global challenge:

  1. Recovery of depleted fish stocks

  2. Ensuring food security for 9.7 billion people

  3. Prevention of food loss and spoilage

  4. Securing livelihood for 56.6 million people

Recovery of depleted fish stocks

Habitat degradation, worsened environmental conditions, increased fishing pressure from growing human population, poor governance and the open access style fishing at overcapacity with a lack of management, regulation and efficient law enforcement are factors that lead to declining fish stocks and overfishing. Overcapacity occurs when the fishing effort (including the fishing fleet) is larger than needed to catch the available resources. Current ‘open access’ or ‘Olympic’ style fishing manifests itself as a ‘race for fish’. This leads to overexploitation of fish stocks.

Studies show that over one third of global stocks of commercially exploitable species are overfished. In 2013, the share of commercially assessed fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels was 68.6%. Most stocks, 58.1%, were fully fished with no potential for increases in production, 31.4% of fish stocks were overfished and merely 10.5 % were under fished [4].

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every fifth fish is caught illegally [5]. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 10 - 22% of the world’s total fish catches are illegal, unreported and/or unregulated (IUU). IUU fishing is a major impediment to the long-term sustainable development of fisheries as it damages the environment and threatens marine biodiversity by diluting the effect of policies aiming at preserving fish stocks and protecting ecosystems. On top of that, IUU costs us an annual global economic loss of up to $ 20 billion (equivalent to € 18,5 billion), involving as much as 25 million metric tons of wild-caught seafood product. Weak legal and governance frameworks, lack of sufficient political will and capacity to monitor and control fisheries are among main impediments to tackle IUU fishing.

Poorly designed legal frameworks to social, economic, political arrangements and processes through which fisheries are managed are a major cause of overfishing. Even with a relatively strong legal ecosystem in place, poor governance with lack of participation of key stakeholders, lack of accountability and transparency will contribute towards unsustainable fishing practices. Inadequate sanctions neither secure compliance, discourage violations nor deprive offenders of the benefits from crime and other illegal activities.

Ensuring food security for 9.7 billion people

The steadily growing population, which per prognosis will plateau at some 9.7 billion people by 2050, increased wealth and higher purchasing power raises the consumption and demand for food. There is a greater competition for land, water, and energy in addition to the necessity to curb the effects of food production on the environment. More than one in seven people still do not have access to sufficient protein and energy and even more people suffer from some form of micronutrient malnourishment [6].

Studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 [7]. Global meat consumption is predicted to double by 2050 [8].

Global fish consumption per capita has already shown to double from about 10 kilograms in the 1960s to 20 kilograms today [9]. Fish, both wild-caught and farmed seafood, provides more than 3.1 billion people with approximately 20% of their average per capita intake of animal protein [10].

Prevention of food loss and spoilage

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – 1.3 billion tons – gets lost or wasted. This translates into $ 1 trillion in economic costs, around $ 700 billion in environmental costs and around $ 900 billion in social costs [11]. Seafood and fish comprises 35% from the global lost or wasted food [12].

According to the study by Sea Around Us, nearly 10 million tons - equivalent to almost 10% of the world’s total catch in the last decade - was discarded due to poor fishing practices and inadequate manage-ment, filling about 4,500 Olympic sized swimming pools of discarded fish a year [13]. This accounts for a significant economic loss and squandered resources.

Securing livelihood for 220 million people

The global fishing industry generates more than 220 million jobs [14]. Estimated of 56.6 million people were engaged in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture of which 84% of constitutes Asia. Out of the 18 million engaged in fish farming, 94% were in Asia. Women accounted for 19% of all people directly engaged in the primary sector, while approximately 50% the workforce in the secondary sector (e.g. processing and trading) [15]. Long-term solutions to sustainable fishing practices therefore need to account for the economic significance of the fishing industry.


If we as a society do not shift towards environmentally sustainable food sources, we simply will run out of food. Whi