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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. Whilst in the past the main solution to food shortages has been to bring more land into agriculture and to exploit new fish stocks, we now need to produce more food from the same amount of land and fish stocks, whilst at the same time reducing the environmental impact of food production.

In order to develop long-term solutions to the aforementioned challenges, a broad range of initiatives to guarantee conversation of fisheries, livelihoods and financial viability is required, such as the development of advanced decision making methods, improved governance and regulation, new models for sustainable fishing practices and new technologies.

Long-term sustainable marine governance, compliance and enforcement

A strong legal framework and transparent marine governance with participation and accountability of all relevant key stakeholders can contribute towards the development of more sustainable fisheries. Allocating adequate resources to various law enforcement bodies (e.g. coast guard, marine police) is a further important precondition to ensure the compliance with regulations which include effective monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) and law enforcement of both national laws, regional and international treaty obligations. In addition it is necessary to have adequate administrative and judicial sanctions in place to enable penalties or prosecute fish crime, depending on the severity of the breach of law.

Reduction of overcapacity

It is necessary to reduce fishing capacity to match the available fish resources for the fisheries to recover. This could be achieved through variety of measures. One example is to fight IUU fishing which both contributes to overcapacity but is also a symptom of it. Secondly, the establishment of protected marine reserves not only reduces the capacity in the protected zone to zero, but also creates net-benefit capacity through spillover effects. Thirdly, obstructive subsidies (e.g. vessel construction [16] and fuel tax waivers) remain a key threat to global fisheries sustainability as they reduce the cost of fishing and contribute to overcapacity and overexploitation of fish stocks. Other forms of measures to reduce overcapacity include offering positive incentives (e.g. tax incentives to fishermen) and the implementation of innovative governance structures, such as fisheries co-management models.

Exploring new technologies and designs

Emerging technologies can be vital to transform fisheries sector. For example, traceability solutions can transform the entire fisheries value chain – from “boat to plate”. Combating IUU fishing can also involve various innovative technology solutions [17]. Such technology solutions include shared databases on vessel registries and licenses for evaluating fishing authorizations, automatic identification systems and vessel monitoring systems (VMS), e-logbooks for prompt reporting of catches, onboard camera inspections for fully observing fishing operations, port-in port-out communications for enforcement, e-transaction of market information for traceability and catch documentation schemes for catch information.

Securing (alternative) livelihoods for fishers

Even though increased value of fish translates into increased earnings for fishers and improved legal framework/law enforcement protects local fisheries resources, governments need to ensure a long-term economic and social wellbeing of fishers. It is vital to lower pressure on marine resources and hence to develop alternative sustainable livelihoods to fishers, provide training and design acceptable compensation packages. These alternative livelihood solutions could include anything from handicrafts, gardening, farming to coconut oil production [18].

Exploring solutions to reduce food loss/waste

Research suggests that if just one-fourth of food currently lost could be saved, we would be able to feed an additional 870 million people. Food waste and loss can be tackled by strengthening the supply chain through improved infrastructure (e.g. cold storage), transportation and expansion of the food and packaging industry and via direct support of all stakeholders. It is equally important to raise awareness among industries, retailers and consumers in developed countries and to find beneficial use for food that is presently thrown away [19].

Exploring eco-conscious consumers

Supply and demand surveys show that consumer habits are changing. Eco-conscious consumers are increasingly looking for healthy, sustainably sourced seafood options offering value for money as well as variety. In combination with reliable traceability, responsible fish vendors can offer the end-consumers assurance that the seafood they consume derives from sustainable sources and is labelled accurately.

Exploring and promoting new species

Often consumers are unaware of the abundance of underutilized and underappreciated seafood. In the U.S more than two-thirds of the seafood eaten is salmon, shrimp, canned tuna and (farm-raised) tilapia [20]. By raising consumer awareness and by creating markets for currently underutilized fish, we decrease the pressure on the most popular fish, thus lessening overfishing, in addition to providing income for local fishermen and helping the community.


Aquaculture has been seen as a potential long-term solution to the depletion of fish stocks and the world's increasing appetite for healthy protein. A milestone was reached, for the first time, as the world’s population consumed more farmed than wild-caught fish [21]. World aquaculture production reached 101.1 MT, representing 52% of total fisheries production (195.7 MT) [22].

Science based decision making

Global fisheries are part of a complex, dynamic and interconnected system, and it is vital that decision making practices reflect this challenge. Evidence based decision making for governance, conservation and management, planning and performance measurement are therefore necessary to ensure the productivity and sustainability of both fisheries, fishing communities and to conserve protected marine resources.

Case Study

Blockchain for supply chain transparency

The Fishing industry faces many challenges and loopholes in the system – such as the abuse of supply chains. This is where technology solution in sustainability or ‘SusTech’ may help [23]. Blockchain – a digital database of time-stamped records or transactions – underpins the digital currency bitcoin and is becoming increasingly popular as a track and trace tool for physical supply chains. Such technology solutions can be used in various sectors, including policymaking, land registry, finance property and food (including seafood) sectors.

How does blockchain technology work in the fisheries sector? Blockchain technology along with mobile and smart tags replace the traditional contracts, paperwork and identification methods. It tracks physical products and verified attributes from origin to point of sale. Therefore, it provides a step-by-step guide to verify a fish’s journey from the ‘boat to the plate’, transform entire supply chains and preserve the integrity of the food supply. What records are uploaded to the platform are up to the companies and could be for instance in video, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag or quick response (QR) code format [24]. Blockchain technology can enable the tracking of time, location, species and amount of catch (via uploaded records showing where and when the fish was caught and via SMS from the fisher reporting the amount of catch), where and when the catch was processed, stored, transported and when it reached the supermarket or restaurant. The information on the origin and supply chain journey of the fish can then be accessed and verified by the end buyers/consumers by simply scanning the packaging using a smartphone app.

Transferring the entire supply chain on blockchain would make all information once recorded tamper-proof, verifiable and accessible to all times. It must be noted that blockchain on its own does not eradicate abuses in fisheries on its own, nor is it an already perfected solution. Amongst some of its current drawbacks are the low speed of transactions, the high energy consumption and the high level and cryptographic complexity. However, it offers the potential to make the supply chain fully transparent and traceable, and therefore can contribute to an improved regulatory environment and help avoid unsustainably caught or IUU fish entering the supply chain.

In May 2016, the company Provenance successfully used blockchain technology to track a tuna fish caught in Maluku, Indonesia, from landing to factory and beyond [25]. Similarly, the WWF has introduced blockchain technology in its Blockchain Supply Chain Traceability Project to the Pacific Islands’ tuna industry to enable supply chain traceability.


  1. National Geographic, Seafood May Be Gone by 2048, Study Says, 2 November 2006, available at:

  2. The OECD Handbook for Fisheries Managers, Principles and Practice for Policy Design, 2013, p 61.

  3. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Report Unlocking the potential of global fisheries, February 2016, available at:

  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016, p 6,,

  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016,

  6. H. Charles J. Godfray, et al, Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People, Science 327, 812-818 (2010), p 812, available at:

  7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, 2050: A third more mouths to feed, 23 September 2009, Rome, available at:

  8. FAO 2016. Meat & Meat Products, available at:

  9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016, available at:

  10. World Wildlife Fund, Working for sustainable fishing, available at:

  11. FAO, Policy Support and Governance, available at:

  12. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction, Key facts on food loss and waste you should know!, available at:

  13. Note: The study carried out by researchers with Sea Around Us, an initiative at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the University of Western Australia. The study examined the amount of discarded fish from the 1950s when about five million tons of fish were discarded every year, to the 1980s when that figure grew to 18 million tons, to current levels of about 10 million tons per year are discarded. Source: The University of British Columbia, Ten million tons of fish wasted every year despite declining fish stocks, 26 June 2017, available at:

  14. P 83, available at:

  15. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016, available at:

  16. Note: The total number of fishing vessels in the world in 2014 was estimated at about 4.6 million, from which of 3.5 million vessels were in Asia. The motorized fleet was distributed unevenly – Asia having 80% of the global motorized fleet. Source: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp, p 35, available at:

  17. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp, p 109, available at:

  18. H. Wedathanthrige, C. Amarasiri and C. Fernando (2013). Promoting non-fisheries livelihoods in small-scale fisheries communities in Sri Lanka: The process of planning and implementation, available at:

  19. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction, Key facts on food loss and waste you should know!, available at:

  20. Fosters, Wine Me Dine Me: Know Fish dinners teach how to eat sustainably, 4 May 2017, available at:

  21. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016, available at:

  22. Seafish Insight: The global picture – fishmeal production and trends, July 2016, available at:

  23. Note: Guillaume Chapron, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Riddarhyttan, has brought out a term ‘SusTech’, to call new technology like the blockchain in the field of sustainability. Source: Science, Can bitcoin’s cryptographic technology help save the environment?, 22 May 2017, available at:

  24. Note: RFID of Radio-Frequency Identification refers to a small electronic device (consisting of a small chip and an antenna) using electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects, while QR code or Quick Response Code is the trademark of a type of a barcode.

  25. Provenance, From shore to plate: Tracking tuna on the blockchain, available at:


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