Overfishing Has Been Even Worse Than We Thought

Official counts previously overlooked fish as bycatch, small-scale fishing and illegal fishing

Fish caught for drying in a village in Bangladesh Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/ZUMA Press/Corbis

For decades, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has collected reports about how much fish people have hauled out of the oceans. But according to new research, those numbers are wrong. More fish was caught than previously believed, and in recent years, the catch has dropped even more precipitously—a troubling sign of declining fish populations.

The FAO numbers don't take into account small-scale fishing, recreational fishing, illegal fishing or the bycatch that's discarded before boats come into harbor. A study, published yesterday in Nature Communications, aims to fill in those gaps. Adding in these previously uncounted fish increases the total world catch from 1950 to 2010 by just over one half.

“The world is withdrawing from a joint bank account of fish without knowing what has been withdrawn or the remaining balance. Better estimates for the amount we’re taking out can help ensure there is enough fish to sustain us in the future,” study author Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, tells Steve Conner from The Independent.

Based on official counts, global catches peaked in 1996 at 86 million metric tons and have declined modestly at a rate of about 0.38 million metric tons each year. But after examining fisheries in more than 200 countries and territories, the new study puts the 1996 peak at 130 million metric tons and a much steeper decline of 1.2 million metric tons per year since. The greatest declines came in the industrial fishing sector.​

The decline isn't due to less fishing or restrictions on certain fish. "It is due to the countries fishing too much and having exhausted one fish after the other," Pauly said in a teleconference, reports Chelsea Harvey for The Washington Post

Together, the findings suggest that humans' fishing practices have been even more unsustainable than previously thought, Harvey writes. Pauly and his co-author, Dirk Zeller, urge the FAO to change their accounting practices to get a more accurate measure of the health of the world's fisheries.

However Pauly does see some room for hope. "The fact that we catch far more than we thought is, if you like, a more positive thing," he tells Damian Carrington at The Guardian. "Because if we rebuild stocks, we can rebuild to more than we thought before." 

The findings also emphasize the value of fisheries to low-income people in developing countries, Carrington writes. The next steps will require some clear-headed action to preserve that critical resource for people and for the planet.

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