FAO leaders assess state of the world’s fisheries at sustainability symposium

Published on
November 20, 2019

The number of overfished stocks has been growing for years, but the commonly cited statistic that 90 percent of stocks are in peril doesn’t accurately reflect the health of the world’s oceans.

Manual Barange, the policy and resource director at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Fisheries and Aquaculture division, carefully differentiated maximally fished stocks and overfished stocks during his keynote address at FAO’s International Symposium on Sustainable Fisheries in Rome, Italy this week.

Today, 33 percent of stocks are overfished, a figure that has been rising as the number of underfished stocks has dropped. The large number of fish stocks in the third category — maximally fished — are fundamentally healthy, according to Barange.

"Adding the bad to the good does not result in the worse," Barange said. "One in every three marine stocks is in trouble, but not 90 percent."

In his keynote, Barange broadly assessed the state of the world’s fisheries.

Around the world, the greatest advances in sustainability are coming from developed nations, Barange added.

"We are fixing sustainability issues in developed regions," Barange said. "But we are not achieving the same success in developing regions."

At the same time, the number of undernourished people has risen since 2015 after decades of decline, reaching 800 million today. Barange noted that official development assistance in developing countries has declined since 2010, and a focus on conservation has risen in recent years. Conservation programs alone won’t make food systems sustainable, though: conservation must be integrated with sustainable use measures, Barange said.

Social sustainability in fishing — the health and status of workers and human communities — is emerging as the newest frontier in fishing. Currently, FAO is developing guidelines on social sustainability in fishing to help the industry combat seafood slavery, human rights abuses, and other labor problems.

"We need to ensure social sustainability and social responsibility across the sector," Barange said.

In addition, countries are currently negotiating a high seas treaty that would govern fishing and other activities in areas outside countries’ exclusive economic zones. The treaty, which would update the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has been through several rounds of negotiations so far, and Barange warned that countries and regional fishery management organizations must be at the forefront of the debate or risk being bypassed.

Fish provide vital micronutrients and are one of the best food sources available for growing populations. Globally, the trade in fish products exceeds that of all land-based animals combined. Developing nations reap much of the benefit of that trade, exchanging with each other regionally and adding value to products through processing.

"As we lift communities out of poverty, animal protein consumption increases," Barange said. "Many African, Asian, and Oceania countries consume a lot of fish, but also they are very dependent on fish. Without fish, the animal protein consumption would plummet."

Land-based food systems alone won't feed the world in the future, FAO Director-General Dongyu Qu said in his opening remarks. Wild capture fisheries and aquaculture will be needed. Societies should eat aquatic products, such as seaweed, and more parts of the fish, such as the head and tail. "Fish is an essential element in the future of sustainable food production," he said.

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