Over the last 30 years, global consumption of fish has doubled. There are many reasons for this: the growing world population, industrial fishing’s economies of scale allowing wider access to cheap seafood, increasing purchasing power in countries with emerging markets and greater awareness about the nutritional benefits of eating fish.
Between growing demand and extraordinary technological progress in the sector, fishing has become a colossal global industry. Though it has no more than a few thousand factory fishing boats, the industry is still capable of radically changing the natural equilibrium of marine ecosystems, stripping nature of its ability to renew resources.
For the last ten years, the increase in fishing potential has not been matched by any increase in global production and the stagnation or decline in catch volumes hides a very significant development: small fish and species at the bottom of the food chain – often thrown back into the sea because they are of little commercial interest – are making up a growing percentage of catches.
Despite all this, governments (particularly in Asia) use heavy subsidies to continue to provide an absurd amount of support to industrial fleets, which often operate without any regulation, far from national waters. Some of these fishing boats are effectively floating factories. They use sonar, aircraft and satellites to identify fish shoals, before descending on them with drift nets or lines with thousands of hooks, many kilometers long. The caught fish can be frozen and packaged on board. The biggest boats, up to 170 meters long, have a storage capacity equivalent to several Boeing 747s.
The boats most responsible for unsustainable fishing are those from the former Soviet Union, especially the Russian Federation or the Ukraine, which sail under flags of convenience from countries like Belize or Panama, and the unregistered pirate ships, many of which come from the fleets of the Russian Federation, Japan, Belize, Panama and Honduras.
The problem of overfishing rises from the fact that beyond the first 200 nautical miles off a country’s coast (the country’s exclusive economic zone), access to resources is not regulated. So anyone with a boat can fish and exploit marine resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, brings the freedom to fish in international waters conditional on countries’ willingness to cooperate amongst themselves to guarantee the conservation and healthy management of fish stocks.
Currently these stipulations are little more than empty words. The consequences on marine biodiversity are evident. If fisheries management does not change radically, marine diversity will suffer a significant impoverishment, a process which has already begun.
Industrial looting of the seas also directly threatens the areas fished artisanally by coastal communities, who are heavily dependent on marine resources. It will be impossible to reverse current trends if the current intensity of fishing is not reduced, halting the operations of a large part of the global fleet, and if the precautionary principle is not introduced into the regulations and legislation governing the fishing industry. The FAO has drawn up a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, but the political will behind its enforcement is lacking. This reluctance is increasingly incomprehensible, given the incessant pace at which businesses in the sector are failing, while catches keep getting smaller.