I think the fishing industry has taken a literal sense of the saying “there is plenty of fish in the sea” and decided it is time to catch them all. They have been enjoying unprecedented growth in the last 50 years. The global production of fish and seafood has nearly quadrupled, and the consumption of fish by the average person has doubled during this time. Picture this, nearly 4.5 billion people worldwide depend on fish for approximately 15 to 20% of their daily animal protein intake. That is more than half of our world’s population!
You probably guessed where I am going with this. When there is a high supply and demand for a commodity found in nature, overexploitation almost becomes inevitable. As of 2015, 33% of the global fish population was being overexploited. This means we were catching fish faster than the reproduction rate of the aquatic ecosystem. A significant contributor to this has been illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
With today being the International Day for the Fight against IUU fishing, I thought we could take some time to try and understand the threat of illegal fishing and why it happens in the first place. While we are at it, let us explore if there are any ways we can practice fishing and not destroy the balance of our ocean’s ecosystem?
The Threat of IUU Fishing
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), IUU fishing is responsible for the loss of 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish every year. In comparison, the reported wild fish catches are roughly between 90 and 94 million tonnes a year. That means nearly 11 to 27% of wild fish catches go unreported. This makes it challenging to regulate and end the overexploitation of fish production. So, if you like eating fish, right now there is no way to tell if the fish you are eating has been legally caught or not. Our current local, national, and international laws are not strong enough to trace the entire fish supply chain.
It is evident that if we do not find a solution to this problem, we risk endearing our aquatic ecosystem, food security, and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it. However, finding a solution to IUU fishing is going to be difficult. IUU fishing is a complex issue that is driven by a series of interconnecting economic, institutional, social, and environmental factors. Therefore, let us try to understand why IUU fishing occurs in the first place before trying to address it.
Why is IUU Fishing so Widespread?
There are two major reasons why IUU fishing is widespread. Let us start with the global seafood industry. The seafood business is one of the world’s most competitive industries. Extreme competitive pressure means seafood business owners must work on very thin profit margins. This means, if you are always fighting with someone to offer a better price, sooner or later you might try to secure cheap seafood supplies. Since the seafood supply chain lacks transparency and accountability, the cheap seafood supply you are buying could be illegally caught fish. This financial incentive of procuring low priced illegal fish and the lack of monitoring, control and surveillance of the fish supply chain almost makes IUU fishing enticing for seafood businesses.
Then there is a social factor behind IUU fishing. Fishermen who have a poor economic background, are often willing to provide cheap labour for people who are operating the IUU fishing expedition. Since the current international and national framework for the sea have many gaps in its regulation, it makes it very difficult to help local fisherman and prevent such activities from occurring in the first place.
It is clear that most of these issues with IUU fishing can be fixed if there is better monitoring and regulatory framework. However, this is easier said than done. There are hundreds and thousands of ports worldwide. All of these would need to work together and bring in strict universal rules that would deter people from IUU fishing. Additionally, they would need to come up with incentives for fishermen to practice legal fishing. However, this is all sounds great in theory, but in practice might have unintended consequences. Even so, this still does not address the issue of the global fish population from being overexploited. What if he had an alternative way to farm fish?
The Rise of Aquaculture
Aquaculture or fish farming has been a great innovative technique that has helped relieve some of the pressure on wild fish catches and IUU fishing. FAO defines aquaculture as “farming of aquatic organisms including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants”. The difference between fishing farming and the wild fish catch is like the difference between raising cows, pigs, chicken, etc. for food rather than hunting wild animals.
Aquaculture started gaining popularity in the 1960s when it was still fairly niche and had an output of roughly a few million tonnes a year. However, due to growing demands, this sector became incredibly famous. As of 2015, over 50% of global seafood production comes from aquaculture (Aquaculture – 106 million tonnes and wild catches – 92 million tonnes). This means aquaculture has replaced wild fish catches in terms of raw fish production output.
Aquaculture is a great sustainable option for consumers because it has lower greenhouse gas emissions than other types of farming. Aquaculture feels like a shining light at the end of the tunnel because it has the potential to improve the health of our planet and our population. Having said that, aquaculture is by no means perfect. When aquaculture is industrialized, it creates environmental pollution, problems in food safety, and animal welfare. However, it is a good alternative to empower local communities. One that relies on the ancient art of aquaculture rather than the recent industrialization form of it.
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