According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the proportion of fish stocks caught unsustainably rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015.
What triggered the hostilities, with the launch of smoke and stones, was the trespassing by British boats across the line that runs between Barfleur and Cap d’Antifer in Normandy. According to the agreements between London and Paris, the British fishermen of the finest mollusks—the famous coquilles Saint-Jacques, as the scallops are called in French (symbol par excellence of the pilgrimage to Compostela)—must in fact remain north of the invisible line.
Complicating the situation, at least for French fishermen, is the fact that English law allows the scallops to be fished as early as August 1 of each year, while the French laws delay that until October 1, which means that the fishermen across the Channel have a strategic advantage over their French colleagues.
It’s not the first time that access to the right to fishing certain marine species ends up at the center of strong tensions between countries. Perhaps the best-known example is the so-called Cod Wars of the second half of the last century between Iceland on one side, the United Kingdom and—even if to a lesser extent—Belgium and what was then West Germany on the other side.
Risk of armed conflicts
Although up to now in these situations there have been no armed clashes (only one case of an accidental death in the Cod Wars), this could change in the near future, warns Foreign Policy magazine in an article published on September 12 under the title Food Fight and signed by Kate Higgins-Bloom. In her article, the author explains that this type of conflict has the potential to trigger real armed clashes, especially when the issue of access to fishing areas occurs in waters disputed by various countries. A concrete example is the situation in the East China Sea, where Beijing boats escorted by the Chinese navy or coast guard venture into the waters around the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in Chinese), currently administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.
In response, Tokyo has strengthened its presence in the area, at high risk of a real armed confrontation. In 2012, the then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that “the islands are an integral part of our territory and our nation will never give up even a millimeter of our land.”
Beijing, moreover, has the largest deep-sea fishing fleet—more than 2,500 deep-sea fishing vessels, according to Greenpeace estimates—and has been accused of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) on an industrial scale in the waters facing the Argentine and Senegalese coasts.
Population growth at a global level reinforces this risk. According to UN projections, by the middle of this century the world population is expected to rise by 29 percent, from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion people.
Furthermore, Higgins-Bloom notes, growth will occur in areas of the world where millions of people have recently recovered from poverty and become part of the middle class, and therefore will prefer a more protein-rich diet.
According to estimates by the author, who is commander of the American Coast Guard, worldwide demand for protein will exceed population growth, growing between 32 percent and 78 percent. This in turn implies that between 62 and 159 million tons of extra protein will be needed per year, quantities that the fishing sector—whether fresh or frozen, or that of the farm—is not able to supply for now.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture report
The question that arises is, therefore: What is the situation in the fishing industry? This is answered by latest edition of the SOFIA or State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report by the FAO.
The document shows that by 2030 the combined production of fish caught wild and fish reared in fisheries will reach 201 million tons. This is an increase of 18 percent—almost a fifth—compared to the production level recorded in 2016: 171 million tons.
The total amount of fish caught wild was 90.9 million tons in 2016, of which 79.3 million tons were harvested from the ocean. This is a slight decrease of about two million tons compared to the previous year (81.2 million tons), due to the fluctuations of the Pacific anchovy (or Peruvian anchovy) attributable to the well-known El Niño climate phenomenon. The total amount of freshwater fishing was 11.6 million tons.
Farmed fish production continues to grow. According to the FAO data, in 2016, aquaculture provided 110.1 million tons of food, of which 80 million tons were fish, and as well 30.1 million tons of aquatic plants (mainly algae). Over the last few decades, the share of fish coming from farms has not stopped growing, even if at a slower pace: from 25.7 percent in 2000 to 46.8 percent in 2016.
Fish reserves and overfishing
The 2018 report of the FAO, which bears the subtitle Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, also shows that the share of fish stocks that have remained within biologically sustainable levels has fallen from 90 percent in 1974 to 66.9 percent in 2015. The proportion of unsustainably fished stocks rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015.
With regard to the 16 main statistical fishing areas, the FAO areas with the lowest proportion of fish stocks taken at biologically unsustainable rates (13 percent to 17 percent) are located mostly in the Pacific Ocean. For example, the three lowest areas are FAO area 77 (the central-eastern Pacific), FAO area 67 (the north-eastern Pacific), and the FAO area 61 (the north-western Pacific).
On the other hand, the data concerning the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, which together constitute the FAO area 37, are particularly worrying: they record the highest amount (62.2 percent, or almost two thirds) of unsustainable stocks. After that comes the FAO area 87 (the south-eastern Pacific 61.5 percent), and the FAO area 41 (the south-western Atlantic 58.8 percent).
A crowded and hungry world
While global consumption of fish products has grown at an average annual rate of 1.5 percent from almost 20 lb. per capita in 1961 to 44.5 lb. in 2015, the largest consumers are on the Asian continent: over two-thirds or 106 million tons out of a total of 149 million tons in 2015, or 53 lb. per capita. About 20 percent, that is, one fifth, was consumed in 2015 in Europe, Japan and the USA; an amount that still reached 47 percent in 1961.
“The fishing industry is key to meeting the FAO’s goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition, and its contribution to economic growth and the fight against poverty is growing,” explained FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. The Brazilian agronomist also recalled the challenges facing the sector, including “the need to reduce the percentage of fish stocks caught beyond biological sustainability.”
One of these challenges is undoubtedly also to reduce waste: the FAO report shows, for example, that over a quarter of fish production, 27 percent, is lost due to deterioration or is thrown away after the landing, even before arriving on our tables. A real pity, especially if we think that we live in “a crowded and hungry world,” where “battles for resources are a real possibility,” writes Higgins-Bloom.