Food security

The global drama of overfishing

Fish stocks are being depleted fast. Coastal communities in developing countries suffer most – and industrial-scale fishing is the main reason.

By Francisco J. Marí

The overfishing of international waters is a moral challenge. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that fish stocks off the coast of developing countries are most affected (see box on p. 424) – precisely where hunger is most prevalent.

Fish farms help to meet global demand, which is growing by 4.2 % annually. Humankind on average currently consumes 18.8 kilos of fish per capita and year. The FAO points out, however, that the rapid growth of aquaculture has not reduced the pressure on wildlife habitats even though 42 % of all of the fish sold as food worldwide now comes from aquaculture. As humankind continues to grow, so does the demand for fish.

Fish consumption is rising in Europe too. To some extent, the food industry is trying to ease German shoppers’ guilt feelings about overfishing by using packaging that provides some – ultimately inconclusive and sometimes even unreliable – information about where the fish comes from and whether the species is endangered. German consumers only get five percent of their protein intake from fish. But as in many industrialised countries, the trend is upwards. Increasingly, fast food restaurants and sushi bars focus on fish dishes. Western health experts even tell people to eat fish twice a week. If everyone on Earth followed this advice, the global supply of fish would have to double.

In reality, most people in rich nations do not have to eat more fish to round off their diets. Western Europeans already tend to eat too much meat, so they do not need additional fish protein, healthy as it may be. The point is that consumers in the rich world can afford fish, in contrast to many people in poor countries. The main way that the food industry, retailers and consumers in industrialised countries notice global overfishing is in higher fish prices.

More than a source of protein

In many developing countries, however, fish is not a luxury, but a staple food. Fresh fish is 18 % to 20 % protein and also contains all eight essential amino acids along with important vitamins. Roughly 2.6 billion people get at least 20 % of the animal protein they need from fish. People who live on Asian and African coasts – in the Philippines, Indonesia, Senegal or Ghana for instance – get most of their protein from fish.

The fishing sector is important for developing countries in other ways as well: it is a source of income for fisherfolk and related trades; and provides the base for other industries adding value. Local economies could profit a lot more if it weren’t for foreign fleets of industrial scale that catch away the prey from domestic fishermen and serve lucrative international markets.

Fish consumption is currently dropping in Africa. Rising prices on global markets mean that poor consumers can no longer afford to buy fish. Poverty is especially wide-spread in sub-Saharan Africa.

In contrast, fish consumption is rising in Asia, especially in China, where the booming economy means that a growing number of people can buy expensive food. In light of fast increasing demand – and overfished natural stocks – many Asian companies are resorting to aquaculture, which is not only good for exports, but also serves local consumers. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to stop overfishing.

The poorest African countries are the biggest losers in the process. The reduction in wild fish greatly affects their people. To ensure that disadvantaged segments of society get enough animal protein, more money should have been invested in commercial ranches a long time ago. Such projects, however, were not the focus of agriculture programmes run by African governments and international donors. Today, meat from industrialised countries and emerging markets tends to be so cheap, that smallholders in ­Africa are crowded out of markets.

Poor people’s food is fed to fish

The use of fish meal in aquaculture also raises moral issues. Fish meal is the least expensive of all foods containing protein. Increasingly, herrings, mackerels and anchovies – which are among the most affordable in developing countries – end up as fish oil and fish meal for aquaculture. At the same time, more valu­able species – such as perch, pike, sole (flatfish) and tuna – are exported or sold to urban middle and upper classes. The poor now are competing for inexpensive fish with fish meal producers.

To meet the demand for fish meal in wealthy cities and nations, large trawlers are being operated. They catch species with high fat content. In the past three years, for instance, the now deposed government of Senegal sold the entire seasonal catch – 40,000 tons – at a low price of 35 dollars per ton to 20 Russian and Baltic trawlers, which used it to make fish meal.

The focus on short-term profits not only affects food supply negatively. It hurts small fishermen too. More than 100 million people work in this sector, and an additional 400 million people work in fish processing and sales. Unlike traditional fisherfolk, industrial-scale fishing focuses mainly on the lucrative world market. Big ships typically do not even bring their catch to local shores, but take it to a rich buyer country for further processing.

The traditional fishing sector offers people real opportunities to feed themselves. Fishing techniques, boat sizes and labour intensity differ considerably from what is found in industrial fishing. Nonetheless, the high-tech ships are increasingly entering areas that were officially set aside for small fishermen (see box below). Illegal trawlers are colliding with pirogues of artisanal fishermen or tearing up their nets ever more often. The officials who are supposed to monitor these waters for poor countries normally lack the resources to enforce the law (see box on p. 426).

There are, indeed, too many small fishermen, and some of the equipment they use is illegal, so they contribute to overfishing too. However, artisanal fishermen and their organisations are becoming ever more aware of the need to protect resources in the long run. They increasingly appreciate catch quotas of seasonal bans on fishing. They take interest in fuel-efficient engines and appreciate nets with gaps that are large enough for young fish to escape. On the other hand, many fishing families are struggling for their livelihoods.

Great trawlers from rich nations, however, freeze fish on board off the Mauritanian coast, for instance, and travel on to sell it in Cameroon or Nigeria at cutthroat prices. This way, international investors are ­ruining local markets and pushing weaker competitors into poverty. The livelihood of millions of women who process the fish on land – by smoking, salting, and drying it – is at stake. An estimated 50 million women worldwide process the daily catch of traditional fishing communities.

Cooperation is necessary

European governments (see box below) could help reduce such conflicts. The EU understands that it is its duty to ensure that fishing companies from its member countries conduct their business in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner all over the world. Otherwise, millions of people in the coastal regions of developing countries will lose incomes and affordable food supplies. The same people, of course, are the ones who are most affected by climate change and rising sea levels.
The irony is that industrial-scale fishing is ­digging its own grave. According to the FAO, commercial fishing will be a thing of the past by 2048 if the current trends continue. No one should think that developing countries can somehow replace lost jobs and protein-rich food simply by relying on fish farms. The growth of aquaculture in Asia has ­revealed the ecological and social limits of this ­approach.

German politicians and consumers increasingly understand the detrimental impact of overfishing on development opportunities. Non-governmental development agencies such as Bread for the World feel encouraged by this trend. They believe it is important to help traditional fishing communities, including those who process and retail the goods, to organise. In the international arena, these people still lack the clout to ensure that fishing policy does not overlook the interests of the poor.

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