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The Stockholm Conference projected that annual harvests could approximately double from 1970 levels to 'rather more than 100 million tonnes' (UN 1972b), although the depletion of some fisheries by overexploitation was also recognized. In the same year the world's largest fishery, the Peruvian anchovy, crashed spectacularly, a result of years of unsustainable harvests precipitated by a strong El Niņo event. Harvests from marine capture fisheries did rise but failed to reach 100 million tonnes, fluctuating around 80-90 million tonnes from the mid- 1980s (see graph). Contrary to indications that the global fisheries catch is stable, a recent study reveals that catches have actually been declining for more than a decade (Watson and Pauly 2001). The study shows that vast overreporting of catches by some countries combined with the large and wildly fluctuating catch of the Peruvian anchovy, have painted a false picture of the health of the oceans. Aquaculture production, by contrast, has risen sharply but is entirely dominated by Asia and the Pacific (see graph).

Annual fish, mollusc and crustacean catch (milllion tonnes) by region
Annual fish, mollusc and crustacean catch per capita (kg) by region
Annual aquaculture production (million tonnes) by region

Global fish, mollusc and crustacean catch seems to have stabilized at around 90 million tonnes but per capita values have declined in Europe and North America; note Latin American variations due to fluctuations in the Peruvian anchovy fishery. Aquaculture production has risen steeply for more than a decade, and is dominated by Asia and the Pacific

Source: compiled from Fishstat 2001 and United Nations Population Division 2001

The Stockholm Conference recommended two basic approaches to fisheries management: improving management information through research, assessment and monitoring, and international cooperation. Despite great improvement in the quality and scope of fisheries information, better fisheries management has generally not been achieved. There has been an almost inexorable global trend towards increasingly intense exploitation and depletion of fisheries stocks (see figure), three-quarters of which are maximally exploited (FAO 2001), and many have collapsed. Global agreements aimed at sustainable fisheries exploitation include the adoption in 1995 of an Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries developed by the FAO.

Global trends in world fisheries stocks (%)

Percentage of world fish stocks that are under- or even moderately exploited is falling; depleted, overexploited and recovering stocks are becoming more common

Source: FAO 2001

Thirty years ago fisheries issues were considered almost entirely in economic and political terms. Today fisheries activities are increasingly recognized as environmental problems in the broader sense. The global expansion in yields has been delivered by fishing on progressively smaller species at lower levels in the marine food web (the knock-on effects of which are not fully understood) as the top predators have been depleted (Pauly and others 1998). The global by-catch of many million tonnes (Alverson and others 1994) includes not only charismatic animals such as dolphins and turtles but many other species. Effects on marine and coastal ecosystems are poorly known but are probably substantial (Jennings and Kaiser 1998, McManus, Reyes and Naņola 1997). Negative ecosystem impacts also result from some types of fishing gear (such as that used for bottom trawling) and destructive practices (such as blast fishing) which cause physical damage to the habitat. Recognition of the complex inter-relationships between fisheries and marine ecosystems, and the need for ecosystem considerations in the management of capture fisheries, is reflected in the FAO Reykjavik Declaration (2001) on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem.

While seafood is the primary source of protein for many coastal people, especially the poor, the global demise of fisheries has not been driven only by nutritional needs. Much of the catch is for luxury foods, or is processed into livestock feed. The 'tragedy of the commons' - the absence of a rational reason to restrain harvests that are freely available to all - is one root cause of overfishing while at the other end of the spectrum is so-called 'Malthusian overfishing' (Pauly 1990), when the desperately poor have no choice but to glean the last of the resource. Many attempts to manage fisheries sustainably have degenerated into a 'division of the spoils' (Caldwell 1996). Political imperatives to maintain employment, international competitiveness or sovereign rights of access have led to fisheries subsidies estimated at up to US$20 billion annually (Milazzo 1998), although these are probably now declining.