Fisheries have traditionally been seen as an inexhaustible resource. However, over-consumption is revealing the fallacy of this assumption. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) classifies 50 percent of global fisheries as over-exploited and an additional 20 percent as moderately exploited, meaning that these fisheries are being harvested faster than they can be naturally replenished (FAO 2004). Estimates predict nearly complete depletion of natural fisheries as early as 2056 (Roach, 2006). Fisheries are plagued by over-harvesting, a rate of fish mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) on a regular basis (NOAA 2003). This leads to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem disruption of marine environments. The health of fisheries is also threatened by water pollution. This causes hypoxic dead zones, where oxygen levels are so low that most fish cannot survive. These have formed in locations from New Zealand to Scandinavia and have been recorded in excess of 18,000 square kilometers.


There is an inherent collective action problem in the management of common pool fisheries. Fish stocks are finite, yet competitors race to maximize their catch. Commercial fishers receive the full profit from their harvests while incurring only a fraction of the ecological costs. The driving factors of commercial fishery depletion are an adherence to short-term profit maximization and incomplete data on the current health of species populations. Harmful fishing methods, such as trawling and the use of drift nets, have also reduced the biodiversity of global fisheries and destroyed ecosystems. Careless fishing practices result in a high percentage of by-catch in each sweep. By-catch refers to the aquatic life unintentionally caught while fishing for a specific species. It is estimated that for every three tons of commercially viable catch, one ton of by-catch is produced, resulting in roughly 27 million tons of by-catch annually (FAO 2004). Global warming, ozone depletion, invasive species, and chemical pollution are all factors that also contribute to the loss of the world’s fisheries by fundamentally changing the ecosystem in which fish live.

Fish are a vital source of micronutrients, minerals, dietary proteins, and essential fatty acids for human populations across the globe (FAO 2004). Fish contribute over 50 percent of total dietary animal protein in countries including Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana (FAO 2004). Additionally, the fishing industry is a vital component of the global economy. Commercial fishing employs roughly 38 million people across the globe, including fishermen and processors, and manufactures nearly 80 million tons of biomass each year (FAO 2004). Ten species account for 30 percent of this production. According to the FAO, seven of these species are over-fished with declining stocks. With this immense impact on both the economy and the diets of many, fishery depletion has the potential to greatly affect the global human population.

An International Issue

Despite decades of international cooperative efforts to alleviate fisheries depletion, the state of global fisheries remains dire. The current regime has not succeeded. It has failed to incorporate pertinent issues in key agreements, implement effective enforcement of treaties, engage full participation of important actors, avoid fragmentation, or build sufficient capacity in developing countries. Without such cooperation, this problem cannot be solved.


FAO. State of the World’s Fisheries (SOFIA) 2004. 2004. (accessed 19 April 2006).

FAO. Ethical Issues in Fisheries. 2005. (accessed 06 February 2007).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, 2. (accessed 07 February 2007).

Roach, John. ‘Seafood May Be Gone by 2048, Study Says’. National Geographic News 2 November 2006. (accessed 07 February 2007).

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