The Plight of Global Fisheries

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19


The ocean is the only international space on Earth governed by no nation, yet theoretically the property of all. This lack of national responsibility creates an open space for humanity, but also absolves most people from a sense of responsibility for the world’s waters. This has considerable environmental consequences.  In the 20th century, unregulated exploitation of the ocean’s bounty led to considerable depletion of fisheries and other forms of environmental degradation. But as 2017’s U.N. Conference on Oceans and Seas in Fiji draws closer, global fisheries are threatened by a growing global population’s hunger for seafood. While ships could once sailed through miles-wide schools of fish in the north Atlantic, modern fisheries are now hollowed out.

Global fish populations fell by 52% from 1970 to 2010, with decline accelerating in recent years. Strains on natural resources are frequently attributed to explosive population growth in poor countries.  But the greatest demand for fish, and the greatest threat to their continued survival,  comes from the world’s middle class. Years of economic growth in China have created a sizeable market for fish; the country is projected to account for just under 40% of global seafood consumption by 2030 (1). If increasingly affluent countries imitate the consumption patterns of developed countries, global fisheries are in deep trouble. Japan, the United States and the European Union harbor also demand for imported seafood, bringing in millions of pounds of fish every year (2). Unfortunately, none of these countries have taken the extensive action needed to prevent fisheries depletion. High seas fishing is heavily subsidized by national governments, few of which check to make sure that the fish being brought in from these voyages are legitimately obtained. While the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement requires “port checks” to ensure that fish was legally caught, few countries meet the minimum inspection standards (3). This failure to ensure While many of the UN’s standards were originally intended to protect environmental health, human food security and economic well being are also at stake.

Three billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein, and fisheries have long supported the livelihoods of millions in the world’s coastal areas. Poor Atlantic countries are especially affected by overfishing, as European and north American fishing vessels often take large quantities of fish from waters just outside their national control. Fishery shortages have wide impacts; UN Global Ocean Commissioners Oby Ezekwesili, José María Figueres and Pascal Lamy argued in a 2015 op-ed that the flood of migration from northern Africa into Europe has been fueled by depletion of fisheries in West Africa, which have forced many fishermen and their families to seek other sources of work (4). For those who remain, hunger and unemployment are widespread.

The international community acknowledges the magnitude of these consequences, and the importance of maritime resources to some of the world’s poorest economies.  The UN officials and activists who drew up plans for the Fiji conference hope to produce a new set of rules to preserve the oceans as a whole, including fisheries (5). But lackluster enforcement of existing protocols brings the viability of a fresh declaration into question.


  5. Ibid.

Photo Credit: Hakai Magazine