The Cost of Overfishing? $36 Billion a Year ... And Counting!

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

For the past couple of decades, scientists and laymen have been talking loudly about how badly man has overfished the world’s ocean.

Statistics piled upon statistics haven’t seemed to slow our rapacious take; the World Wildlife Fund insists that at today’s rate, by 2050 every species of fish currently known will be gone.

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This mass of dead fish discovered in Louisiana&39;s Bay Jimmy doesn&39;t even factor into the terrible overfishing numbers. (Photo: Ho New Reuters)

Now, a fresh analysis shows that unsustainable fishing is taking food out of the mouths of the world’s poor, while costing the international economy somewhere between $36 billion and $100 billion a year.

The report, by economist Rashid Sumaila, working with the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre and supported by the Pew Environment Group, suggests that well-managed fisheries may simultaneously boost both the natural resource and the bottom line.

The report, the first comprehensive, peer-reviewed estimate of the global economic contribution of the world’s fisheries, was first published in the Journal of Bioeconomics.

Sumaila and team studied fishing numbers from 1950 to 2004 and concluded that more than 50 percent of the wild fish stocks in the world's oceans are now overfished and in the process of “crashing” or have already crashed.

That’s usually where overfishing reports stop.

This report goes further, putting hard numbers on the costs of overfishing: $36 billion in potential economy is lost every year due to bad fishing practices. That number triples when you consider the potential economic gains once the fish are laid on the dock--of distributors, supermarkets and restaurants, boat builders, bait suppliers and international shippers.

On top of that, says the report, better management of fisheries would help feed an additional 20 million malnourished people a year, many of them in the poorest parts of Africa, where protein is especially needed.

“We know fish play an important ecological role in the marine environment, but these studies assess their ‘out-of-the-water’ value to people across the globe,” says Sumaila. “Whether you are looking at fish as a financial resource or a source of protein, our research shows that the benefits of healthy, robust fisheries have enormous value far beyond the fishing dock.”

The study also puts numbers on the non-industrial use of the ocean, things like whale-watching, diving, and sports fishing, which generate another $47 billion a year and create 1.1 million jobs around the globe.

The study suggests a big contributor to bad fish management are government subsidies—about $27 billion a year around the world—which often encourage unsustainable fishing practices (which won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the subsidies given to big agriculture). Subsidies are intended to maintain fishing fleets and support seafood processors, but the report suggests that 60 percent of those monies go to fishing practices that hurt more than help.

“Many economies are paying doubly for continued overfishing of our oceans,” says Sumaila in the Journal of Bioeconomics. “First, tax-payer money is directly contributing to the decline of worldwide fisheries, and second, fishermen and undernourished people are hurting from a steadily declining resource. From a socioeconomic standpoint, subsidies that promote overfishing are doing far more harm than good.

"Taxpayer money is directly contributing to the decline of worldwide fish stocks."

The real bottom line? Maybe we should be investing less in big industrial fishing boats and more on whale watching.


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