Fishy Data: Countries Are Catching Far More Seafood Than They Claim

The overfishing crisis is worse than was thought as researchers find 30 percent more fish are caught annually than officially reported.
(Photo: Emily Irving-Swift/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The world’s oceans are running out of fish at a much faster clip than has been officially reported, according to new research.

Tens of millions of tons of fish are caught each year that go undisclosed to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the study said.

“Here we present the results of an approach called ‘catch reconstruction’ that utilizes a wide variety of data and information sources to derive estimates for all fisheries components missing from the official reported data,” the authors wrote. “We find that reconstructed global catches between 1950 and 2010 were 50 percent higher than data reported to FAO suggest.”

It was the first time reconstructed catches for all countries had been compiled.

The massive study, involving more than 400 collaborators around the world, analyzed global catch data collected by FAO. The researchers then attempted to “reconstruct” the figures by estimating uncounted catches from illegal, small-scale, and recreational fishing, as well as fish that were caught but discarded.

The study estimated the actual global catch at about 109 million metric tons annually, far higher than the 77 million metric tons officially reported to FAO in 2010. (A metric ton is slightly more than 2,200 pounds.)

In 1996, the peak year for global fishing, the estimated catch was 130 million tons, more than 51 percent higher than the 86 million tons reported to FAO, the study found.

Since then, the global catch has declined at a far higher rate than official statistics show, by about 1.2 million tons per year rather than the 0.38 million tons officially reported.

“Countries have the bad habit of reporting only what they see,” study coauthor Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, said during a teleconference. “If they don’t have the data for certain types of fishing, they report that zero tons are caught by that method. The result of this…is a systematic underestimation of catch. This can be very high.”

Pauly said 20 to 30 percent of the catch goes unreported in developed countries, and the figure rises to 200 to 300 percent in some smaller island nations.

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“The take-home message is that 30 percent of all the fish we catch globally goes unreported,” Pauly said in an email. “And moreover, those catches are declining. This is important because when we make policy we need to have the best possible data available.”

Since the mid-1990s, the global catch has declined by 16 percent, Pauly added. “Understanding this, some fisheries may have to stop fishing, or fish less for a while until their stocks have been rebuilt.”

FAO questioned the study’s methodology in a statement.

“The challenge in many of the catch reconstructions is that often there is insufficient data to produce estimates that are sufficiently accurate,” the organization said. “The data that form the basis of these estimates are scarce, thereby creating a wider uncertainty around the final figures.”

“FAO agrees with the basic conclusions of the paper: catch statistics…can and should be improved, and this requires additional funding and international collaboration,” it added.

Mike Hirshfield, chief scientist and strategy officer at Oceana, an international nonprofit focused on marine issues, praised the paper.

“This is one of the most important studies to come out of the fisheries world in the last 10 or 20 years,” Hirshfield said. “If you’re going to manage any resource sustainably, you have to know what you’re doing to it.”

The study’s core message, he said, is that “you need to pay attention to the fishery decline in your country and take measures to begin rebuilding, which means not taking more fish from the ocean than populations can reproduce.”

“Back when bank accounts built interest, you could take a stable annuity out of it, rather than withdrawing from the principal itself,” he added. “We’ve overdrawn the bank principal for sure.”