The Sunken Billions of present global fisheries practices / by Francisco Blaha

Back in 2009, when I was based in FAO in Rome, the World Bank and FAO published a seminal work that blew my small mind. It was called The Sunken Billions: The Economic Justification for Fisheries Reform, by explicitly quantifying the potential economic benefit forgone in global marine fisheries, The Sunken Billions underscored the urgency of improving marine fisheries governance and generated additional momentum toward restoring overexploited fish stocks. Yet not much has changed :-(

A new report, The Sunken Billions Revisited: Progress and Challenges in Global Marine Fisheries, reviews on the old one, using a bio-economic model developed by Professor Ragnar Arnason of the University of Iceland. And the message still urgent.

The report confirms what many intuitively know: overexploitation is not a good strategy to manage a renewable natural resource like fish stocks, for steady profits, reliable jobs and long-term growth. For global fisheries as a whole, about $83 billion were foregone in 2012, compared to a more optimal scenario, largely because of overfishing.

Is a big docuement, that everyone with interest in fisheries should at least have areference and hopefully read. It higlights some good examples, a few of them in place I work a lot such as Peru and the Pacific.

But for me, the key message is very straight: 

Restoring fisheries would yield substantial returns
Severely overexploited fish stocks have to be rebuilt over time if the optimal equilibrium is to be reached and the sunken billions recovered. To allow biological processes to reverse the decline in fish stocks, fishing mortality needs to be reduced, which can only happen through an absolute reduction in the global fishing effort (as captured by the size and efficiency of the global fleet, usually measured in terms of the number of vessels, vessel tonnage, engine power, vessel length, gear, fishing methods, and technical efficiency).

To reach the sustainable optimal state, global fleet overcapacity would have to be reduced by 44% from the level inferred for 2012. Doing so would likely lead to the following economic benefits:

  • The biomass of fish in the ocean would increase by a factor of 2.7.
  • Annual harvests would increase by 13%.
  • Unit fish prices would rise by up to 24 %, thanks to the recovery of higher-value species, the depletion of which is particularly severe.
  • The annual net benefits accruing to the fisheries sector would increase by a factor of almost 30, from $3 billion to $86 billion.

Bold measures are required to achieve this 44% reduction in the global fishing effort and to allow overexploited fish stocks to recover. At one hypothetical extreme, if the fishing effort were reduced to zero for the first several years and then held at an optimal level, global stocks could quickly recover to over 600 million tons in 5 years and then taper off toward an ideal level.

Yet reducing the global fishing effort by 5% a year for 10 years would allow global stocks to reach this ideal level in about 30 years. And this doable!  

Of course, reform will require financial and technical assistance at many levels, but the report makes a very clear case for the need for reform. It does not analyze policies, financing, or the socioeconomic impacts of embarking on such reform. Many case studies have shown that different strategies are called for in different circumstances and places. Whichever strategies are chosen, fishing capacity will have to be reduced, jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of fishers. Financing will be needed to fund the development of alternatives for them, to provide technical assistance at all levels, and to conduct additional research on ecosystem changes and related ecological processes.

This report poses important questions. If the sunken billions wasted annually at sea are to be recovered, and fisheries put on a sustainable pathway, policy makers will need to answer these questions, and soon. 

As I see it, you don't have to be a visionary genius to understand that if there is less fish, we cannot have more vessels and more subsidies as a strategy... the opposite should be the goal.