Industrial vs Small-Scale Fisheries:
Time to Start Making Sense
by Peter Neill, Director of the World Ocean Observatory
If we were to declare a moratorium on industrial scale fisheries for a term of five years, we would maintain most of today’s fishing related employment, produce most of the catch that today reaches market for human consumption, reduce fuel costs dramatically, reduce subsidies even more dramatically, and otherwise invest in the future of the industry through its return to health, diversity, and sustainable future supply. So who wins and who loses?
So often the ocean problems we address are matters of scale. As the world population has grown, as the demand for food has increased, and as science and technology have evolved new and more efficient ways to harvest, our natural ocean systems have been exploited at ever increasing scale through industrial agriculture, resource extraction, and fishing. No place is protected from the relentless independent and unregulated consumption of such resources where we can know that soon there will be no more.
World Ocean Observatory has often cited statistics for fishing: the pursuit of individual species almost to extinction, the collapse of vast stocks, the mechanized efficiency of boats and gear that can sweep an ocean floor and water column of all marine life. The taking is so simple, direct, and complete; if only the solutions were as simple, as direct, and as complete.
Dr. Daniel Pauly heads the Sea Around Us Project, based at the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Pauly has been a leader in conceptualizing and co-developing software that’s used by ocean experts throughout the world. At the Sea Around Us and in his other work, Dr. Pauly has developed new ways to view complex ocean data, work that includes the ecosystem modeling software suite; FishBase, an online encyclopedia of fishes; and, increasingly, the quantitative results of the Sea Around Us Project. Dr. Pauly has not been the only serious scientific voice sounding the alarm about the future of fishing as a global source of protein, but he has been one of the most effective. He has suggested what might be a very simple management plan that would solve the problem through an economically compelling adjustment of scale.
The statistical distinction drawn was between large and small scale fishing as follows: 1) governments subsidize large scale fishing at $25–30 billion US dollars, while small scale subsidies are $5–7 billion; 2) large scale represents about 500,000 jobs, small scale 12 million jobs; 3) large scale fuel used per ton of fish for human consumption is 20 tons, small scale 5 tons; 4) large scale annual catch for industrial reduction to fishmeal and oil is 25 million tons, small scale almost none; 5) annual large scale catch discarded at sea 25 million tons, small scale 500,000 pounds; and 6) annual large scale landing for human consumption 40 million tons, small scale 30 million tons.
What these statistics show is that small scale fishing harvests an amount equal to three quarters of the large scale catch, employs more than ten times the fishers, consumes about 25 percent of the fuel, and throws back less than 3 percent as discarded waste. Only in the use of a majority of its catch for industrial use does the large-scale fishery make any sense, but it makes no sense at all if that use depletes the existing supply.
Studies have indicated the remarkable power of marine species to renew if they are left alone for relatively short periods of time. Other factors pertain here, of course, the impact of chemical pollution or ocean acidification on the overall health of the marine food chain, but the suggestion remains that if we were to declare a moratorium on industrial scale fisheries for a term of five years say, we would maintain most of today’s fishing related employment, produce most of the catch that today reaches market for human consumption, reduce fuel costs dramatically, reduce subsidies even more dramatically, and otherwise invest in the future of the industry through its return to health, diversity, and sustainable future supply.
The fish meal interests lose, but can adapt through aquaculture — a faster growing, more practical source of supply; the fertilizer interests lose, but they can pursue alternative, organic supply; the industrial fishing corporations lose, but only for the short term, with the prospect of more consistent return once the stocks recover and stabilize in the future.
But who wins?
We all do. By limiting scale, we increase the efficiency and value of the global fishing enterprise, a reverse investment that generates greater return through savings, pricing, removal of public subsidy, continuity of work for a large majority of fishers, guaranteed supply over time, and the health of the communities where both fishers and consumers live.
Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org.