During lockdown I binge watched almost the entire back catalogue of Simon Reeve’s wonderful travel documentaries (as well as some much trashier titles). In these programmes, he covers what he calls the “light and the shade” of the places he visits, often focusing on how sustainability issues are impacting them. One recurring topic was man’s uneasy relationship with the world’s oceans and this got me doing some more research.

We could devote a whole series of articles to this topic and still not come close to covering all of the relevant points, so let’s restrict ourselves some of the huge challenges with commercial fishing. Firstly, some sobering facts.

  • Around 30% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are overfished (in some regions it’s much more)
  • Whilst obviously hard to measure, illegal and unregulated fishing is thought to account for anything between 12 – 30% of worldwide fishing

Global fish stocks 1974 – 2017

Overfishing has been driven in part by increasing global populations and per capita consumption of fish. It has also been exacerbated by subsidies, an emotive topic for any industry but one that is widely recognised as having distorted the fishing industry and led to significant overcapacity. It’s estimated that the global fishing fleet is 2.5 times the size it needs to be to satisfy demand.

Bycatch, the incidental capture of non-targeted species, is a linked issue. Methods like trawling, gillnets and longlining are indiscriminate and are the single largest cause of mortality for many endangered species of turtles, sharks and dolphins. The environmental impact of this goes beyond the direct impact on a given species and extends to the whole marine ecosystem, which risks being irreparably altered by the removal of key links in the food chain.

But solving the issue isn’t as simple as just saying “don’t eat fish”. Fish provides an important source of protein for billions of people worldwide and there are tens of millions whose livelihoods and local communities rely on fishing. Environmental and socioeconomic issues are inextricably linked, as is so often the case.

One of the most serious results of overfishing and bycatch is that the yields on fishing activities have been deteriorating over the past couple of decades. This demonstrates the circular nature of the problem: the people most impacted by overfishing are fishermen themselves. This causes particularly acute issues in developing countries, where fishing is often vital for feeding local communities and the only way to make a living for many people. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the negative impact is the prevalence of piracy around the horn of Africa, where many pirates attacking international shipping are former fishermen who can no longer make a living from catching fish.

So, what of solutions? Well, we need to make significant changes now and these need to address both the environmental and the socioeconomic impacts. Firstly, alternative methods of fishing need to be promoted. There are cheap and simple changes to fishing equipment that can be made which drastically reduce bycatch without reducing the ability to catch the targeted species. Second, eradicating certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity is also a must and has been called out by the UN in their SDGs. Finally, marine protected areas can also be a powerful solution and, importantly, with the right engagement and inclusion of local communities, can help provide an economic alternative to fishing.

The key to all of this is having a more globally integrated and adequately enforced policy on fisheries management, rather than disparate country-specific policies. This is obviously easier said than done but when framed in the context of an FAO and World Bank report that estimates poor fisheries management wipes $50 billion per annum off the value of global fisheries, it is clearly something that is essential and that would be of benefit to both the environment and those who depend on it for their livelihoods.

About the author

Iain Snedden is an investment specialist in the equities team. He has responsibility for representing the firm’s equity capabilities both within and out with the firm, with a particular focus on our suite of global equity products. This involves ensuring colleagues and clients are kept up to date on developments within the funds and the wider market. Iain joined us in 2015 to work in the Client Management team with responsibility for a portfolio of UK-based institutional clients. Prior to that, he worked at Baillie Gifford and held roles within the client accounting and business risk functions. Iain graduated from University of Edinburgh with a first class honours degree in Accounting and Business Studies. He has 9 years’ industry experience.

*As at 30 November 2019.

Sign up to receive our fortnightly Soapbox email

Share This