The science of sustainable seafood, explained

State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020

On Monday, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its biennial State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report; and I’m pleased to report that the question that has haunted me since I began writing about seafood now has an answer: 78.7% of seafood is sustainable.

The SOFIA report is the largest and most reliable summary of global seafood data; the latest updates through 2018 and includes new calculations not reported before, like the fact that 78.7% of seafood comes from biologically sustainable fish populations.

I am ecstatic about this calculation; finally, an easy-to-understand statistic that describes the status of seafood sustainability for everyday people. Fishery statistics have long been misperceived and miscommunicated—the problem has been with the scientific definitions of fishery exploitation—they were confusing to non-experts and willfully misinterpreted by advocacy organizations and journalists for shock value. Now, with a clear, understandable statistic, there is no excuse.

In the 2018 SOFIA report, FAO changed the definitions to encourage better communication, kudos to them for taking another step forward.

Seafood sustainability updates

Since the last SOFIA update, the percentage of overexploited (aka overfished) fisheries has gone up slightly from 33.1 to 34.2%. The increase in unsustainable fisheries has been steady since the 1970s, but the rate is slowing.

global trends in fisheries over time

Older versions of the above figure are what used to cause confusion. Before fisheries were ‘overfished,’ ‘maximally sustainably fished,’ and ‘underfished,’ they were ‘over-exploited,’ ‘fully-exploited,’ and ‘under-exploited’ respectively. In a scientific context, “exploitation” is a descriptive word, but in plain English it has a negative connotation that led many to conflate fully-exploited with overfished. In 2018, FAO added handy color-coding and labels of sustainable and unsustainable, and now with the total landings calculation in 2020, communicating fishery status should be crystal clear: 65.8% of fisheries are sustainable supplying 78.7% of seafood, while the 34.2% of overfished fisheries contribute 21.3% of catch.

Despite the higher number of overfished fisheries, underlying global trends seem to be improving. FAO reported heavily on Hilborn et al. 2020 (a paper we covered here) as a sign that biomass and fishing pressure are both moving in the right direction in assessed stocks. Hilborn et al. 2020 showed that, on average, fisheries with consistent data (implying a certain level of management) are healthy and/or improving. FAO sees recovery on the horizon:

In general, intensively managed fisheries have seen decreases in average fishing pressure and increases in stock biomass, with some reaching biologically sustainable levels.

In the figure below, you see fisheries developing unsustainably then turning around in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

Biomass and fishing pressure over time. From FAO

Some caveats: Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) are not included in this data and would change the numbers. However, if you are like most of our audience (in a developed country), it is unlikely you encounter much IUU fish at your local grocery store. Some data from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa are also missing—several of these countries don’t have the technical, scientific, or financial means to monitor their fisheries.

IUU and poor fishery management are symptoms of developing countries’ lack of capacity. Tuna is a good example. In developed countries, tuna are mostly recovered thanks to intensive management, but overfishing continues in places without the capacity to manage their fisheries.

Among the seven principal tuna species, 66.6 percent of their stocks were fished at biologically sustainable levels in 2017, an increase of about 10 percentage points from 2015. In general, it is becoming increasingly clear that intensively managed fisheries have seen decreases in average fishing pressure and increases in average stock biomass, with many reaching or maintaining biologically sustainable levels, while fisheries with less-developed management systems are in poor shape.

Seafood remains an increasingly important part of the global food system

In 2018, 179 million metric tons of fish were produced, of which 82 million were produced by aquaculture. Total fish production is expected to expand to 204 million metric tons in 2030.

World fisheries and aquaculture production

In 2017, seafood accounted for 17% of the global population’s intake of animal protein (7 percent of all protein). People are eating more fish than ever before due to increasing production (better technology and less waste), rising incomes, and increased awareness of the health benefits. However, FAO predicts that due to Africa’s projected population growth, “per capita fish consumption is expected to decline in Africa, raising concerns in terms of food security.”

FAO estimates that global fish production is worth 401 billion per year with 250 billion coming from aquaculture. This estimate is just production cost and does not include value added up the supply chain.

Trade follows general globalized income inequality with poorer developing countries being net exporters of seafood with the EU, USA, and Japan being the top 3 importers of seafood.

In 2018, 67 million tonnes of fish (live weight equivalent) was traded internationally for a total export value of USD164 billion. This equates to almost 38 percent of all fish caught or farmed worldwide.

However, exports contracted in 2019, indicating more developing countries consuming their own seafood.

Asia continues to play an outsized role in global seafood. For example, of the ~60 million people around the world directly employed by seafood production, 85% are in Asia. In the last 20 years, 89% of world’s farmed seafood has been produced in Asia.

Fishing by country. Top 10 countries

A focus on women in seafood

In contrast to past years, the 2020 SOFIA report had a strong focus on gender in fisheries. Most women in seafood live in developing countries and fish small-scale or artisanal. FAO reports that in seafood production, only 14% of the workforce are women. In secondary (post-harvest) production, half of workers are women, but labor is often not equitable:

Gender studies… have shown how women are often assigned the most unstable roles, or poorly paid or unpaid positions that require lower qualifications – most often in the secondary sector – and are under-recognized or not recognized at all in the sector.

Female workers in many industries and cultures often have additional burdens to carry, though this can be especially pronounced in fisheries (emphasis by FAO):

In African fisheries, men are predominantly involved in fishing, while women are essentially – but not exclusively – more actively involved in the downstream activities, such as the post-harvest handling, selling fresh fish, processing, storage, packaging and marketing. These women make up 58 percent of the actors in the post-harvest activities of the seafood value chain. In many African countries, smoked fish plays an important role in everyday diets and is a vital source of income for many coastal communities. Typically, small-scale fisheries processing is characterized by hot smoking and drying processes, where women are in charge.

Women fish processors who use traditional ovens are particularly affected by smoke and heat, and suffer from respiratory problems. Their eyes and skin are also affected, and some women lose their fingerprints, adding another burden in obtaining identification or official papers. The social consequences of this fish processing technique are diverse and can negatively impact the family, creating tensions within the household relationships. The heavy productive work burden is coupled with the unpaid reproductive work burden within the household (child bearing and rearing; household maintenance, including cooking and fetching water and fuelwood; and caring for old and sick family members) and the community-level work burden resulting in a triple work burden for women working in agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture. This prevents women from having time and space to enjoy their human rights while realizing themselves and their full potential.

Empowering women is an important part of making seafood more equitable and just. Aquaculture will continue to grow and, with improved governance, could be an opportunity to promote women in seafood.

Aquaculture is being promoted as a significant growth sector, and as an activity that can empower women and young people, notably by facilitating women’s decision-making on the consumption and provision of nutritious food.

You can download the entire State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report here.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max studied environmental perception & policy in grad school. He thinks a lot about how other people think about the planet. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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