Category Description

Global fisheries are a critical resource for food security, as well as employment and income. Fish also function as an integral part of marine ecosystems. In virtually all developing countries, fisheries provide vital sources of protein and micronutrients (Golden et al., 2016, p. 317). As of 2014, more than 56 million people worked in capture fishing and aquaculture (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 5). Despite their global importance and growing attention to over-fishing, fish stocks continue to decline across most of the world. Unsustainable fishing emerges as the main cause of this decline, with 31% of stocks considered overfished (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2016, p. 38). Experts predict this decline will continue into the future as no fish stocks are expected to be underexploited within twenty years (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2017, p. 178). Dramatic changes in fisheries management are needed to protect global marine systems, and the societies dependent upon these resources.

The EPI utilizes two indicators to evaluate country performance in fisheries management: fish stock status and regional marine trophic index (RMTI).

Indicators Included

  1. Fish stock status: This indicator is based on an assessment of the percentage of fish stocks caught within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that are overexploited or collapsed.
  2. RMTI: This indicator is a measure of the mean trophic level of fish caught by a country, which represents the overall health of the ecosystem.
Fisheries Indicators
Fish stock status % of catch
RMTI Unitless

Category Overview

Fisheries play three major roles in global sustainability. Fish stocks act as integral parts of global ocean ecosystems. Seafood serves as a critical resource for food security, especially in developing countries. Finally, fisheries provide important employment and income in many nations.

Environmental: The environmental impacts of the fisheries sector reverberate well beyond reductions in targeted fish stocks. Disturbances caused by fishing affect the marine environment through several pathways. Overharvesting affects the composition of marine ecosystems. Changes in the population of targeted fish species can alter food webs, affecting predator and prey dynamics. For example, the populations of larger fish, higher in a food web, sometimes decrease more quickly than those of smaller fish. Over time, fishing pressure in systems exhibiting these dynamics can cause the mean size of fish, and the average trophic level of species within a food web, to decrease. This decline is referred to as fishing down marine food webs (Kleisner, Mansour, & Pauly, 2015, p. 2). Different types of fishing gear, such as dredging or trawling, can also have negative impacts on the marine environment by damaging biological structures on the seafloor. Bottom trawling can result in high mortality among marine organisms, which in turn degrades critical fish habitat (Clark et al., 2016; Collie et al., 2016). Furthermore, marine life other than targeted fish species may also be caught in fishing gear. This incidental catch, referred to as bycatch, can increase the mortality of vulnerable species in a fishing area (Hilborn & Hilborn, 2012, p. 110). Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 10.3 million tonnes of bycatch were discarded by industrial fishing boats (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2016, p. 3). Addressing the complex environmental impacts of the fisheries sector on habitat and marine communities can improve the sustainability of a nation’s seafood industry.

Social: Sustainable societies rely on healthy fisheries because of their role in food security. For example, the populations of 49 countries depend on seafood for over 20% of their animal-based food. Of those nations, 46 are considered developing (Golden et al., 2016, p. 318). In 2013, 17% of all animal protein consumed globally, and 6.7% of all protein from any source, came from fish (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 4). In addition to protein, fish provide vital micronutrients in bioavailable forms, including iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (Golden et al., 2016, p. 317). If fish stocks continue to decline at the current pace, it is estimated that 845 million people could be faced with micronutrient deficiencies (Golden et al., 2016, p. 317). Developing countries at low latitudes may become particularly vulnerable. Poorer countries often lack the capacity to enforce fisheries regulations and compensate for fishery declines through intensive agriculture. Fisheries of low-latitude countries also may be most exposed to the effects of climate change (Golden et al., 2016, p. 318). Ensuring the health of global fisheries is crucial to supporting food security.

Economic: Global fisheries represent an important economic force. Across all related sectors, marine and inland fisheries, as well as aquaculture, created an estimated economic impact of US$660 billion in 2006 (Sumaila, Bellmann, & Tipping, 2016, p. 173). In 2014, capture fisheries and aquaculture provided a source of employment for 56.6 million people worldwide (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 5). Fish and fishery products are also some of the most highly traded global commodities (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 6). With 78% of seafood products traded internationally, trade associated with fisheries plays a particularly important role for developing countries. The production from these nations alone accounts for 54% of the total value of fishery exports (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 7). Effective fisheries management must be implemented to protect the communities dependent on these resources for income and employment.

Global Impact

Global fish stocks and marine ecosystems face severe threats. However, identifying and understanding trends in global fisheries data sparks ongoing controversy. Yet, there is room for optimism that improved management could greatly improve the status of global fisheries.

Overfishing drives the decline in global fish stocks. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) statistics considers an estimated 31% of global fish stocks overfished (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2016, p. 38). The Sea Around Us, a research project at the University of British Columbia, predicts that given current trends, within twenty years no fisheries stocks will be underexploited[1] (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2017, p. 178). Understanding the status of these species is critical to the design of meaningful management policies. The FAO’s most recent State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report claimed that world catch peaked in 1996 at 86.4 million tonnes and has since declined steadily at a rate of 0.2 million tonnes per year (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016, p. 38; Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2017, p. 177). However, analysis from Sea Around Us shows a much greater rate of decline at 1.2 million tonnes per year (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2017, p. 177). Improved fisheries management is critical to reversing these trends.

Evidence suggests that despite the degradation of marine habitats, strong fisheries policies could still improve the health of global fish stocks. Mismanagement of global fish stocks has had significant economic ramifications. For example, the World Bank estimates that in 2012, poor fisheries management practices cost the world US$83 million in annual revenues (World Bank, 2016, p. 3). Given current levels of fisheries exploitation, it is estimated that the median fishery would take ten years to reach recovery targets. However, implementing strong fisheries management techniques around the world could result in annual catch increases of over 16 million metric tons, creating US$53 billion in profit (Costello et al., 2016, p. 5125). If countries act to restore global fisheries, the World Bank estimates that the biomass of fish in the ocean has the potential to increase by a factor of 2.7, allowing for an increase in annual harvests of 13% (World Bank, 2016, p. 3).

A variety of policy options can help nations achieve these targets. Of principle importance is reducing fisheries subsidies, which have contributed to overfishing and overcapacity of the global fishing fleet (Sumaila et al., 2016, p. 174). Over US$30 billion is spent by governments around the world on fisheries subsidies each year (Global Ocean Commission, 2016, p. 7). Furthermore, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) is a primary concern in global fisheries management. IUU fishing often contributes to overexploitation, as well as lost revenue and employment opportunities (Doumbouya et al., 2017). The practice is estimated to cost nations US$10 to US$23.5 billion through the loss of 11 to 26 million tonnes of catch from the regulated market (Agnew et al., 2009). Strong initiatives to curb IUU fishing could profoundly improve the health of global fisheries. Finally, to holistically improve their fisheries governance, many nations are moving towards ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM). In 2014, 67% of member nations reported to the FAO that they were incorporating elements of EBFM into their fisheries policy (Bundy et al., 2017, p. 18). A study evaluating EBFM determined that nations with high scores for management effectiveness and governance quality also scored well on ecological indicators. Specifically, the researchers found that fisheries governed by long-term management plans that considered the ecosystem impacts of fishing pressures performed best (Bundy et al., 2017, pp. 2, 22). There is much to be gained across all indices of sustainability from recovering global fisheries.

Global fisheries provide a foundation for food security, employment, and income, and are tied to the health of the world’s oceans in a changing climate. Fisheries are therefore an intrinsic part of several Sustainable Development Goals:

Goal 1: End Poverty in All Its Forms Everywhere

Goal 2: End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture

Goal 8: Promote Inclusive and Sustainable Economic Growth, Employment and Decent Work for All

Goal 12: Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns

Goal 13: Take Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change and Its Impacts

Goal 14: Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas, and Marine Resources

Goal 17: Revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

A variety of international institutions and agreements govern global fisheries and set standards for domestic fisheries management.

International Organizations

Committee on Fisheries (COFI): COFI is a subsidiary of the FAO that serves as a forum to address international fisheries and aquaculture challenges, including through the creation of global agreements and non-binding legal instruments. The organization evaluates FAO programmes of work in fisheries and aquaculture, and conducts reviews of global fisheries and aquaculture problems (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2018). Additional information can be found here:

International Maritime Organization (IMO): The IMO is a United Nations agency which is responsible for setting standards for the safety, security, and environmental performance of international shipping, including fishing vessels (International Maritime Organization, 2017). Additional information can be found here:

International Whaling Commission (IWC): The IWC is an international organization composed of 88 member-nations which are signatories of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The Commission pursues the conservation of whales and management of whaling under the convention. Responsibilities include setting catch limits for aboriginal subsistence whaling and studying non-whaling threats to whale species (International Whaling Commission, 2018a). Additional information can be found here:

Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs): RFMOs are intergovernmental organizations or arrangements developed to manage high seas fisheries. Their functions include collecting statistics on fisheries, monitoring activity in fishing areas, and facilitating cooperation between governments of fishing nations (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2018). Additional information on existing RFMOs can be found here:

Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR):

General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM):

Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO):

North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC):

North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC):

South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO):

South Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA):

South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO):

World Trade Organization (WTO) Negotiating Group on Rules: The WTO has held negotiations to address fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing through measures such as strengthened WTO disciplines (World Trade Organization, 2018). Additional information can be found here:

Multilateral Efforts

Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas: This Agreement is part of the CCRF and establishes requirements for Parties regarding the use of national flags on fishing vessels, as well as fisheries conservation and management practices. Parties must only permit authorized fishing vessels to fly national flags, and ensure that applicable fisheries rules are observed by authorized vessels. Furthermore, Parties are required to collect data on catch from vessels on the high seas and submit a list of vessels to the FAO. Additional information can be found here:

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): The CBD’s objectives are the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources. The agreement has a strong focus on sustainable fisheries, including decision X/29 calling on Parties to implement ecosystem-based management, eliminate IUU fishing, minimize harmful fishing practices, and mitigate bycatch. Several of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (8, 9, 10, and 11) under the CBD address coastal habitats important for fisheries, and Target 6 directly addresses sustainable fishing (Ainsworth & Hedlund, 2016):

Target 6: By 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem based approaches, so that overfishing is avoided, recovery plans and measures are in place for all depleted species, fisheries have no significant adverse impacts on threatened species and vulnerable ecosystems and the impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2018).

Additional information can be found here:

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): CITES Parties must apply certain controls to the trade of endangered species, including the creation of a licensing system under a designated Management Authority. Species are categorized into three Appendices depending on the level of protection needed (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2018a). Species protected under CITES include 147 species of fish (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2018b). Additional information can be found here:

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS): The CMS is a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) treaty focused on the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats. Parties agree to protect these species, especially through transboundary cooperation to promote migration (United Nations Environment Programme, 2017a). The agreement covers many migratory fish species such as sturgeon, as well as sharks and marine mammals (United Nations Environment Programme, 2017b). Additional information can be found here:

FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing: The Port State Measures Agreement was created through the FAO to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Parties to the Agreement are expected to develop and implement measures in ports to reduce IUU fishing, and harmonize governance at the regional level (Food and Agriculture Organisation Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, 2018). Additional information can be found here:

FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF): The CCRF builds upon agreements for straddling and migratory fish stocks established under UNCLOS by establishing non-mandatory principles and standards for the conservation, management, and development of fisheries. The Code was created by the FAO and is voluntarily implemented by Member States (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1995). Additional information can be found here:

International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW): The ICRW founded the International Whaling Commission. The agreement sets catch limits for whaling, including for commercial and aboriginal subsistence sectors (International Whaling Commission, 2018b). Additional information can be found here:

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS): UNCLOS establishes rules for use of the oceans and their resources. Key features pertaining to fisheries include the establishment of sovereign rights of States to exploit and manage fishery resources with their 200-nautical mile EEZs, and requirements for cooperation in the conservation and management of fisheries in the high seas (Maguire, 2006, p. 1). Additional information can be found here:

Since the publication of the previous EPI, several of these measures have evolved further to address pressing challenges.

Box 10-1. Port State Measures Agreement

On May 16, 2016, the Port State Measures Agreement entered into force. With 30 nations ratifying the agreement, the document passed the 25-country threshold needed for enforcement (Long, 2016). The success of the agreement was in part the result of regional collaborations to combat illegal fishing through RFMOs including the Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization (OPESCA) and FISH-I Africa (Long, 2017).

Box 10-2. United Nations Ocean Conference

The high-level United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and Sustainably use the Oceans, seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development was held in June of 2017 (United Nations, 2017b). The conference resulted in voluntary commitments and the negotiated call for action, Our Ocean, Our Future: Call for Action (United Nations General Assembly 71st Session, 2017).

Voluntary commitments made in the agreement with regards to fisheries include:

  • Enhance sustainable fisheries management by rebuilding fish stocks in the shortest time feasible to at least the stock biomass that can produce maximum sustainable yield
  • End destructive fisheries practices and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing
  • Support the development of interoperable catch documentation schemes and the traceability of fish products
  • Provide capacity-building and technical assistance to small-scale and artisanal fishers in developing countries
  • Prohibit fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing
  • Support the promotion and strengthening of sustainable ocean-based economies
  • Actively engage in the Preparatory Committee established by GA Assembly Resolution 69/292
Box 10-3. Resolution 69/292 Preparatory Committee

In June of 2015, the United Nations adopted Resolution 69/292, which established a Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) charged with creating an intergovernmental agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017). The PrepCom process led to the adoption of a recommendation to convene formal diplomatic negotiations of a legally-binding intergovernmental treaty. While fisheries were largely left out of the agreement, the treaty is expected to include provisions regarding marine protected areas and new institutional arrangements, such as the creation of a decisionmaking body to support the new instrument (United Nations, 2017a).

Box 10-4. Fishing in the Arctic

Four million square miles of melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean have the potential to become open ocean, and in turn available for fishing. This potential resource poses a significant management challenge. The “Arctic Five,” a group composed of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, signed a non-binding agreement in 2015 committing to not fish the region before further scientific study evaluates the ecosystem (Hoag, 2017). In a March 2017 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, ten nations moved towards establishing a precautionary, legally-binding agreement to protect the fisheries of the Central Arctic Ocean. (Ganey, 2017). The fifth and final round of negotiations were held on November 30, 2017, resulting in the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement will last 16 years and be automatically renewed every five years unless a party nation is opposed or alternative science-based fisheries rules are implemented. In addition to preventing unregulated fishing in the region, the agreement also created a Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring for the Arctic Ocean (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2017).


The measurement of fisheries health connects to the efforts of policymakers to conserve living marine resources. Historically, the management of fish stocks has taken place through fisheries management plans, which require assessments of single species in order to set catch targets. International agreements have similarly built their benchmarks upon these single-species assessments (Rice, 2014). There is increasing emphasis now being placed on ecosystem-based fisheries management, informed by indicators which reflect the impacts of fishing activities on habitats, accurate assessment of bycatch mortality, and the effects of fishing on ecological community composition. This broader set of ecological indicators reflects a shift in focus among policymakers beyond commercial fisheries management to more holistic goals (Jennings, Smith, Fulton, & Smith, 2014). The call for improved ecosystem metrics to assess the sustainability of fisheries is reflected in seafood eco-labeling. One example, the Marine Stewardship Council, evaluates seafood in accordance with three categories of criteria: target stock health, ecosystem health, and management agency responsiveness. However, the implementation of true ecosystem-based fisheries management is limited by a lack of data on factors like bycatch, discard rates, and gear impacts on underwater habitats (Selden, Valencia, Larsen, Cornejo-Donoso, & Wasserman, 2016). Stronger monitoring, reporting, and verification systems are needed for all dimensions of fisheries to better equip policymakers to create sound management plans.

The FAO collects and harmonizes the only database which includes all fisheries data reported by individual countries globally. They publish the results of their analysis in a biannual State Of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2017, p. 176). The FAO collects fisheries statistics submitted by national correspondents in each country’s fisheries ministry or related institution. The data are often complemented or replaced by data from other institutions, such as regional bodies, to incorporate the best available statistics. The FAO database includes catch data by country, FAO fishing area, and species item. Species items can be the species, genus, or other taxonomic levels used to describe the fish caught (Garibaldi, 2012, pp. 761–763).

However, there are many gaps in the foundational FAO dataset, as identified by Sea Around Us. Catch data are reported using 19 large marine statistical areas, arguably a resolution too coarse to inform policy. Furthermore, reported data are disaggregated into broad taxonomic groups, not at the species level. FAO data also do not include discarded catch, a significant environmental factor in evaluating the sustainability of a fishery. Finally, FAO data do not distinguish between catches from various sectors (for example subsistence versus commercial fishing) and gear types, which again influence the environmental impact of a fishery (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2016).

The majority of data available are specific to commercial fish stocks of species caught by nations with effective fisheries management in place. As a result, significant data gaps exist for catch that is part of artisanal, subsistence, and recreational fishing. Most importantly, data are lacking to characterize IUU fishing, as well as global bycatch (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2016, p. 41). To accurately understand the health of global fisheries, these data gaps must be addressed.

Scientific initiatives have been developed to better characterize the impact of fishing on marine ecosystems through a broader set of ecological indicators. For example, IndiSeas is a program, which while currently limited to a subset of countries, assesses marine ecosystems according to indicators in three categories: ecological and biodiversity; climate and environment; and human dimensions (indiSeas, 2013). Expanded research and monitoring efforts are needed to continue to improve our understanding of the status of global fisheries.

In an attempt to capture a more complete picture of the impact of global fisheries and the success of fisheries management programs, the EPI uses the Sea Around Us reconstructed data. Their methodology attempts to correct for the gaps in FAO data, drawing on additional information from several sources. In particular, the Sea Around Us researchers conduct literature searches, evaluate data with local experts, and identify additional archives and data sets to be included (Daniel Pauly & Zeller, 2016).


Fish Stock Status

Indicator Background

The first EPI indicator for fisheries is based on an assessment of whether or not a stock is overexploited or collapsed (D Pauly et al., 2008):

Overexploited: Following a peak in the catch of a stock, annual catches will decline. If the catch of a stock falls to 10 to 50% of its peak catch, the stock is considered overexploited.

Collapsed: If the catch of a stock is less than 10% of the peak catch, the stock is considered collapsed.

We derive our indicator from an assessment of all fish stocks caught within a country’s EEZ. We then calculate the percentage of the country’s total catch that comes from stocks determined to be overexploited or collapsed. We use this percentage as the country’s indicator. For countries with multiple EEZs, we average the percentages for each EEZ into a single country value, weighted by the catch of the EEZ. The target for each country assessed is for 0% of the fish stocks harvested in their EEZ to be overexploited or collapsed. The indicator is designed to approximate the sustainability of a country’s fishing practices through their harvest levels.

Figure 10-1
Figure 10–1. An example of Australia’s fish stock status
Note: Catch is expressed in kt
Source: Sea Around Us

Regional Marine Trophic Index

Indicator Background

RMTI is a measure of the mean trophic level of fish caught within an ecosystem (Kleisner et al., 2015). The trophic level of a species is its position within a food web. For example, primary producers like phytoplankton are considered to be on the lowest level, zero, while larger predators are at a higher trophic level (European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, 2004).

The RMTI can be used as a metric for evaluating the health of an ecosystem subjected to fishing pressure. It measures the extent to which activity in a fishery is causing “fishing down the food web.” If the RMTI for a fishery is trending downward, this is a sign that a fishing sector has exploited larger, high-level species and is increasingly catching smaller, lower-level species, negatively impacting ecosystem health (Kleisner et al., 2015, p. 2). Scores for this indicator are developed by looking at recent and long-term trends in RMTI. Countries are evaluated on whether average RMTI is stable over time, increasing, or decreasing. Additional details are provided in the Technical Appendix.

Figure 10-2
Figure 10–2. Sample construction of the RMTI indicator
Source: Sea Around Us

Figure 10-3
Figure 10–3. Sample construction of the Marine Trophic Index
Source: Sea Around Us

Data Description

For our fisheries indicators, we work with Sea Around Us, a research project at the University of British Columbia, located within the Institute for Oceans and Fisheries.

Sea Around Us collects data first through FAO reported landings data. They then identify any missing data components. To fill in the gaps, the team conducts extensive literature searches, consults with local experts, and studies additional archives and data sets. The initiative conducts these searches as an iterative process, consistently aiming to create the best estimate of time-series data for all marine fisheries catches since 1950 (Zeller & Pauly, 2016). Sea Around Us make their data publicly available through their website. They actively invite experts and practitioners to critique their data and identify areas for improvement (Zeller & Pauly, 2016).


While fishing down may be occurring in some systems, other fisheries exhibit different use patterns. For example, fishermen also have shifted from lower to higher trophic levels, or alternatively, maintained predator catch while simultaneously expanding fisheries on lower-trophic species (Branch, 2012). Some scholars argue that the targeting of species is driven not by trophic level, but by which species yield the highest profits (Sethi, Branch, & Watson, 2010). Furthermore, they find that trophic level does not predict the price of species. As a result, the development of a fishery cannot be predicted based on size or trophic level. Rather, fisheries tend to develop for high-priced, large-volume shallow water species, and then shift towards lower-priced, small volume, deeper-water species. The consequences for lower-trophic species can be severe, as they are more likely to collapse when subject to fishing pressure. Twice as many fisheries for lower-trophic species have collapsed when compared to predator fisheries, with ecosystem-wide consequences for organisms feeding on these lower trophic levels (Pinsky, Jensen, Ricard, & Palumbi, 2011). Studies have further shown that marine trophic level isn’t a reliable predictor of the health of marine ecosystems (Branch et al., 2010). Therefore, the RMTI should only be interpreted as one of a suite of indicators of the health of marine systems.

Box 10-5. Climate Change

A growing body of literature shows that climate change is significantly altering the physical and chemical properties of the ocean, with consequences for fisheries management. Increasing ocean temperatures are causing certain fish species to shift into waters at higher latitudes or greater depths to maintain their temperature. Rising temperatures are also causing an overall increase in the abundance of warm-water species and alterations in fish life-cycles. Finally, ocean acidification is negatively affecting species that incorporate calcium into their outer shells, including shellfish (Poloczanska et al., 2016).

The consequences of climate change for fisheries remains uncertain. Maximum catch potential could rise 30–70% in high-latitude regions yet decline 40% in the tropics by 2055 (Cheung et al., 2010, p. 24). Scientists are also investigating how different species might adapt to the rate and direction with which bands of water of a given temperature move through the ocean, including how such shifts interact with fish harvesting (Fuller, Brush, & Pinsky, 2015). Warming waters have also been found to reduce concentrations of phytoplankton in the ocean, which has severe impacts throughout the marine food web. Fewer young fish, which normally depend on phytoplankton as a food source, survive into adulthood to reproduce, contributing to declines in fish populations (Britten, Dowd, & Worm, 2016). Governments will be increasingly confronted by the challenge of adapting their fisheries management policies to the dynamics of climate change impacts in the world’s oceans.

Box 10-6. Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing (IUU)

IUU fishing is a persistent policy problem in global fisheries. In 2016, a new technological advance was launched to combat the practice. A satellite-based surveillance system called Global Fishing Watch was deployed by Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google to help governments and other observers monitor fishing vessels which may be illegally withholding their locations. The system was successfully implemented by Kiribati to prosecute a vessel illegally fishing for tuna in one of its protected areas, resulting in the collection of a US$1 million fine (Dennis, 2016). The deployment of such technology is a promising opportunity to improve global fisheries management.

The development of new tools to combat IUU fishing is particularly critical for West Africa. Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone make up one of the regions most affected by IUU fishing in the world. Illegal catches result in annual losses of nearly US$2.3 billion for nations in the area (Doumbouya et al., 2017, p. 8). Due to poor fisheries governance, high corruption, and high costs of monitoring, the equivalent of 65% of the legal reported catch is removed from West African ecosystems through illegal fishing (Doumbouya et al., 2017, p. 1).

Under-reporting was the principal form of illegal fishing, but the region is exposed to impacts from the use of illegal gear, fishing of juvenile fish or prohibited species, and illegal fishing activity in prohibited zones (Doumbouya et al., 2017, p. 4). IUU fishing poses a dire threat to the livelihoods of fishing communities in West Africa, jeopardizing a critical protein source as well as opportunities for regional development (Daniels et al., 2016, p. 16). West Africa is particularly vulnerable to illegal fishing by Chinese companies. Studies estimate that $28 million worth of fish are illegally taken from Senegalese waters each year by Chinese ships (Jacobs, 2017). Ships involved in IUU fishing often load catch directly onto large freezing and processing ships at sea, rather than landing the catch to be recorded. Furthermore, container ships face less stringent reporting requirements than standard fishing vessels, allowing illegal fish to travel between nations undetected (Daniels et al., 2016, p. 7). Additional support is needed in the region to strengthen existing enforcement frameworks (Doumbouya et al., 2017).


Global Trends

Marine fish stocks are declining globally, with consequences for food security, income and employment, and marine ecosystems. Our 2018 results confirm findings by the FAO that the share of commercial fish stocks from biologically sustainable harvests has fallen (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016). Negative trends in fish stock status and comparatively lower scores in both periods for RMTI indicate the magnitude of the challenge of restoring global fisheries. Scores for fish stock status are higher than those of RMTI in both periods. However, between 2004 and 2014, the global score for fish stock status fell by nearly 10%. In contrast, RMTI improved by over 20%. These contradictory trends could suggest that nations are increasingly harvesting fish from stocks that are overexploited or collapsed, while also targeting higher trophic-level species. The negative trend in fish stock status is of particular concern, as overfishing is the primary cause of decline in global fisheries (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2016, p. 38). To reach a global score of 100, significant progress must be made both in rebuilding and harvesting sustainable stocks, and in restoring the health of marine ecosystems.

Table 10–1. Global trends in fisheries
Note: The Baseline year for fisheries uses data from 2004 while Current reflects data from 2014.
Indicator Metric Score
  Baseline Current Baseline Current
Fish Stock Status 24.4% 31.0% 73.17 65.89
RMTI -0.0002 0.0015 41.87 50.54

The results for fisheries were in some cases surprising, perhaps pointing to significant remaining limitations in the data used to create the relevant indicators. For example, the United States is known for sustainable fisheries management, with 84% of stocks with a known status not overfished by 2014 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017, p. 1). In contrast, China’s overexploitation of their its own fisheries and those of West African nations continues to be a serious problem (Jacobs, 2017). However, the US was ranked 68th, well below China, in the 18th position. Continued improvement in the quality of data on global fisheries is necessary to accurately evaluate management performance between nations.

Leaders & Laggards

Table 10-2. Leaders in Fisheries
Rank Country Score
1 Eritrea 94.09
2 Colombia 92.93
3 Peru 85.72
4 Israel 85.34
4 Lebanon 85.34
6 Brazil 81.42
7 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 79.13
8 Sudan 78.40
9 Sri Lanka 78.34
10 Tonga 76.86

Of the top ten nations with the greatest marine capture production, only Peru appeared in the list of leaders. Three Peruvian Fisheries Acts were enacted after 1995, and greatly improved the sustainability of the nation’s anchovy fishery. The legislation served to regulate foreign involvement in the fishery, control fishing quotas, and establish fishing seasons (Arias Schreiber, 2012). Peru in fact ranked first in a comparative ranking of the sustainability of fisheries management among 53 maritime nations by the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia (Mondoux & Pauly, 2008, p. 18).

Figure 10-4
Figure 10–4. Changes in Peruvian fish stock status
Source: Sea Around Us

Figure 10-5
Figure 10–5. Changes in Uruguayan fish stock status
Source: Sea Around Us

Despite the establishment of a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), European Union (EU) countries varied widely in their ranking, from Estonia, ranked 11th, to Portugal, ranked 132nd. The aim of the CFP was to ensure all stocks were harvested at their maximum sustainable yields by 2015 (2020 at the latest) through a variety of management controls. Targeted practices included minimizing bycatch, controlling which vessels have access to fishing areas, limiting fishing capacity and vessel usage, and finally regulating gear usage (European Commission, 2018). Perhaps historic conditions or varying degrees of success in the implementation of the CFP are leading to the diverse results in environmental performance among EU countries.

Table 10-3. Laggards in Fisheries
Rank Country Score
129 Japan 36.79
130 Guinea-Bissau 36.45
131 Montenegro 36.18
132 Russia 35.48
133 Netherlands 34.60
134 Portugal 32.11
135 Jamaica 29.07
136 Georgia 27.36
137 Papua New Guinea 27.35
136 El Salvador 0.00

One of the laggards in the rankings, Montenegro, received specific instructions for improvements in fisheries management necessary to comply with EU fisheries regulations as part of their accession process to join the EU (Montenegro Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 2015, p. 11). These instructions illustrate potential explanations of Montenegro’s low score and present ways that other countries might improve their performance on fisheries management. Montenegro was required to draft national management plans in compliance with the Mediterranean Regulation and implement a ban on discarding bycatch. The country was also criticized for its inadequate data collection processes for its fishing fleet, catch landings, the biological state of fish stocks, and impacts of fishing activity on marine ecosystems. Such data would be necessary to introduce a fishing capacity ceiling on the sector, as mandated by the EU fleet policy. Additional EU requirements to control IUU fishing also need to be incorporated into Montenegro’s legal system. Finally, Montenegro has not yet ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, which would be necessary for their fisheries policy to conform to EU standards (Montenegro Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 2015, p. 11). Implementing such recommendations would likely benefit other laggard nations as they design improved policies for sustainable fisheries.

Improved data collection will be critical for all nations to better understand the status of their commercial fish stocks and marine environments. As measurement and reporting improve, countries will be better equipped to implement fisheries management legislation to ensure the sustainable harvest of their stocks, compliance with regional and international fisheries agreements, and protection of marine ecosystems. Such measures are critical for the preservation of global fish stocks, and the resilience of communities dependent upon them.


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[1] Underexploited fisheries include fisheries which are not yet considered to be exploited, with fisheries landings exceeding 50% of maximum landings (Kleisner & Pauly, 2011; Kleisner, Zeller, Froese, & Pauly, 2013).