Status of the world’s fish stocks

  • Overfishing is widely acknowledged as the greatest single threat to marine wildlife and habitats. Many fish stocks are widely reported to be in a state of severe decline as illustrated by the following:The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report that nearly 70% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully fished, overfished, or depleted.
    OSPAR reports that 40 of the 60 main commercial fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic are outside safe biological limits, or heavily overfished.
    27% of stocks assessed by ICES in 2001 were outside safe biological limits i.e. overfished.
    In the North Sea many once common species such as cod, haddock, skate, and place are now overfished, and in the case of cod, stocks are on the verge of financial collapse, while common skate is virtually extinct.
    Fishers are also moving into deeper waters in search of new fishing opportunities. In some cases, this has resulted in the destruction of unique habitat and overfishing of species we know nothing or very little about.

    For example, in the North-East Atlantic unique coldwater coral formations referred to as the Darwin Mounds showed significant damage from trawling activity. Since August 2003 they have had emergency protected status that will become permanent in August 2004. Stocks of orange roughy, a deep-water oceanic fish and one of the longest lived fish known – it may live for 125 years – are being wiped out by unsustainable fishing and lack of adequate measures to protect them.

    In addition to pressures from overfishing, fish stocks are also affected by climate change and pollution from other human activities associated with exploitation of both marine and land-based resources.

    Impacts of fishing
    Every year hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds are killed needlessly in the fishery gears all over the world. In many cases, these deaths could be avoided, or at least reduced, by introducing the use of ‘dolphin,’ ‘turtle’ and ‘seabird-friendly’ devices, or by banning the use of damaging practices and the introduction of areas in which fishing is prohibited.

    What you can do
    As the crises of over-fishing of our seas deepen, the need for consumer education to increase demand for responsibly produced seafood is becoming more urgent.

    Customers can contribute to the responsible management of fish stocks by requiring that the fish we eat is from sustainably managed stocks and that the way in which it is caught or farmed causes minimum damage to the marine environment.

    If you are concerned about declining fish stocks and the welfare of our seas, the Marine Conservation Society FISHONLINE website can help you identify which fish are from well-managed sources and caught using methods that minimize damage to marine wildlife and habitat.

    Fish Labelling
    An example of fish labeling Labelling of fish (applies to fresh, chilled and frozen whole fish and fillets only) with origin and name of species recently became mandatory throughout European Member States Information on the species’ common name, the area of capture and method of production i.e. whether wild and caught at sea, or farmed, is now required by law and should appear on the packaging. However, no information relating to the method of capture and its impact on marine species and habitats or the state of the stock from which the species is derived is yet required.

    Organic Labelling
    All organic food production is governed by strict rules. Food sold as organic must originate from growers, processors, and importers who are registered with an approved body and subject to regular inspection.More recently, organic standards have been developed for organically farmed fish and fish meal.

    Organic certification is awarded by ten accrediting bodies and can be recognized by labeling on the food packaging. Three of these organizations (Soil Association, Food Certification Scotland, Organic Food Federation) have jointly developed aquaculture standards for organically farmed fish in the UK.

    Four key points were addressed when compiling these rules: closed systems and nutrient cycling (salmon and trout are traditionally reared in open sea cages); water quality (input and output); food – 50% of the fish protein used to make fishmeal must come from filleting waste and by-products, with the remainder coming from sustainably managed fish stocks; and confinement guidelines. For more information go to

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