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Fishing is among the oldest production activities of humankind. Archaeological and historical research shows that fishing—both freshwater and ocean fishing—was widespread in ancient civilizations. In fact, it seems that human settlements were frequently established in areas of good fishing. These findings concerning the role of fishing for human sustenance are confirmed by modern day anthropological research of primitive societies.

During the past few centuries, the world’s fisheries have been radically transformed. Traditional fishing methods have to a large extent been superseded by a more modern technology stemming from the industrial revolution. This has been followed by a dramatic increase in effective fishing effort, a much smaller increase in global catch levels and a serious decline in many fish stocks. The industrialization of global fishing has also led to destabilization and decline of many traditional fisheries. Finally, increased worldwide fishing pressure has given rise to international disputes about fishing rights.

In 1993, the world harvest of fish was in the neighbourhood of 100 million metric tonnes per annum (FAO 1995). Of this quantity, fish-farming (aqua- and mariculture) accounted for about 16 million tonnes. So the world’s fisheries produced some 84 million tonnes per annum. About 77 million tonnes come from marine fisheries and the rest, some 7 million tonnes, from inland fisheries. To catch this quantity, there was a fishing fleet counting 3.5 million vessels and measuring about 30 million gross registered tonnes (FAO 1993, 1995). There are few hard data about the number of fishermen employed in the operation of this fleet. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO 1993) has estimated that they may be as many as 13 million. There is even less information about the number of workers employed in the processing and distribution of the catch. Conservatively estimated they may be 1 to 2 times the number of fishermen. This means that 25 to 40 million people may be directly employed in the fishing industry worldwide.

Asia is by far the largest fishing continent in the world, with close to half of the total annual fish harvest (FAO 1995). North and South America together (30%) come next, followed by Europe (15%). As fishing continents, Africa and Oceania are relatively insignificant, with combined harvest of about 5% of the annual global catch.

In 1993, the largest fishing nation in terms of harvesting volume was China, with about 10 million tonnes of marine catch, corresponding to about 12% of the global marine fish catch. Second and third place were taken by Peru and Japan, with about 10% of the global marine catch each. In 1993, 19 nations had a marine catch in excess of 1 million tonnes.

The world’s harvest of fish is distributed over a large number of species and fisheries. Very few fisheries have an annual yield in excess of 1 million tonnes. The largest ones in 1993 were the Peruvian anchovy fishery (8.3 million tonnes), the Alaska pollock fishery (4.6 million tonnes) and the Chilean horse mackerel fishery (3.3 million tonnes). Together these three fisheries account for about 1/5 of the world’s total marine harvest.

Evolution and Structure of the Fishing Industry

The combination of population growth and advances in fishing technology has led to a great expansion in fishing activity. Commencing centuries ago in Europe, this expansion has been particularly pronounced worldwide during the current century. According to FAO statistics (FAO 1992, 1995), total world catches have quadrupled since 1948, from under 20 million tonnes to the current level of about 80 million tonnes. This corresponds to almost 3% annual growth. However, during the last few years, the ocean harvest has stagnated at about 80 million tonnes annually. As the global fishing effort has continued to increase, this suggests that the exploitation of the world’s most important fish stocks is already at or in excess of the maximum sustainable yield. Hence, unless new fish stocks come under exploitation, the ocean fish catch cannot increase in the future.

The processing and marketing of the fish harvest have also expanded greatly. Assisted by improvements in transportation and conservation technology, and spurred by increased real personal incomes, ever increasing volumes of catch are processed, packaged and marketed as high-value food commodities. This trend is likely to continue at an even faster rate in the future. This means a substantially increased value added per unit of catch. However, it also represents a replacement of the traditional fish-processing and distribution activity by high-technology, industrial production methods. More seriously, this process (sometimes referred to as the globalization of fish markets) threatens to strip underdeveloped communities of their staple fish supply due to overbidding from the industrial world.

The world’s fisheries today are composed of two quite distinct sectors: artisanal fisheries and industrial fisheries. Most artisanal fisheries are a continuation of the traditional local fisheries that have changed very little over the centuries. Consequently, they are usually low technology, labour-intensive fisheries confined to near-shore or inshore fishing grounds (see the article “Case Study: Indigenous Divers”). The industrial fisheries, by contrast, are high technology and extremely capital intensive. The industrial fishing vessels are generally large and well equipped, and can range widely over the oceans.

With regard to vessel numbers and employment, the artisanal sector dominates the world’s fisheries. Almost 85% of the world’s fishing vessels and 75% of the fishermen are artisanal ones. In spite of this, due to its low technology and limited range, the artisanal fleet accounts for only a small fraction of the world’s catch of fish. Moreover, due to the low productivity of the artisanal fleet, the artisanal fishermen’s income is generally low and their working conditions poor. The industrial fishing sector is economically much more efficient. Although the industrial fleet only comprises 15% of the world’s fishing vessels and approximately 50% of the total tonnage of the world’s fishing fleet, it accounts for over 80% of the volume of marine catch in the world.

The increase in fishing during this century is mostly caused by an expansion of the industrial fisheries. The industrial fleet has increased the effectiveness of the harvesting activity in traditional fishing areas and expanded the geographical reach of the fisheries from relatively shallow inshore areas to almost all parts of the oceans where fish are to be found. By contrast, the artisanal fishery has remained relatively stagnant, although there has been technical progress in this part of the fishery as well.

Economic Importance

The current value of the global fish harvest at dockside is estimated to be about US$60 to 70 billion (FAO 1993, 1995). Although fish processing and distribution may be assumed to double or triple this amount, fishing is nevertheless a relatively minor industry from a global perspective, especially when compared to agriculture, the major food production industry of the world. For certain nations and regions, however, fishing is very important. This applies, for instance, to many communities bordering the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Moreover, in many communities of West Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, fishing is the population’s main source of animal protein and, consequently, is economically very important.

Fisheries Management

The global fishing effort has risen sharply during this century, especially after the end of the Second World War. As a result, many of the world’s most valuable fish stocks have been depleted to the point where increased fishing effort actually leads to a drop in the sustainable catch level. The FAO estimates that most of the world’s major fish stocks are either fully utilized or overfished in this sense (FAO 1995). As a result, the harvest from many of the world’s most important species has actually contracted, and, in spite of continuing advances in fishing technology and increases in the real price of fish, the economic returns from the fishing activity have declined.

Faced with diminishing fish stocks and declining profitability of the fishing industry, most of the world’s fishing nations have actively sought means to remedy the situation. These efforts have generally followed two routes: extensions of the national fisheries jurisdictions to 200 nautical miles and more, and an imposition of new fisheries management systems within the national fisheries jurisdictions.

Many different fisheries management methods have been employed for the purpose of improving the economics of fishing. Recognizing that the source of the fisheries problem is the common property nature of the fish stocks, the most advanced fisheries management systems seek to solve the problem by defining quasi-property rights in the fisheries. A common method is to set the total allowable catch for each species and then to allocate this total allowable catch to individual fishing companies in the form of individual catch quotas. These catch quotas constitute a property right in the fishery. Provided the quotas are tradable, the fishing industry finds it to its advantage to restrict fishing effort to the minimum needed to take the total allowable catch and, provided the quotas are also permanent, to adjust the size of the fishing fleet to the long-term sustainable yield of the fishery. This method of fisheries management (usually referred to as the individual transferable quota (ITQ) system) is rapidly expanding in the world today and seems likely to become the management norm for the future.

The expanding range of national fisheries jurisdictions and the property-rights-based management systems being implemented within them imply a substantial restructuring of fishing. The virtual enclosure of the world’s oceans by national fisheries jurisdictions, already well under way, will obviously all but eliminate distant water fishing. The property-rights-based fisheries management systems also represent increased incursion of market forces into fishing. Industrial fishing is economically more efficient than artisanal fishing. Moreover, the industrial fishing companies are in a better position to adjust to new fisheries management systems than artisanal fishermen. Hence, it seems that the current evolution of fisheries management poses yet another threat to the artisanal way of fishing. Given this and the need to curtail overall fishing effort, it seems inevitable that the level of employment in the world’s fisheries will fall drastically in the future.



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