Mediterranean: World’s most overfished sea

A new report by the United Nations has revealed that, with global consumption of fish growing at an alarming rate, the health of the world’s oceans is in real danger

Mediterranean fishery
Mediterranean fishery
Rob Cole

Over one third of global marine fish stocks are now fished at unsustainable levels, with the Mediterranean and Black Sea area the worst affected, according to a new report from the United Nations.

The report – ‘State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA)’ – published yesterday (9 July) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals a number of alarming statistics relating to the irrefutable trend towards unsustainable fishing around the world.

Quoted in the report, José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General, outlines the importance of fishing in meeting the world’s food consumption demands, stating that “since 1961, the annual global growth in fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth”, with global fish production standing at around 171 million tonnes in 2016.

Fish production is largely split between capture fisheries (the capture of wild fish) and aquaculture (the farming of fish and other marine organisms under controlled conditions), contributing 90.9 million tonnes and 80 million tonnes to global fish consumption respectively. Growth in aquaculture has has played a significant part in increased fish consumption, contributing 46.8 per cent of total production in 2016, up from 25.7 per cent in 2000.

As a result, the increased global demand for fish, allied with increasing population growth, has seen the fraction of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels fall from 90 per cent in 1974 to 66.9 per cent in 2015 – meaning one third of global fish stocks are being exploited at unsustainable levels, threatening both food security and the health of marine ecosystems.

Out of the 16 major statistical areas covered in the report, using the latest data available from 2015, the Mediterranean and Black Sea had the highest percentage of unsustainable stocks at 62.2 per cent, followed by the Southeast Pacific (61.5 per cent) and the Southwest Atlantic (58.8 per cent).

Commenting on the report, Andrew Sharpless, Chief Executive Officer of Oceana, an international ocean advocacy group, said: “The new report from the FAO is discouraging: it shows that the world still has a long way to go toward responsible management of our oceans.

“The number of overfished marine fisheries has risen over the last years. And, despite increasingly sophisticated and aggressive fishing techniques, global catch has continued to decline. This new report is only the latest data point on a disturbing trend line. Overfishing and destructive gear, habitat degradation, pollution, and short-term thinking have limited the amount of wild seafood available to humanity. And these same problems continue to threaten the health of the ocean and all the species that live there.”

Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director of Oceana in Europe, added: “It’s confirmed. The Mediterranean Sea is the most overfished in the world, with 62 per cent of its fish stocks now overfished and at serious and real risk of being depleted. Nobody wants a sea so familiar to many of us to have no fish for people to eat or no more jobs and livelihoods for those who depend on fishing in the region.

“This shocking situation must be a wake-up call for immediate political action. The Mediterranean Sea needs urgent and bold action such as curbing bottom-trawling fishing, safeguarding areas where fish grow, and setting annual fish catch limits in line with scientific advice.”

Keith Taylor, MEP for the South East and the Green Party's Animals Spokesperson, added: "The latest report on the state of overfishing in the Mediterranean is hugely concerning. Overfishing is both ecological vandalism and short-sighted economic sabotage. National parliaments must act urgently to implement the evidence-based policies necessary to comply with the EU's legally-binding 2020 commitment to ending overfishing.

"When it comes to the UK and Brexit, overfishing is also the elephant fish in the tank. An elephant fish that too many Leave campaigners refuse to acknowledge; especially Nigel Farage who was pictured just this week gleefully posing with the protected Tope Shark he caught on a recent fishing trip. Greens, in the past, have been vocal in our criticism of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, but recent major reform has yielded huge results in terms of the commitments secured. There's still more to do, but we're swimming in the right policy direction.

"The UK's fishing industry's anger about the unequal distribution of quotas is justified, but that anger should be directed where responsibility lies: Westminster. UK Ministers' promises on fishing post-Brexit are, at best, cynical and, at worst, destructive. The Government won't be able to deliver the quota-free fishing future it has promised because if the reality of reciprocal trading and fishing agreements don't catch up to them first, the harsh ecological and economic realities of barren, over-exploited oceans surely will." 

You can view the whole ‘State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA)’ report on the FAO website.