The true level of the world’s wild fish catches

January 16, 2017


A lecture by Professor Daniel Pauly and Dr Dirk Zeller

It is testimony to Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller’s reputation that 200 people braved driving sleet to attend their fascinating lecture in London on Thursday 12 January.  Many thanks to ZSL and the Turing Institute for co-hosting alongside the Blue Marine Foundation.

Professor Pauly and Dr Zeller from the University of British Columbia were presenting the findings on the true level of the world’s wild fish catches published last year in Nature Communications, more recently in their Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries and available on their project’s website:

Since 1950 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been reporting on global fish catches.  Every year until 2002, the FAO data showed catches increasing, suggesting that the sea was inexhaustible.  At that time, Professor Pauly reported in Nature that if the catches inaccurately reported by China were removed, catches had begun to decline.

Further years of painstaking research by Pauly and Zeller revealed that the FAO has been dramatically underestimating the number of fish being caught every year for the past 60 years.  And more worryingly, that catches were not levelling off, or “stabilising” as the FAO suggested, but in steep decline.  Since 1996, now identified as ‘peak fish’, landings have declined each year by over a million tonnes.

20170116 Pauly 2005 1950













In their lecture, Dr Zeller explained that the main flaw in the FAO data was that data categorised as ‘too difficult to quantify’ was marked as N/A, which in turn was marked as a 0 in spreadsheets. The quantum of these ‘soft zeros’ was between 30 and 50 per cent of global catch.  Categories which were crucially left out include small-scale catch by subsistence fishers, recreational fishing (which in the Bahamas, for example, can be almost half the catch), discards and illegally caught fish.

Gathering this hitherto unquantified data was a staggering feat by Pauly and Zeller, who called on an unpaid army of 300 researchers worldwide, and this lifetime achievement was a reason why they won the award for Science at the Boat International/Blue Marine Foundation Ocean Awards.












Professor Pauly elaborated in the Q&A on the continued threat to our oceans of industrial fishing.  Much of the fish being caught is used for fish meal for aquaculture or fish oil – it isn’t even being eaten directly as fish.  Moreover, we in the developed world are importing much of our fish from the developing world: ‘we are taking food from the mouths of the poor’, meaning that the billion people who rely on fish for their main source of protein are increasingly unable to source it.

A fascinating chart also showed that small-scale fishing employs ten times as many people, has a much lower environmental impact and uses a fraction of the fuel, so produces a fraction of the CO2 emissions, compared with industrial fishing.  Yet industrial fishing attracts far more subsidies than small scale fishing.


Thompson graph-2016




However, there was a message of hope: Daniel Pauly said that the creation of marine protected areas was a huge step forward in halting fish stock declines, as were the development of small-scale, sustainably managed fisheries. Both strategies are being pursued by BLUE.

Daniel Pauly also had an interesting message for British ministers grappling with the challenges of Brexit.  He suggested that with Brexit Britain had a “once in a hundred years” opportunity to revive UK fish stocks or alternatively “an opportunity to be stupid.”

For Prof Pauly’s full answer to the Brexit question see here.

For Prof Pauly’s interview on BBC Radio 4 Farming today click the link here.










Pauly D and Zeller D (2016) Towards a comprehensive estimate of global marine fisheries catches. pp. 171-181 In Pauly D and Zeller D (eds.), Global Atlas of Marine Fisheries: A critical appraisal of catches and ecosystem impacts. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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