- Increasing pressures on fish populations mean one-third of global fish stocks are overexploited – this has increased from 10% in the 1970s.
- The world now produces more than 155 million tonnes of seafood each year.
- There are large differences in per capita fish consumption across the world.
- The world now produces more seafood from aquaculture (fish farming) than from wild catch. This has played a key role in alleviating pressure on wild fish populations.
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A key concern for the sustainability of global patterns of seafood consumption has been the overexploitation of wild fish stocks. If the amount of wild fish we catch exceeds the rate at which fish can reproduce and replenish, populations will decline over time. Such populations we would call ‘overexploited’.
This is based on a metric called the ‘maximum sustainable yield’ (MSY) – the upper limit to the amount of fish we can harvest without depleting the existing resource. If fishing rates are lower than the MSY, a stock is defined as biologically sustainable. If harvest is higher than the MSY, it is overexploited.
In the visualization here we see the share of global fish stocks which are overexploited and the share that are biologically sustainable. Sustainable stocks have fallen from 90% in the 1970s to 66% in 2017.1 One-third of global fish stocks are now overexploited.
We can also see, however, that most of the decline in sustainable fish populations occurred through the 1970s and 1980s. Over the past few decades there has been a marked slowdown – or plateauing – of overexploitation. This is in part owed to the fact that increased demand has instead been met by aquaculture (fish farming) rather than wild catch.
It’s estimated that 79% of current fish landings come from biologically sustainable stocks.2
Global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled over the past 50 years. Not only has the world population more than doubled over this period, the average person now eats almost twice as much seafood as half a century ago.
This has increased pressure on fish stocks across the world. Globally, the share of fish stocks which are overexploited – meaning we catch them faster than they can reproduce to sustain population levels – has more than doubled since the 1980s and this means that current levels of wild fish catch are unsustainable.
One innovation has helped to alleviate some of the pressure on wild fish catch: aquaculture, the practice of fish and seafood farming. The distinction between farmed fish and wild catch is similar to the difference between raising livestock rather than hunting wild animals. Except that for land-based animals, farming is many thousand years old while it was very uncommon for seafood until just over 50 years ago.
In the visualizations we see the change in aquaculture and capture fishery production from 1960 onwards. What’s striking is that global wild fish catch has not increased since the early 1990s and instead remained relatively constant at around 90 to 95 million tonnes per year. Fish farming on the other hand is growing very rapidly, from 1960 until 2015 it has increased 50-fold to over 100 million per year.
In the 1960s, aquaculture was relatively niche, with an output of a few million tonnes per year. Particularly since the late 1980s, annual production has increased rapidly. In 1990 the world produced only 17 million tonnes. It now produces over 100 million tonnes.
As we see, aquaculture production has now surpassed wild catch. It has absorbed almost all of the growth in global demand in recent decades and will continue to play a critical role in protecting wild fish populations as demand for seafood continues to rise.
One of the charts presents FAO wild fishery catch data, broken down by region. Here we see a steady increase in fishery catch until the mid-1990s, when this trend typically levels out in the range of 90-95 million tonnes per year.
In the other chart we present revised data published in Nature by Pauly and Zeller (2016).3
Here, the authors argue that catch from small-scale fisheries is typically under-reported to, and published by the FAO. The authors write:
“This data set, however, may not only underestimate artisanal (that is, small scale, commercial) and subsistence fisheries, but also generally omit the catch of recreational fisheries, discarded bycatch and illegal and otherwise unreported catch, even when some estimates are available. Thus, except for a few obvious cases of over-reporting, the landings data updated and disseminated annually by the FAO on behalf of member countries may considerably underestimate actual fisheries catch.”
The authors’ revised figures therefore show significantly higher fishery catch which peaks around 1996 at 130 million tonnes, before declining to 109 million tonnes in 2010. Although different in magnitude to that of FAO figures, these revised trends support the trend of a global maximum in wild fishery catch (but now with a significant decline). As shown in both charts, the majority of this decline has resulted from falling industrial catch; small-scale artisanal catch actually increased over this period.
- Data: Covers Production-level data in terms of kilograms of meat & seafood by type; livestock numbers and yields; and per capita food supply of animal products
- Geographical coverage: Global – by country and world region
- Time span: Since 1961
- Available at: Online at FAOSTAT here.
- Data: Capture fishery and aquaculture production and consumption data by country and species
- Geographical coverage: Global, Regional and by country
- Time span: 1961-present
- Available at: Online here.