According to a new study, the number of fish taken from our oceans has been dramatically underestimated. In a development that has huge significance for our environment and food stocks, figures suggest the annual catch could be some 30% higher than countries have been reporting until now. Countries report their industrial and commercial catches to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), but catches from recreational, artisanal and subsistence fishermen go undocumented.

The study – in journal Nature Communications – puts the annual global catch at some 109 million tonnes. It goes on to argue more than 32 million tonnes of fish go unreported on this total. These estimates may have serious ramifications for the future of our fisheries and global fish stocks. According to the lead author of the study if the figures are correct, in just a few decades we may be facing no catch at all.

fish decline

“The catches that are submitted by member countries to FAO suggest a slowly-declining catch or even a stagnating catch. But our figures suggest that since 1996 a rapid decrease is happening,” explained University of British Columbia fisheries professor Daniel Pauly. Pointing to our history of overfishing, Prof Pauly paints a grim picture of global fisheries mismanagement.

“It was never really sustainable,” he suggests. “We went through one stock after the other, for example around the British Isles, the stocks in the North Sea were diminished right after the Second World War. And then British trawlers went to Iceland and did the same thing there, and so on and so did the Germans, the Americans, so did the Soviets.”  

The study authors argue a place like the Bahamas stands as a shining example of all that is wrong with FAO reporting. In the island nation there was no reporting of small scale catches to the official channels. But investigators representing research initiative the Sea Around Us unearthed evidence of invoices to hotels and restaurants suggesting small scale fishermen had sold their catch directly to suppliers. Such systematic underreporting of catches could be up to 200% in smaller fishing nations.