Global Fishing Fleet and Fish Stock Sustainability: Finding the Sweet Spot
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Global Fishing Fleet and Fish Stock Sustainability: Finding the Sweet Spot
Global Fishing Fleet and Fish Stock Sustainability: Finding the Sweet Spot

When trying to estimate the composition of the world's fishing fleet, you must be prepared to face data gaps or inconsistencies that can easily confuse you.

Annual reports on fisheries and aquaculture by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States) can be regarded as most representative.

According to the FAO report: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022, the world had an estimated 4.1 million fishing vessels in 2020. 

This number has been on a downward trend in the last two decades, mainly driven by fleet reduction programs in Europe and China, which started in 2000 and 2013, respectively.

The global fishing fleet size was reduced by just fewer than 10 percent between 2015 and 2020 and by just under 4 percent between 2019 and 2020. 

Asia hosts the world’s largest fishing fleet, estimated at 2.68 million vessels or about two-thirds of the global total in 2020. Although, this proportion fell 8 percent between 2015 and 2020. 

Africa’s fleet is growing compared to the rest of the world and currently accounts for 23.5 percent of the world’s fishing vessels, up 10 percent from 2015. 

The Americas now account for fewer than 9 percent of the world’s fleet, down 1.5 percent from 2015. 

Europe and Oceania have retained a stable share of 2 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively, of the world’s total.

Regarding motorized fishing vessels, Asian countries account for 74.5 percent of the global motorized fishing fleet, followed by the Americas, Africa and Europe with 11.9 percent, 9.8 percent and 3.4 percent respectively.    

At an estimated 564,000 vessels, China has the world’s largest fishing fleet. However, following a long-time goal of shrinking the size of the Chinese fishing sector, China's fishing fleet has been reduced by about 47 percent since 2013, when it numbered 1,072,000 vessels.

The European Union has been carrying out a similar fleet size reduction program through its common fisheries policy for the past two decades. As a result, its fishing fleet has also decreased 28 percent by 2020 compared with 2000 to around 74 000 vessels, according to the 2021 Annual Economic Report on the EU Fishing Fleet by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Commission for Fisheries (STECF).

The EU small-sized coastal fleet totaled 42 838 vessels, with large-sized fleet encompassing 14 139 vessels, representing 19 percent of the total and distant-water fleet numbering 259 vessels, less than 1 percent of the EU total.

Importance of small boats

Small vessels make up the largest share of motorized fishing vessels involved in commercial harvesting of aquatic bioresources on all continents. In 2020, around 81 percent of the world’s motorized fishing vessels were less than 12 meters in length, the majority of which were undecked.  In absolute terms, most of these small, motorized vessels were in Asia, followed by the Americas (particularly Latin American and the Caribbean) and Africa. 

Large vessels of 24 meters in length or more were estimated at about 45 000 units across the world, representing less than 5 percent of the world’s motorized fishing fleet. The proportion of these large boats was highest in the Americas, Oceania and Asia in 2020. 

While small vessels make up most of the world’s fishing fleets, the estimation of their numbers is particularly challenging. Indeed, while industrial vessels are usually subject to licensing and registration requirements, this is less often the case for small vessels. Additionally, small vessels may not always be reported in national statistics even when registries exist.

Regarding medium and large fishing vessels there was an obvious upward trend in their number observed in 2020 compared to previous years, mainly in Africa, America and Asia, highlighting the overall growth in tonnage and length seen in fleets around the world. 

Global fishing fleet performances

According to the FAO review of the techno-economic performance of the main global marine fishing fleets from 20 major fishing countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, there are substantial differences between fishing fleet segments in terms of vessel length, tonnage and power. 

Substantial increases in overall average vessel length and engine power were observed in several Asian fishing fleets. 

An analysis of the age structure shows that the average age of fishing vessels in North and South America, Africa and Europe is increasing, while in Asia, on the contrary, it is on a downward trend due to the renewal of fishing fleets in China, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia.

The survey found that investments in industrial fishing vessels and fishing operations are generally profitable, and that marine fishing continues to be a financially viable economic activity. Most fishing fleets surveyed realized sufficient income to cover depreciation costs, interest and loan repayments, and provide necessary financial resources for reinvestment.

Profitability varied between vessels and fleet segments. On average, purse seiners, gillnetters and squid jiggers showed very good profit margins.

Pelagic trawlers and large and medium-sized bottom trawlers also reported percentages that indicate profitable or highly profitable fishing operations.

Finally, fisheries technology continues to evolve, with lower fuel costs and energy savings being key drivers of technological development. There have also been major developments in terms of increasing fishing efficiency, reducing the environmental impact of fishing, improving handling and enhancing product quality, in addition to improving safety at sea and the working conditions of fishers on board vessels. 

These developments – together with a general increase in prices of aquatic products, successful fisheries management and improved fleet capacity management in some areas - have all contributed to the positive financial and economic performance of the main global fishing fleets in recent years.

On the whole, however, the seeming well-being of the world's fishing fleet may turn out to be precarious.

Too large to be missed

The current size of global fishing fleets is not commensurate with available stocks. According to FAO, the effective Capture per Unit of Effort (CPUE) of most countries in 2015 was one-fifth of what it was in the 1950s. It means that fleets must undertake five times more fishing effort in terms of resources and time for the same amount of catch.

And although there are signs of stabilization due to conservation and management measures taken in recent years, with a reduction in fleet sizes in developed countries, efforts to tackle unsustainable fishing do not seem to be sufficiently effective so far. 

A significant share of global fish stocks and related marine ecosystems are at risk. According to FAO, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 34.2 percent in 2017.

The complexity of the problem at hand does not provide for easy answers.  For example, reduction of the global fishing fleet size continues, but, obviously, more needs to be done to minimize overcapacity and ensure sustainability in fishing operations. 

Moreover, reductions in fleet size alone do not necessarily guarantee more sustainable outcomes, since changes in fishing efficiency can offset the sustainability gains of fleet reductions. A trend towards larger, more powerful vessels and more efficient fishing gears thus has the potential to jeopardize the sustainability of fishing, notwithstanding a decreasing number of vessels.

Fisheries experts believe that deep understanding of both the size and the motorization of the artisanal and industrial fishing fleets is needed to estimate the global fishing effort and its impact on ecosystems, livelihood, and employment.

Moreover, there is no substitute for enhanced international cooperation to bring the development of the world's fishing fleet in line with the fish stock sustainability.

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