December 02, 2010
Massive Fishing Expansion With Peak In Catches

The Earth's oceans are being overfished after a rapid decades-long expansion in fishing.

The Earth has run out of room to expand fisheries, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia researchers that charts the systematic expansion of industrialized fisheries.

In collaboration with the National Geographic Society and published today in the online journal PLoS ONE, the study is the first to measure the spatial expansion of global fisheries. It reveals that fisheries expanded at a rate of one million sq. kilometres per year from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. The rate of expansion more than tripled in the 1980s and early 1990s to roughly the size of Brazil's Amazon rain forest every year.

NB: View the study at

Fisheries catches peaked in the late 1980s in spite of continued rapid expansion of fished areas well into the 1990s.

Between 1950 and 2005, the spatial expansion of fisheries started from the coastal waters off the North Atlantic and Northwest Pacific, reached into the high seas and southward into the Southern Hemisphere at a rate of almost one degree latitude per year. It was accompanied by a nearly five-fold increase in catch, from 19 million tonnes in 1950, to a peak of 90 million tonnes in the late 1980s, and dropping to 87 million tonnes in 2005, according to the study.

We need to set aside large areas of the oceans for fisheries recovery.

There's nowhere left to expand into.

"The decline of spatial expansion since the mid-1990s is not a reflection of successful conservation efforts but rather an indication that we've simply run out of room to expand fisheries," says Wilf Swartz, a PhD student at UBC Fisheries Centre and lead author of the study.

This is the Tragedy of the Commons. Can it be stopped. The forces pushing the overfishing seem like they are too strong to restrain. There's not much of an environmental movement to oppose these forces. At best some specific industrialized countries or small groups of countries might band together to restrict fishing in fairly small areas. But for most of the oceans I do not see enough nations signing up to agree to restrain their fishing industries.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 December 02 09:43 PM  Trends Resource Depletion

Mthson said at December 2, 2010 11:05 PM:

Environmentalists should be investing in our existing lab-grown meat technology.

BioBob said at December 2, 2010 11:18 PM:

I don't understand why you are flogging this Randall. We covered this issue just a couple of months ago, if I recall. Nothing has changed. I also think you seem to be minimizing the extent to which nations with an effective navy / coast guard will protect their inshore fisheries // 200 mile exclusive resource zone, but I agree that pelagic fisheries are doomed.

Chris T said at December 3, 2010 9:51 AM:

Even if you could get every country to sign a protection agreement, there would still be the problem of enforcement. The world's navies have a hard enough time combating piracy in a relatively small part of one ocean.

Randall Parker said at December 4, 2010 8:49 AM:


1) What percentage of all nations with ocean boundaries have an effective coast guard or navy? Most do not. Look at Africa for example. Look at the pirates off the horn of Africa. That's a lawless region.

2) Groups of countries that have short ocean frontage do not each have a big enough commons to protect. If they do not catch the fish as the fish pass their country then fishermen from another country will.
I'm thinking of the west coast of Africa for example. Liberia, Ivory Coast, and a bunch of other really small countries. The length of Africa's coast is some multiple (5? 10?) of the length of the US coast.

The long US coast lines with a powerful navy and coast guard are more the exception than the rule.

Chris T said at December 4, 2010 9:44 AM:

The U.S. also has the advantage that its fishermen police each other to some extent. It's understood that it's to to their advantage to have the rules in place.

BioBob said at December 4, 2010 10:59 AM:

Randall, no question that some of the 2nd and 3rd world can not effectively police their inshore waters. But most, if not all of North and South America, Europe, Russia, Australia, and most of Asia can and DO effectively police their inshore waters. Just about the only exceptions would be some of Africa, small Pacific island states, and free-for-all places like Antarctica. There is always poaching and more and more armed conflict over fisheries resources eg Japan vs China recently, but most of it flies under the news radar.

I could not hazard a percentage, but I think most of the worlds inshore waters are policed enough to effectively remove the threat of overfishing to the point of fisheries collapse from foreign fishery fleets, at any rate, with the exception of much of Africa. However, that does not remove the past or present resource depletion from LOCAL fishing pressure. However, At this point, many inshore fisheries have already been effectively destroyed, as in European Atlantic inshore, North Sea, the Med, Baltic, Black Sea, Eastern North America, etc.

BioBob said at December 4, 2010 11:33 AM:

Just by the way, all a country needs are a few cabin cruiser type craft with decent speed and a few men armed with AK-47s and perhaps a 50 cal machine gun. They are dealing with fisherman's tubs, trawlers, or factory processing freighters, not pocket battleships. They know where their fisheries needing protection are and who the opposition is - it's not a big secret.

The pirate problem off Somalia could be resolved in less than 7 days. All that's required is the willingness to go into the handfull of ports and summarily hang several thousand pirates, destroy all their ships, and voila - no more pirates. The pucker factor would eliminate those missed. But we are just too PC to deal with barbarians the way they NEED to be dealt with.

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