The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today reported a 60 per cent decrease over the past decade in the amount of fish being thrown back into the sea and wasted, but it is not sure whether this is good news or bad news.
It could either indicate the success of efforts to reduce incidental by-catch through improved techniques to avoid hauling in unwanted species in the first place, or it could mask greater consumption of what was previously regarded as “trash fish” and a decline in the stocks of conventional fish. The jury, apparently, is still out.
“Is the decline in discard levels good news or bad news? Perhaps a bit of both,” FAO’s Fisheries Department said in a statement reporting that an analysis of global data for the last decade shows that on average 7.3 million tons of fish are being thrown back to sea unused each year – a decrease of about 12 million tons from earlier years.
A number of factors underline the shift. “In some fisheries, countries have implemented measures that aim at reducing incidental by-catch. These include initiatives that improve fishing selectivity to limit catches to only desired species as well as the increased use of by-catch excluder devices or anti-discard regulations,” FAO said.
The agency also noted that fish that in the past would have been thrown away as “trash fish” are today increasingly being kept on-board and used. “What is difficult is to know just how much of the approximately 12 million tons no longer being discarded is due to greater selectivity, versus how much of it comes from the fact that processing has improved and a larger proportion of catches are being effectively used,” it added. “Or do we simply now have much better data on selectivity and discards than before?”
With fewer fish being wasted and being used instead, one could expect the overall level of fish landings to have increased – but this hasn’t happened. In general, global fish landings have been stable in recent years, FAO figures show. “The fact that we are seeing less waste is good news. But is this good news about discards masking some bad news too?” it asked.
“Has increased use of previously discarded fish masked a decline in captures of conventional stocks? And how do natural fluctuations in fish abundance due to climatic conditions and natural lifecycles of fish populations play in? There are still a great many unknowns,” it added.
As the lead global agency collecting and studying world fisheries statistics, FAO will continue to analyse capture production to seek the answers. “But improved national monitoring of catches and more detailed reporting of catch composition and fish utilization is needed to get an accurate picture of the situation,” it said.