Over the past 50 years, the world has witnessed a massive decline in the health of its fisheries.1 Quite simply, we are removing fish from the ocean at a far greater rate than they can naturally replenish.
Marine fisheries support approximately 260 million jobs,2 and fish is one of the most highly-traded food commodities globally – worth over US$160 billion in 2018.3 Additionally, seafood consumption continues to grow every year, with more than three billion people dependent on seafood for one-fifth of their protein needs.4
Without healthy fish stocks and marine ecosystems, the planet and future populations will suffer. Yet, many fisheries resources are being severely misused. This is due to insufficient, inappropriate or absent management, leading to overfishing. The ocean, and the livelihoods of coastal communities that depend on it, are being destroyed by short-term interests, rather than protected by a vision of long-term sustainability.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 aims to prevent this coming disaster by setting out a framework to conserve and sustainably use the oceans.5
Under SDG target 14.4, global leaders committed to:
“By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics.”
In 2021, this goal is far from being met.
While there have been pockets of success where strong interventions have improved stock health,6,7 globally, the state of fish stocks is not improving.8 Fisheries operate across the ocean, with government subsidies inflating fleets far beyond what is economically viable.9,10,11 Policy makers and businesses focus their resources on big, valuable species, with little regard for smaller, less valuable fisheries. And perhaps most importantly, many fisheries continue to operate with little oversight. As a result, there is a serious lack of knowledge – and data – about fisheries. Without this information, we cannot accurately measure, monitor or manage fisheries for sustainability.
The Global Fishing Index aims to address this problem by providing the largest assessment of the state of fisheries to date and connecting this information with decision-makers to drive global change. The Index assesses the status – whether they are sustainable or overfished – of 1,439 fish stocks across 142 coastal countries. By combining this information with catch data and new information about how fisheries are governed in each country, we report for the first time on the state of fisheries and country-level progress toward SDG target 14.4.
This information is used to identify critical gaps and recommendations for improvement – equipping decision-makers with the information they need to end overfishing, restore fish stocks and manage fisheries to ensure long-term sustainability.
Of the 1,439 stocks we assessed, 45 per cent are overfished – meaning they have been depleted below 40 per cent of unfished populations (the level that can produce MSY). This is considerably higher than a previous estimate of 34 per cent, based on a smaller sample of stocks.12 Additionally, if we were to apply a hard limit for MSY at 50 per cent (with no margin of error), the proportion of overfished stocks would rise to 56 per cent.
Alarmingly, one in five stocks within our data is estimated to be below 20 per cent of unfished levels of abundance, far below what is considered sustainable. Additionally, eight per cent of stocks have been reduced to less than 10 per cent of unfished populations (Figure 1) – the point of collapse.
Figure 1: Number of fish stocks, by relative abundance. Relative abundance is defined as a stock’s current abundance (biomass) relative to historic, unfished levels. Half of assessed stocks are currently less than 40 per cent of unfished levels of abundance, one quarter sit at 40–60 per cent, and one quarter are above 60 per cent.
Overfished stocks require between three and 30 years to recover to sustainable levels of abundance – depending on the extent to which they have been depleted, their exploitation history, how fast they grow and reproduce, and fishing pressure during the recovery period.13,14,15,16 The fate of these fish stocks, and associated marine ecosystems and fishing communities, depends on authorities taking swift and decisive action to rebuild them to sustainable levels.
Interestingly, most countries (86 per cent) in our dataset have a stock sustainability score above 50 per cent – meaning that over half of the assessed stocks in their national waters are sustainable. This figure on its own, however, is misleading – as many countries have assessed few stocks or the assessed stocks comprise only a small portion of their total catch. For example, an estimated 92 per cent of the assessed stocks in Nicaraguan waters are sustainable. But these assessed stocks account for only two per cent of its total catch and the state of almost all its fish stocks is unknown. This calls to attention the importance of considering not only what is assessed, but also how much remains unknown about a country’s fish stocks when evaluating sustainability.
Fifty-two per cent of the global catch since 1990 has come from stocks that lack sufficient data to estimate stock abundance. As a result, we do not know if this catch is sustainable. Without this information, decision-makers are operating ‘in the dark’, unable to effectively manage fisheries.
Globally, far too few fish stocks have been assessed: one-third of countries in our dataset have assessed less than a quarter of what is caught in their waters. Additionally, we find that 68 countries have assessed less than 10 per cent of their ‘nationally managed’ catch, which comes from fish stocks that occur completely within a country’s jurisdiction (national stocks) or are a shared responsibility of neighbouring countries (shared stocks).
Twenty-nine of these countries do not have a single national or shared stock assessed (Figure 4) – with their data availability limited to RFMO-managed stocks. More than half of these are small island developing states that rely on coastal stocks as a critical source of jobs, food, and nutrition for local communities.17,18 This result reveals a surprising contrast for many countries whose economies depend on highly migratory species, like tuna. Many of these countries, particularly in the Pacific, have made substantial progress to develop strong regional management of these straddling stocks19,20 – yet there is little information about the state of critical inshore fish stocks.21,22 For example, 82 per cent of Kiribati’s total catch is sustainable due to the dominance of tuna, but Kiribati is yet to assess a single national stock. Building capacity to monitor and manage coastal stocks will be crucial for ensuring sustainable use of these locally valuable resources.
We note that some countries have an advantage in terms of data coverage, with most of their catch coming from a handful of large stocks. This advantage depends on the level of marine biodiversity within a country’s waters and a country’s fisheries.
Peru, for example, scores well because its fisheries are dominated by two large anchoveta stocks that together account for over 70 per cent of the total catch (Figure 2).23 In comparison, other countries catch dozens of species in smaller amounts, making it harder to achieve good data coverage. Australia, for example, has 132 assessed stocks in our dataset, yet 60 per cent of its catch remains unassessed (Figure 2).
Peru & Australia Comparison
Countries differ in the size of fish stocks assessed, based on total catch. For example, the top 10 stocks by catch (in tonnes) in Peru account for 91 per cent of total catch. In comparison, the top 10 stocks by catch (in tonnes) in Australia account for only 21 per cent of total catch.
Figure 2 (top): Comparison of stock size as a proportion of total marine catch in Australia and Peru’s national waters
Figure 3 (bottom): Twenty-nine countries in our dataset have not assessed a single national stock, demonstrating the lack of data availability within coastal fisheries. Most of these countries occur in tropical areas and many (62 per cent) are Small Island Developing States.24
Figure 5: Country-level performance based on progress towards restoring fish stocks and governance capacity to ensure sustainable fishing.
Colours indicate overall grade received.
We find that globally, there is a clear gap between management commitments and the actions required to achieve on-the-water change. Over half (56 per cent) of the countries in our dataset have developed basic governance and management frameworks to prevent overfishing and restore fish stocks. However, on average countries score only 22 out of 100 for progress; this means that they are only one-fifth of the way towards achieving SDG target 14.4.
Based on current progress and governance capacity to improve fish stock health, no country achieved an
‘A’ or ‘B’ grade – in which most fish stocks are assessed and known to be sustainable. Just ten countries – Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America – received a ‘C’, the highest grade achieved. These countries achieve a Progress score of at least 40 out of 100 and have developed governance systems.
However, while progress has been made in some fisheries, additional work is needed to expand management across additional stocks to reach global sustainability goals.
Eighty per cent of countries received a ‘D’ or ‘E’ grade – including six of the top ten countries with the highest marine catch in their waters: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Peru and the Russian Federation. These countries have made limited progress toward SDG target 14.4, a substantial portion of their stocks are overfished or unassessed and/or their fisheries governance system is lacking the basic elements needed to effectively manage fisheries.
Nineteen countries get an ‘F’ grade – including Viet Nam and Malaysia, which are among the top ten countries with the highest marine catch in their waters. In these countries, nearly all stocks are unassessed or overfished, and there is little prospect of advancing without major improvements in management.
Science-based fisheries management, in which policy and management actions are based on fisheries data, is essential for preventing overfishing and securing sustainable fisheries.25,26,27
We find that most countries do not, and are currently unable to, effectively apply science-based management in all fisheries. This is because they do not collect or analyse basic fisheries data, do not base management on scientific evidence and/or do not monitor or enforce regulations to ensure fishers comply with the rules.
Even the highest performing countries are failing to apply science-based management in all fisheries. Nonetheless, most countries (85 per cent) have set clear environmental sustainability goals to guide decision-making – the first step of science-based management.
There are three key issues:
Despite their importance in enabling effective management, few countries empower stakeholders, including local fishing communities, to meaningfully participate in management processes. Stakeholders act as a source of information on fishing activities, threats and stock and ecosystem health and help
hold decision-makers to account.35,36,37 Stakeholder participation in decision-making, especially fishers, can also increase compliance with the rules, reducing enforcement costs.38,39
Yet one-quarter of countries assessed do not legally require authorities to include fishers in decision-making. Additionally, nearly 40 per cent of countries lack ‘bottom up’ forms of governance, such as community-based or customary management, where stakeholders are active participants in management processes.
In many countries, stakeholders lack the capacity to effectively engage in management due to a lack of organisation and representation, such as through fisher working groups or cooperatives, or transparency in decision-making. For example, only 23 per cent of countries publish minutes from management meetings, making it difficult for people to respond or to track how decisions are made. Transparency in decision-making is critical for improving information sharing, as well as holding decision-makers to account and tackling fisheries corruption.
Set ambitious targets to restore fish stocks and follow through with management action.
Meeting SDG target 14.4 will require countries and businesses to require countries and businesses to not only commit to improving, but follow through with management action. It will require increased investment in fisheries management, as well as innovation and collaboration across sectors to identify new means of meeting policy commitments. Leaders should start by reviewing the areas where their performance is weakest – using the Index’s country-level results to identify critical gaps. Explore what has been successful elsewhere and work to adapt and recreate these interventions to meet local needs.
Establish systems to collect and publish fisheries data.
Establish and expand data collection programs and integrate other types of information, including ecological data and local stakeholder knowledge, into decision-making processes. Fisheries information such as catch and effort data, vessel and licence registries and vessel tracking data should be made publicly available to enable independent monitoring and help tackle entrenched issues, such as corruption and illegal behaviour.
Embed evidence in fisheries management, using a precautionary approach where uncertainty is high.
Ensure that management strategies and measures are based on scientific evidence, not politics. Train managers on how to best use data to develop policy and how to evaluate and adapt management to ensure success. When data are missing, managers should take a precautionary approach, applying cautious measures to account for uncertainty and reduce potential risks. Considering the vital role fisheries play in livelihoods, food security and nutrition, this process must be applied in all fisheries, not just those with high economic value.
Governments have the primary responsibility for governing fisheries. They have a responsibility to their citizens to prevent overfishing and ensure the sustainable use of marine resources.
Eliminate the worst drivers of overfishing first.
Reconsider the management measures in place for overfished stocks and take corrective action where needed. Work to improve governance, focusing on the gaps identified in your assessment results. Combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by adopting a National Plan of Action and ratifying the 2009 FAO Port State Measures Agreement. Commit to protecting worker rights and safety by signing the 2007 ILO Work in Fishing Convention (No. 188) and the 2012 IMO Cape Town Agreement. Eliminate perverse incentives that drive overfishing, such as harmful subsidies.
Implement strategies to achieve sustainability goals.
Set public, time-bound and measurable targets to improve the state of fisheries, such as rebuilding plans for overfished stocks, track your performance and publish fisheries data to increase accountability.
Adopt evidence-based policies that promote sustainable fishing – such as science-based catch and effort limits and harvest control rules.
Set ambitious targets to restore fish stocks and follow through with management action.
Including the personnel, infrastructure and equipment needed to apply science-based management. Develop and trial innovative approaches to achieve these goals (available at www.globalfishingindex.org).
Businesses represent a powerful force that can dramatically and rapidly improve seafood supply chains through corporate policies and market incentives.40 Businesses have a responsibility to ensure they contribute to fisheries improvements and don’t profit from overfishing.
Audit your supply chain.
Require full disclosure from companies in your supply chain about where they are fishing, what they are catching and how it is being caught or produced, including labour practices. Insist on who, what, where and how as mandatory reported metrics.
Change sourcing habits.
Adopt real, quantifiable and time-bound commitments to avoid companies or fishing regions that are not sustainable, and shift to suppliers that demonstrate good sustainability practices and management.
Take an active role in advocating, funding and implementing policy and management reform that will increase the sustainability of fisheries in your supply chain. This includes collaborating with like-minded stakeholders in your supply chain to effect change, for example via pre-competitive action or credible fishery improvement projects.
Small-scale, artisanal and subsistence fishing plays an integral role in global fisheries – representing a range of diverse fishing activities from beach collecting to coastal fishing using small vessels. These communities stand to lose the most if fisheries and ecosystems collapse, and they play an important role in achieving a productive, equitable and sustainable future for fisheries.
Trial local solutions.
We recognise that each fishery is different, and solutions to overfishing in the small-scale sector must be locally driven and fit-for-purpose. Improvements will require the use of new and existing management tools that are simple, affordable and scalable across these systems. Where available, collaborate with government agencies, scientists, other fisher groups, civil society organisations and local communities to address sustainability concerns and threats to local fish stocks and ecosystems.
Advocate for change.
All individuals and small operators – from harvesters to sellers – can advocate for change and contribute to a better approach to fisheries. To help accelerate management improvements, consider joining with others (in an association or cooperative) to coordinate and negotiate with regulators, and the companies who buy, process and market your fish.
The Global Fishing Index is authored by Minderoo Foundation Limited as trustee for The Minderoo Foundation Trust ABN 24 819 440 618 (Minderoo Foundation) and is published by Minderoo Productions Limited (Minderoo Productions). Between them, Minderoo Foundation and Minderoo Productions have exercised care and diligence in the preparation of this report and have relied on information from public sources and contributors they believe to be reliable. However, the report is published on an “as is” basis. Neither Minderoo Foundation nor Minderoo Productions, nor any of their respective directors, officers, employees or agents make any representations or give any warranties, nor accept any liability, in connection with this report (or any use of the report), including as to its accuracy or suitability for use for any purpose. Minderoo Foundation and Minderoo Productions would like to thank the individuals and organisations that contributed to the report (collectively contributors) for their constructive input. Contribution to this report, or any part of it, does not create or reflect any kind of partnership or agency between Minderoo Foundation or Minderoo Productions and the contributors, nor an endorsement of its conclusions or recommendations by the contributors. The inclusion of a contributor’s details in the Contributors section above reflects that the contributor supports the general direction of this report, but does not necessarily agree with every individual conclusion or recommendation.
Minor revisions are occasionally made to publications after release. The digital copies available on the Global Fishing Index website will always include any revisions.