Much has been written from many perspectives about whether fisheries are currently sustainable and, to the extent that they are not, what should be done to achieve sustainability. Two figures from the report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016 (SOFIA), (1) suggest that although unsustainable fisheries still exist, they are not the rule. The total take of capture fisheries globally has been stable for three decades (Figure 1, below), and the proportion of assessed fish stocks considered to be overfished has increased only marginally over the same period (Figure 2, p. 63).
With the proportion of exploited stocks classed as overfished remaining around 30 per cent since the 1990s, progress still needs to be made on making all fisheries sustainable. Vigilance is also needed to keep currently sustainable fisheries from expanding to unsustainable levels. One option would be to simply exploit everything less. Reducing fishing pressure across the board would allow the remaining overfished stocks to recover and sustainable fisheries to have greater resilience to pressures such as climate change, ocean pollution and other factors. Some proposals for ocean protection targets promote such strategies, including the call for classifying 30 per cent of the ocean as marine protected areas where no extractive resource uses would be permitted. (2)
It might be appropriate to consider the approach of simply fishing less if the only standard of sustainability were the status of the exploited stocks and the ecosystems in which they occur. Neither of those conditions, however, is true. Fisheries are conducted in order to provide economic returns from market sales, livelihoods to those participating in the activity, and above all, food for people. Sustainability must be found for all the outcomes--ecological, economic and social. Aside from rare and exceptional circumstances usually associated with histories of severe overfishing, merely reducing fishing would have unsustainable social and economic outcomes even if the targeted fish stocks increased.
If the only impacts of fishing less to achieve greater ecological sustainability were financial, then economic policies and market measures might mitigate some negative effects on revenues. Further capital investment, which could contribute to the overcapacity of fishing fleets, might also be discouraged. In many fisheries, however, particularly small-scale fisheries, there is little scope for coastal communities to accommodate the loss of livelihoods associated with fishing. The dependence of such communities on fishing can be found not only in less developed States. The...