Space & Innovation

Global Overfishing Far Greater Than Estimated

Fish catches are higher and fisheries' declines are greater than official figures suggest, according to a new study. Continue reading →

Global fish catches are significantly higher than official reports, and declines in fish stocks are greater than have been previously estimated, according to a new study.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia conclude that the annual global fish catch is roughly 109 million metric tons, about 30 percent higher than the 77 million officially reported in 2010 by more than 200 countries and territories. This means that 32 million metric tons of fish goes unreported every year, "more than the weight of the entire population of the United States."

These new figures show that overfishing worldwide is greater than had previously been thought, the authors say. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the global marine fish catch peaked in 1996 at 86 million metric tons, before declining slightly to its present level; the new study argues that the peak catch, in 1996, was in fact 130 million metric tons and has been declining, on average, by 1.2 million metric tons per year.

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"The world is withdrawing from a joint bank account of fish without knowing what has been withdrawn or the remaining balance," Pauly said.

One of the reasons for the discrepancy in the catch figures, Pauly and Zeller say, is that official totals greatly underestimate the size of artisanal and subsistence fisheries worldwide. To their surprise, they found that these accounted for 25 percent of total catches; they slightly increased over the study period as more people participated. The bulk of the decline over the last 20 years, however, was due to decreases in industrial fisheries.

"Our results indicate that the declining is very strong and the declining is not due to countries fishing less," Pauly said during a teleconference to announce the study. "It is due to the countries fishing too much and having exhausted one fish after the other."

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The study arose from skepticism over the completeness of FAO figures, largely due to the fact that they rely on national governments reporting their own tallies, which for political or other reasons they might not always be disposed to do accurately.

Furthermore, when nations reported "no data," that would "later be turned into a zero, which is a bad estimate of the catch of an existing fishery." Over the course of a decade, Pauly, Zeller and their team scoured existing records dating back to 1950, delved into colonial archives, consulted with 400 researchers around the globe and even pored through receipts and invoices.

FAO has pushed back against the findings; in an email to Christopher Pala at Science Magazine, Marc Taconet, chief of FAO's Fishery Statistics and Information Branch in Rome stated that, "we express reservations that the paper's conclusions of declining catch trends can be strongly opposed to FAO's reports of stable capture production trends in recent years."

He did, however, "concur with the paper's call upon countries' responsibilities for improving reporting and for mobilizing funding resources."

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Some of the solutions Pauly and Zeller propose for improving the quality of records include better funding to enable FAO to support its member countries, and asking those countries to file separate figures for industrial and artisanal fisheries and to provide both documented and, when data are poor, estimated catches.

However, they note that while such moves would improve records, catches will continue to decline unless there are more widespread efforts to impose fishing caps and rebuild stocks.

Fishermen rest with their boats on the shore in Ghana.

April 19, 2012 --

Forty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 16 captured this image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape. The Apollo missions enabled humanity to see for the first time our planet as it appears from space. As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell once said: “When I was orbiting the moon and could put my thumb up to the window and completely cover the Earth, I felt a real sense of my own insignificance. Everything I'd ever known could be hidden behind my thumb.” As we approach Earth Day on April 22, we look at the efforts of people throughout the ages to explore, understand and portray our world and its place in the Universe.

Babylonia Believed to be the earliest known representation of Earth, this stone tablet from Babylon shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River." The world is dominated by the area surrounding Babylon itself, and the Euphrates River bisects most of the inner circle. Unearthed in southern Iraq in the late 1800s, the tablet is housed in the British Museum.

Celestial Spheres In his 2nd century treatise, the "Almagest," Claudius Ptolemy proposed an explanation for the apparent movement of stars and planets, in which Earth was central and immovable, and surrounded by, at progressively greater distances, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and a sphere of ‘fixed stars.’ This geocentric view of the cosmos did not meet its first real challenge until Copernicus proposed that the planets revolved around the Sun, and Galileo used his telescope to observe the phases of Venus.

Flat Earth The Greek philosopher Aristotle determined that Earth was spherical and not flat almost 2,500 years ago. The notion of a flat earth retained at least a few die-hard devotees for a surprisingly long time. For example, this 1893 map by Orlando Ferguson, recently acquired by the Library of Congress, cites “Scripture that condemns the globe theory” and promotes a book that “knocks the globe theory clean out.”

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Lenox Globe It is popularly believed that ancient cartographers filled in unknown and unexplored areas of the world with the phrase ‘Here be dragons’. In fact, only one known ancient map – the so-called Lenox Globe, which is believed to date to around 1510 - displays the phrase ‘HC SVNT DRACONES’, from the Latin “hic sunt dracones.” (The phrase is written near the equator on the eastern cost of Asia.) Some nineteenth-century writers, however, believed that it referred, not to dragons, but to the ‘Dagroians’, a people who “feasted upon the dead and picked their bones.”

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Terra Australis Incognita In this copy of a 1602 map that was created on behalf of China’s Wanli emperor by Italian Matteo Ricci and collaborators, the familiar outlines of most of the world’s continents are coming into shape, although obviously many details remain unfinished. To the map’s makers, however, the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica are not even figments of the imagination, replaced instead by an enormous southern landmass. The notion of an unknown southern land – a terra australis incognita - was first mooted by Aristotle in 322 BCE; not until 1820 did Fabian von Bellingshausen become the first man to see the Antarctic continent.

South Pole For centuries, gaps in maps were filled by explorers who set out across land and sea, often at immense personal risk. The true nature of “Terra Australis” had long been established by the time Robert Falcon Scott and comrades stood at the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912; but existing knowledge could not diminish the terrible toll the conditions exacted on the men. “Great God!” wrote Scott in his journal, “this is an awful place.” All five members of Scott’s polar team died before they could reach their base camp.

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Moscow at night Time and technology have enabled us to explore, not just across the surface of the globe or even beneath its waves, but from on high. Here, Moscow is seen at night from the International Space Station, flying at an altitude of approximately 240 miles on March 28, 2012. A solar array panel for the space station is on the left side of the frame. The Aurora Borealis, airglow and daybreak frame the horizon.

Pale Blue Dot In contrast to earlier suppositions about our place in the firmaments, we know now that our globe is not at the center of the cosmos, and that other celestial bodies are not attached to interlaced spheres that rotate around us. We are but one world among many, in one solar system among many, in one galaxy among many. In this image, taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles, Earth is but a speck – a pale blue dot – in the cosmic night.

Blue Marble If satellite images of Earth now seem almost routine, they never lose their ability to enthrall. This picture of the western hemisphere was captured on January 25 by NASA’s latest Earth observation satellite, Suomi NPP. By February 1, it had registered over 3 million views on Flickr – testament to the beauty and fascination of our Blue Marble.

PHOTOS: Earth's Blue Marble Beauty