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Beth Polidoro and Michael Melnychuk

MSC Research Director and Principal Scientist 

Backs of three fishermen in orange overalls on vessel deck hauling large nets, with three gulls circling in blue sky above

Fisheries management works and we need a “blue food transformation. That’s the message that comes out loud and clear from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Report (SOFIA). Published every two years, it provides the latest international data relating to the fishing sector, with key trends relating to overfishing, seafood production from wild capture fisheries and aquaculture, and seafood consumption.

The newly published 2022 version of the SOFIA report outlines the FAO’s Blue Transformation goals for the next decade, which are also closely aligned with the MSC’s vision and mission, that fisheries management is the key to the sustainability of fish stocks.

Here are five key takeaways from this important publication.

1. The good news! Larger volumes of commercially produced seafood are not overfished.

More than 82% of fisheries landings by volume are from stocks considered by the FAO to be sustainably fished, an increase of nearly 4% compared to two years previous.

As of 2020, this represents about 65 million tonnes from marine capture fisheries. This increase is largely driven by improvements in larger, higher volume fisheries, such as those that target anchoveta, pollock and tunas. For example, across the top 10 species with the largest landings -- which include the Peruvian anchovy (Engraulis ringens), Alaska pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus), skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) – on average 66.7% of stocks were fished within biologically sustainable levels in 2019, which was slightly higher than the global average of 64.4%.

In many fisheries, improved monitoring has allowed for more accurate stock assessments and management recommendations. Combined with better enforcement of fishing quotas and other regulations, these improvements have strengthened fisheries management systems.

2. The not so good news. The number of monitored stocks that are considered overfished is increasing.

The FAO monitors over 500 fish stocks across the globe, with widely varying abundances and catch sizes. Almost 35% of these stocks are now considered overfished, compared to only 10% of stocks in 1974. Many of these are smaller stocks or those in middle to low-income countries that may have weaker management structures and reduced capacity. FAO Major Fishing Areas that have a higher proportion of overfished stocks include the Southeast Pacific and the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Similarly, many tropical and subtropical regions are dominated by highly diverse mixed fisheries that support communities that are some of the most dependent on fishing. In these and other areas, we need to prioritise action to end overfishing and support fisheries to engage with sustainable fishing programmes like the MSC’s. Around the world, we need to establish science-based management regimes, end harmful subsidies, reduce damaging ecological impacts, put in place effective harvest control rules and clamp down on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

3. Demand for sustainable seafood is increasing.

The total amount of aquatic resources grown or harvested for human consumption (excluding algae) is now 157 million tonnes – a new record. Overall, the growth rate has been twice the rate of population growth since 1961 and consumption has now reached 20.2 kg per capita, more than double the consumption in the 1960s.

This increased demand has been partly met by increased aquaculture production. While global production from wild-caught fisheries has generally remained steady for the last 30 years, total catches from temperate regions have declined while those from tropical regions have increased. Specifically, marine capture production in the Indian Ocean and the Western Central Pacific has steadily increased over the past 5 decades, and now accounts for one-third of global production.

Almost half of the world’s total global capture production is driven by seven countries—China, Indonesia, Peru, India, Russia, the United States, and Vietnam. It is in every county’s interest to manage fish resources well and improve regional and global food security. This can be more challenging for some, with a large disparity in capacity and fish stock status between countries with developed vs. developing economies. Our Global Accessibility Program aims to ensure that MSC Program benefits are accessible to all fisheries, regardless of size or region.

4. The call for A Blue Transformation.

The FAO’s vision for improving aquatic food systems has three goals – sustainable aquaculture intensification and expansion, effective management of all fisheries, and upgraded food and value chains.

If this is done effectively, aquatic food consumption is projected to grow to 25 kg per person per year by 2050, relieving the pressure on land-based food systems. But a failure to ensure sustainability will result in a reduction in per-capita consumption, adding pressure to other food systems as well as to food and nutrition security in countries highly dependent on seafood.

The FAO’s Blue Transformation vision is also aligned with several other multi-lateral global initiatives, including the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

5. The MSC is strongly in step with FAO’s vision.

The SOFIA report highlights the importance of a Blue Transformation strategy, and the MSC program aligns closely with this approach, including the driving of progress towards the UN SDGs. The MSC recently pledged a commitment at the UN Ocean Conference in June 2022 for one third of global wild marine catch to be certified or engaged in its sustainable fishing program by 2030. Moreover, through its Global Accessibility Program and Ocean Stewardship Fund, the MSC is seeking to advance sustainable fishing in parts of the world where improvements are needed most.

MSC certified sustainable fisheries and markets ensure that stocks are healthy, ecosystem impacts are reduced and good governance is in place. The MSC’s work in supporting climate research, more equitable labour practices, technological advances and improved reporting and accountability are critical building blocks for sustainable seafood pathways that are needed to safeguard food security, livelihoods and a healthy planet.