The key to managing fish stocks is reliable data, which is hard to come by, the crucial requirement being open and transparent cooperation among commercial fishing firms and the scientific community. Where is that going to best happen? Where the regulatory environment is strongest.
However, a recent study suggests that, on a global basis, fish catches are systematically under-reported:
Tens of millions more tons of fish have been taken from the seas than are recorded in official statistics, suggests a huge and controversial project aiming to estimate the ‘true catch’ of the world’s fishing industry.
The work is detailed in a paper in Nature Communications by fisheries researchers Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and it builds on a decade-long project that has drawn in hundreds of researchers from around the world.
According to Pauly and Zeller, global fisheries catches hit a peak of 130 million tons a year in 1996, and they have been declining strongly since then. This is substantially higher than the data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which report that catches reached 86 million tons in 1996 and have fallen only slightly.
Actually, when you look at the above chart (note the typo on the vertical axis) that compares the two estimates (FAO v Sea Around Us), they appear to track with one another fairly tightly, with the new estimate just consistently higher throughout (roughly 50-60% larger). But that's the point: if your most closely watched official estimate (FAO) is off by as much as one-third (underestimating the "damage"), then your calculations of fish-population resilience are likely to be significantly off.
Here's the real issue in data collection - a weak global authority relying on the honesty of member countries that are highly incentivized to low-ball their numbers to avoid criticism/penalties/etc.:
The FAO numbers have long been the only estimate of how many tons of fish are caught at a global level. But “the FAO doesn’t have a mandate to correct the data they get,” Pauly told journalists during a conference call.
This leaves the organization reliant mainly on the numbers submitted by member countries, he says, and “the countries have the bad habit to report only the data they see”. This means that many official statistics do not account for a huge amount of the world’s fisheries catch, such as that by small-scale and subsistence fisheries or fish thrown back as ‘discards’—species other than those being hunted.
To fill in the holes in official statistics, Pauly’s team embarked on an epic project to supplement the official baseline data from member nations. This included using results from peer-reviewed research, interviews with local specialists and consumption information from population surveys.
What I really about Pauly's team effort: it goes above and beyond the usual official reporting requirements and attempts to amass bigger data that yields more accurate truths.