Failing to Save Global Fisheries Could Cost Over 20 Million Jobs, UN Says

In order to prevent the collapse of global fisheries by 2050, some 15-22 million fishermen worldwide would have to find another line of work, according to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

That sobering statistic is included in a preview of UNEP’s wide-reaching Green Economy report due out later this year.

About one billion people get their primary source of protein from fish, and about 520 million, or 8 percent of the world’s population, is economically dependent on fishing, directly and indirectly.

But that source of food and income could be literally gone in 40 years, according to Pavan Sukhdev, head of UNEP’s green economy initiative. “That is not as absurd as it sounds, as already 30 percent of the ocean fisheries have collapsed and are producing less than 10 percent of their original ability,” Sukhdev told reporters Monday.

The UNEP report shows that the financial benefit from acting to save fisheries would be substantial: $1.7 trillion in the best-case scenario, at a cost of $220-320 billion.

Included in that price tag is the cost of buying back some 9-13 million fishing vessels and relocating fishermen in other lines of work.

Subsidies hastening collapse

The report singles out fishing subsidies of $27 billion a year, most of which exacerbate the problem of overfishing.

The report divides the subsidies into the “good,” the “bad” and the “ugly” (who knew the UN had a sense of humor?). Good subsidies, which encourage sustainable fishing, are only $7.9 billion of the total, while the bad, which lead to overcapacity and overexploitation, make up the lion share — 16.2 billion — of subsidies. Three billion dollars worth of ugly subsidies, like misguided conservation programs, actively reduce fish populations.

Subsidies vastly out-weight the total value added by fisheries each year, which the UN estimates is about $17 billion, as of 2005.
Practices targeted by the report include fuel subsidies for fishing fleets, and inducements to increase the size of fishing trawlers. The UNEP report recommends a turn towards more “artisanal” fishing with smaller boats.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.