HomeIdeaThe unsustainability of fishing, the study

The unsustainability of fishing, the study

Change the way fishing is quantified, moving from tonnage to the number of individuals caught in the wild, to make fishing more sustainable and protect the well-being of fish.

That's the purpose of the study'Estimating global numbers of fishes caught from the wild annually from 2000 to 2019' (A. Mood and P. Brooke, 2024) published in Animal Welfare. (1)

1) The contradictions of fishing

Offshore fishing it is very important for the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Over 3 billion people depend on fish for at least 20% of their animal protein intake. The percentage rises in developing countries, where fish proteins represent 50% of needs. (2)

The abuse of fish resources, also encouraged by fishing incentives, has meant that 90% of fish stocks are exploited, overexploited or depleted. Those who suffer the consequences are the poorest populations dependent on small-scale fishing who see their fish resources taken away from richer countries. With the aggravating circumstance that most of this fish does not reach our tables but, as we will see, becomes feed for farmed fish.

2) The lack of fishing numbers

Unlike birds and mammals raised for human consumption, we only have weight estimates for fish caught and raised. Yet, fish represent 87,5% of the vertebrates killed for consumption in 2019. The lack of the number of individuals caught does not allow us to fully understand the problem of overexploitation of fishing and animal welfare which, on fishing capture, is not applied.

At the end of the treatment A. Mood and P. Brooke (2024), for this reason, for the first time tried to estimate the number of fish caught in the wild. To do this, they used the estimates produced by the FAO in terms of tonnes of fish caught and crossed them with the average weight that the fish of the various species have at the time of capture. The results were published in the study 'Estimating global numbers of fishes caught from the wild annually from 2000 to 2019'.

2.1) Estimate of fish caught

According to FAO data, from 2000 to 2019, an average of 77,3 million tons of fish belonging to 1725 different species were caught per year. For 62% of these species it was possible to identify the average weight of fish caught (EMW) and the cross-referencing of the data reported a corresponding number between 720 and 1500 billion fish. For the remaining fish categories (38%) general average weights (GEMW) were used and the result was 340-690 billion fish. (3)

Between 2000 and 2019Overall, it is estimated that an average of 1100 – 2200 billion fish are caught at sea per year. In 2019 alone, 980-1900 billion were caught, to which must be added 78-171 billion farmed fish, compared to the 81 billion birds and mammals raised for human consumption.

The anchovy it is the most fished species in terms of individuals, with an average of 6,7 million tons per year. In terms of weight, however, the most fished category is the one defined as 'Nei' or 'not included elsewhere'.

88% of fish it is fished in the marine environment while 12% is fished in inland waters. The main capture environments are the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean where a total of 75% of catches occurred. At the continent level, Asia and the Americas account for 76% of fish caught. Finally, by country, Peru, China, the European Union of 27 and Chile together represent almost half of the global fishing estimate.

2.1 Numbers excluded from estimates

Such estimates are to be considered downwards as they do not take into account, due to a lack of data, illegal, undeclared or unregulated fishing, and fish caught and thrown back into the water.

In a study Previously, Pauly & Zeller (2016) used various sources to initiate a process of 'catch reconstruction'. They estimated that for the year 2010, total catches of marine fish and invertebrates (excluding corals and sponges) included 32 million tonnes more than those reported by FAO.

According to the FAOHowever, animal discards (excluding corals and sponges) globally amounted to 9,1 million tonnes per year in the period 2010-2014. According to data published by the Sea Around Us website and taken from the study Pauly et al. (2020), global discards and unreported landings in 2019 amounted to 8,4 million tonnes and 16,1 million tonnes, respectively.

3) The enormous numbers destined for feed

The greatest paradox of fishing is that over half of the fish caught in the wild are used as feed for farmed fish. According to 2010 estimates, approximately 490-1100 billion fish out of 1000-1900 billion total fish caught were processed into fish oil and fishmeal. It corresponds to 56% of the total fish caught, with an average weight of 15-33 g.

70% of fishmeal and 73% of fish oil are used to feed farmed fish and shellfish. These are mainly small fish, such as anchovies, which play a fundamental role in the seas. They are in fact at the base of the marine food chain, but the high draft is undermining the survival of the banks, putting at risk the balance of the seas and the subsistence of the poorest populations who live from fishing.

4) Wild fish, what animal welfare?

It is proven that even fish are capable of feeling pain and changing their motivational state following painful events. The question of the animal welfare of wild-caught fish should therefore be addressed. And since animal welfare also depends on the number of subjects subjected to stress factors, as well as the extent and duration, given the number of fish caught, the issue becomes enormous.

Fish caught in the wild they experience various stressors. Those still alive when recovered on board are generally not stunned and die from evisceration and/or asphyxiation in air or ice water. In these cases, loss of consciousness can last up to one or more hours.

4.1) Countries with welfare requirements for fish

For wild caught fish there are no welfare regulations. There is protection for freshwater fish and for fishing in Swiss inland waters. Other welfare requirements exist in New Zealand, for fish caught for later killing, for example in restaurants.

In many countries, which together represent 64% of wild-caught fish, there is an obligation to protect the welfare of aquaculture fish during slaughter. This aspect should, logically, also be guaranteed for wild fish.

5) Conclusions

Know the number of the fish that is caught in the wild every year would help us to also recognize fish as individual wild animals and not just as commodities. Animals capable of feeling pain, which require protection through conservation and animal welfare measures.

It could be monitored the trend of fish populations, how they vary over time and how fishing influences reproduction capacity. According to the FAO, 35,4% of fish stocks caught in 2019 were at biologically unsustainable levels.

Consume smaller fish, downstream of the marine food chain, has beneficial effects for nutrition, food security and the environment. However, this would increase the number of fish caught, which is already unsustainable. Unless this type of fish is diverted from other uses, such as transformation into feed for farmed fish which, as we have seen, absorbs more than half of the catch.

One chance to stem this problem it would be to choose to breed the smaller species of fish to be fed through feed based on fish waste and algae. (4) As well as decreasing our consumption of fish. (5)

Alessandra Mei

Cover image from Pixabay


(1) Alison Mood & Phil Brooke (2024). Estimating global numbers of fishes caught from the wild annually from 2000 to 2019. Animal Welfare. 2024. 33:e6. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/awf.2024.7 

(2) D. F. Viana, J. Zamborain-Mason, S. D. Gaines, et al. Nutrient supply from marine small-scale fisheries. Sci Rep 13, 11357 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-37338-z 

(3) Estimated mean weights (EMWs) are the average fish weights obtained by combining FAO catch production tonnages with average fish catch weight data published on the Internet. Generic estimated mean weights (GEMWs) are the generic estimated mean weights of fish and were used for species categories for which EMWs were not available.

(4) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. Aquaculture, reduction and upcycling of fish waste in proteins, Omega-3 and micronutrients. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(5) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Alt Fish, plant-based alternatives to fish products. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

Alessandra Mei

Graduated in Law from the University of Bologna, she attended the Master in Food Law at the same University. You participate in the WIISE srl benefit team by dedicating yourself to European and international research and innovation projects.

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