Fishing Industry Research Paper

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The modern fishing industry, with fleets of large capitalintensive vessels, can be traced back to the introduction of the trawler early in the twentieth century. Those ships enabled fishers to reach distant fishing grounds more quickly, stay out fishing longer, and catch more fish per trip. Subsequent growth in the number, size, and technological sophistication of trawlers steadily increased harvesting capacity and corresponding pressures on fish stocks. The introduction of “factory” trawlers in the early 1960s allowed even longer and more distant fishing trips and intensified fishing pressure on previously neglected fish stocks.

A little over 130 million metric tons of fish was harvested worldwide in 2003, almost 80 percent of which was for human consumption (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization 2004). Reversing earlier trends, the output from ocean harvesting remained fairly constant in the early years of the twenty-first century, accounting for almost 60 percent of consumption. Around 7 percent of the harvest comes from inland waters, and the rest comes from aquaculture, most of which is conducted in fresh waters.

Developing countries provide around 70 percent of the total world supply of fish for human consumption, much of which is harvested using traditional small-scale and labor-intensive technologies. The top countries in 2002 were China, Peru, the United States, Indonesia, and Japan in that order, with China harvesting over twice the amount taken by Peru. One-third of global ocean harvesting occurs in the northwestern Pacific, roughly 20 percent in the southeastern Pacific, 16 percent in the northeastern Atlantic, and 15 percent in the western central Pacific. The major ocean stocks, which are harvested largely by factory fleets, are anchovies (a relatively low-value product), pollock, tuna, herring, and mackerel.

In contrast to the marine fishery, aquaculture production grew at an average annual rate of 6 percent per year after 2000, with China accounting for almost 70 percent of world aquaculture production in 2002, followed by India, Indonesia, Japan, and Bangladesh. The most important aquaculture species is carp, followed by various types of higher-value shellfish, such as oysters and clams.

Trade in fisheries products grew 45 percent from 1992 to 2002, and the value of fisheries exports reached $58.2 billion in 2002. Around 90 percent of this trade involves processed (frozen, salted, dried, and canned) fish products. China is the major exporter of fish, followed closely by Thailand and then the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Vietnam. Developed countries purchase over 80 percent of the total dollar value of traded fish products, with Japan accounting for 22 percent of world imports in 2002, followed by the United States (16%), Spain (6%), and France (5%).

Dual Economic Structure

Although it is difficult to generalize about the structure of the fishing industry worldwide, the large-vessel fleet is aging and there has been a decline in the number of very large vessels being added to fleets (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization 2004). Large factory vessels and distant-water fleets account for the majority of the harvest, but around 90 percent of all fishers, most of whom are in Asia, work on small vessels (International Labour Organization 2004). Although much of the smallscale fishing sector uses traditional technologies that limit harvesting to heavily fished near-shore waters, there is a growing group of small to midsize vessels with advanced technologies that can access more abundant offshore stocks that can be brought to market quickly enough to command premium prices for fresh fish.

Common Property Issues

The fishing industry represents a classic example of the common property problem. Unlike land-based agriculture, ocean fish stocks are a resource for which individuals traditionally do not hold property rights. There is a substantial literature documenting how, in the absence of ownership or regulation of fishing stocks, economic incentives motivate the owners of individual vessels to overfish the resource by harvesting as many fish as possible as quickly as possible (Anderson 1986).

Technological changes that have made harvesting more efficient, coupled with the growth of large-scale fleets and international fish markets, made this common property problem a global concern beginning in the midtwentieth century. As fisheries stocks become depleted, the scarcity of fish drives up prices, and harvesting incentives become even stronger, threatening the sustainability of the resource. As a result, many of the world’s fish stocks have been classified as having been fished beyond sustainable levels and concerns are being raised about the possible extinction of overfished species.

One response to depleted stocks has been to shift fishing efforts to previously underutilized species. However, experience has shown that those species soon become threatened and that the shifting species mix can have adverse effects on the ecosystem. A second outcome has been the rapid growth of aquaculture, much of which is conducted in areas where property rights can be established, but that has added to the growing concern about environmental pollution in marine and inland waters and its impact on the safety of fish products for human consumption.

Regulation of the Fishing Industry

Economists have argued that regulation is the only longterm method to achieve the biological, economic, and environmental sustainability of the fishing industry. They also have advocated a form of regulation that relies heavily on markets and property rights to counter common property problems. In practice, however, fisheries regulation has relied on indirect methods to reduce incentives for overfishing.

Initially, the most widely adopted policy was to reduce the access of large-scale foreign fishing fleets to continental fishing stocks to conserve the stocks for domestic fishers. Many coastal nations imposed limits on distant-water fleets in the 1970s by establishing Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that extended territorial control over ocean resources up to 200 miles from their coastlines. The result in many cases, however, was that domestic fleets with increasingly sophisticated harvesting technologies took the place of foreign fishing vessels, and so the pressures on fish stocks continued to increase.

Thus, the focus of national regulatory policies shifted to fishing pressures within EEZs. The most common policy instruments have involved indirectly limiting harvesting activity through seasonal or permanent closures of fishing grounds, reducing fleet size by limiting entry and offering vessel buyouts, and raising the costs of fishing by constraining harvesting technologies, for example, limiting vessel size and power, increasing the minimum mesh size of nets, and reducing the number of days of fishing allowed. Those policies, however, often have proved costly to monitor and easy to evade, allowing overfishing to continue.

As a consequence, pressures have increased to restrict harvesting further. In the United States the 1996 and 2006 reauthorizations of federal fisheries management legislation were designed to force regulators to set allowable harvesting levels lower than the previous levels. The new levels are below what would be needed to ensure biological sustainability to take into account both the environmental and the economic costs of harvesting fish.

Although most management regulations continue to rely largely on indirect regulation of fishing effort, there has been increasing international interest in individual transferable quotas, one of the policies most often advocated by economists. The individual transferable quota policy involves allocating shares (quotas) of the allowable harvest that can be bought or sold. Ownership of a share gives a fisher a property right to a portion of the allowable harvest that essentially privatizes the resource and eliminates the incentive for fishers to compete for the same common stock of fish. Such market-based regulation can both reduce overfishing pressures and ensure the overall efficiency of the industry.

Regardless of the management methods adopted, there has been movement worldwide toward establishing stricter fisheries management controls that are intended to protect fish stocks more aggressively from the threat of extinction. As fish continue to play a major role in world trade and the food supply, most fisheries biologists and economists believe that continued vigilance is required to ensure that this resource remains available for future generations by using fishing methods that are economically sound and environmentally sustainable.


  1. Anderson, Lee G. 1986. The Economics of Fisheries Management, and enl. ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. International Labour Organization. 2004. Conditions of Work in the Fishing Sector: A Comprehensive Standard (a Convention Supplemented by a Recommendation) on Work in the Fishing Sector. International Labour Conference, 92nd Session. Geneva: International Labour Office.
  3. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 2004. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture. Editorial Production and Design Group, Publishing Management Service. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization.
  4. United States Department of Commerce. 1999. Our Living Oceans: Report on the Status of U.S. Living Marine Resources Washington, DC: National Marine Fisheries Service.

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