Rebuilding depleted wild fish stocks is a “challenging necessity” according to a report released today (Monday) by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The report, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA),” says there has been a consistent downward trend since the 1950s in the proportion of marine fish stocks with potential for expanded production, coupled with an increase in the proportion classified as overexploited or depleted.

Currently, SOFIA reports, 3% of marine stocks are underexploited, while 21% are moderately exploited and could support modest increases in fishing and in harvests.

52% are fully exploited, which means they are being fished at their maximum biological productivity. Increased fishing of these stocks would not produce any additional sustainable harvests and would reduce reproduction to dangerously low levels.

The remaining 24% are over exploited (16%), depleted (7%), or recovering from depletion (1%) and need rebuilding. Some of these stocks are already under strict management schemes.

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Seven of the top ten marine fish species — which together account for about 30% of all capture fisheries production — are fully exploited or overexploited, today’s report said. This means that major increases in catches cannot be expected from them, and serious biological and economic drawbacks are likely if fishing capacity for these stocks is further increased.

Regions with fish stocks in greatest need of recovery include the Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, followed by the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic, the Southeast Pacific and the Southern Ocean.

“Stock depletion has implications for food security and economic development, reduces social welfare in countries around the world, and undermines the wellbeing of underwater ecosystems,” said Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director general for fisheries.

“While recovery of depleted stocks is urgent, it is just as important to avoid depleting still-healthy stocks in the first place by matching fishing efforts to what these stocks are capable of supporting,” he said.

Despite these challenges, global fish production reached a new high of 133 million tonnes in 2002, largely as a result of expanded production on fish farms, the report notes.

The share of world fisheries production attributable to aquaculture increased from 25.8 to 29.9% between 1998 and 2002. Human consumption of fish increased from 93.6 million tonnes in 1998 to 100.7 million in 2002, providing 2.6 billion people with at least 20 percent of their average per capita animal protein intake.

Total world consumption of fish (food and feed) could increase to 179 million tonnes by 2015, up 47 million tonnes from 2002. Most of that new demand will have to be met by aquaculture, which could account for 39% of all fish production in 2015.

But growth in aquaculture will not make improvements in current fishing practices and management any less important.

“In light of current trends, the continued improvement of management of wild fish stocks is essential,” said Nomura. “Aquaculture may help reduce pressure on capture fisheries by reducing demand for wild fish and lowering prices, but that’s only part of the solution.”