In its State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report published in March 2009, the FAO warns that even if the situation “has been relatively stable over the last 10 to 15 years," 19% of marine resources are overexploited, and 8% are depleted. A little more than half of the world's fish stocks are now fully exploited and producing catches that are close to "maximum sustainable limits,” while only 20% are moderately exploited — and the only growth in the picture concerns 1% of reserves, which are “recovering from depletion.” This worrying news is also confirmed by the European Union, which has indicated that the productivity of fish stocks “is threatened because the capacity for reproduction is reduced," with "80 % of our stocks fished so intensely" that yields are no longer sustainable.

A lot depends on how data is analyzed, and some independent experts take a more optimistic view. For Fernando de la Gándara, a researcher at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, who coordinates a team working on the reproduction of bluefin tuna in captivity, "We have reached maximum levels in the exploitation of marine resources, but fish stocks will never be exhausted.” However, this is in stark contrast to evaluations expressed by a number of NGOs, which are much more trenchant. A case in point is the report from the marine protection group Oceana, which insists that “overfishing has emptied Europe's seas to the point that more than 80% of fish stocks are overexploited and 69 % are at risk of collapse.” For other activists, like WWF-Spain's Marine Officer Raúl García, "it is a question of specific problems in different places: for example, with bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic, cod stocks in the Baltic, and hake in the Bay of Biscay and on the Atlantic coast.” Finally, for consumers who want to help sustain marine resources, Greenpeace has produced a red list of 15 species that are most destructively fished — which notably includes monkfish, Dublin bay prawns, different types of tuna, Atlantic halibut and sole.

A level of optimal exploitation

Not surprisingly, Fishing industry representatives claim that the environmentalist case is overstated. “They misinterpret the data when they say that the FAO believes that 50% of species are overfished," says Javier Garat, President of the Spanish Fisheries Confederation (Cepesca). "What the FAO said was those species are fished at optimal levels. Marine conservation is an important aspect of our livelihood, because we want to continue fishing. The legislation on fishing in Spain and the European Union is more demanding than it is in many other countries. It is true that irregularities do exist, and illegal boats certainly break the law in international waters, but we fish legally.”

So what is being done to protect marine resources? Are captures being limited to prevent the depletion of stocks? Not as a general rule, but the amount of fish landed has now stabilized. According to the FAO, the regions of the world mainly concerned by overfishing reported an overall catch of 92 million tonnes of fish, crustaceans and mollusks in 2006 — the second lowest figure in a decade, just slightly higher than the 90.5 million tonnes reported in 2003. At the same time, the European fishing fleet, and in particular the number of Spanish boats, has been drastically reduced. Spain is the main fishing country in Europe, and the 22nd-ranked in the world — with an FAO estimate of 950,000 tonnes caught in 2006, and 778,000 tonnes landed according to the EU. But the Spanish catch is relatively small when compared to volumes produced by China, which is the world's leading fishing country with an annual catch of 17 million tonnes of wild fish, and an overall fish production, which includes volumes generated by aquaculture, of 51 million tonnes.

Amid all of these gloomy statistics, the good news is that 50% of global production is now sourced from aquaculture. With more and more farmed sea bass, bream and turbot appearing on restaurant menus, the future seems just a little brighter. But the question of the sustainability of marine resources is far from resolved. Although fish farming may be better for the environment, conservationists are quick to point out that farmed fish also consume large quantities of marine species. As Greenpeace is keen to emphasize, the aquaculture industry requires large quantities of wild caught to fish to make food for the fish that ends up on our plates.