UN Report Exposes Dark Underbelly of the Seafood Business

Avatar of Imtiaz Muqbil
Written by Imtiaz Muqbil

Prawn cocktails and pan-fried salmon with warm tartar sauce are popular items on restaurant menus. But a damning report published by the United Nations this week has exposed the dark reality behind those mouth-watering delicacies.


The environmental damage caused by over-fishing, poor working conditions of the fishermen/women, and the distortions of world trade are among just some of the side effects documented in the report (PDF).

It should be of interest to those serious about sustainability, especially Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and 14 (Life Below Water).

Entitled “Fisheries and the right to food in the context of climate change”, the report was prepared for presentation to the 55th session of the Human Rights Council to be held between 26 February–5 April 2024. It is designed to advance the rights of small-scale fishers, fish workers, and Indigenous Peoples and act as a guide for States to preserve the biodiversity of the world’s aquatic ecosystems.

It says that large-scale fishing driven by increased mechanization and capacity, harvesting at rates faster than the stock could rebuild and the blind pursuit of profits has pushed one third of the world’s assessed fisheries beyond their biological limits. “The global biomass of large predatory fish targeted by fisheries has fallen by two-thirds over the past century.

One-third of freshwater fish are threatened with extinction owing to overexploitation, pollution, and habitat destruction. Overfishing not only threatens the environment but also undermines the food security and livelihood of billions of people,” the report says.

Here are a few key quotes from the report, which is available for free download. It also contains two pages of valuable remedial recommendations, an extremely valuable checklist for F&B Managers and restaurateurs.

  • The proportion of biologically unsustainable fisheries increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 34.2 percent in 2017.

    Moreover, climate change is projected to create irreversible losses in the ecosystems of many regions, with negative consequences for human ways of life, economy, and cultural identity.

    Climate change is also raising water temperatures and changing the pattern of fish migration as fish stocks shift from lower to higher latitude regions, causing fishers to shift poleward and diversify harvests.

    These changing patterns increase the risk of transboundary management conflicts among fisheries users and negatively affect the equitable distribution of seafood. Plant and animal populations have already vanished locally, and the projected trend indicates a rise in extinction rates, particularly in warmer regions.

    Reducing overfishing and unsustainable practices would increase fish stocks and increase the adaptive capacity of fishing.
  • Global consumption of aquatic foods increased at an average annual rate of 3.0 percent from 1961 to 2019, a rate almost twice that of annual world population growth (1.6 percent) for the same period. The rise of per capita consumption of aquatic foods has been primarily influenced by increased supplies, changing consumer preferences, advancements in technology and income growth.
  • Including subsistence and secondary sector workers and their dependents, it is estimated that about 600 million livelihoods depend at least partially on fisheries and aquaculture, 95 percent of those workers are in the global South. Based on recent annual averages, small-scale fishing accounts for 90 percent of the world’s capture-fishing employment. Of the 92 million tons of fish captured annually, 40 percent are captured by small-scale fishers.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic hit the fishing sector hard. Travel restrictions meant that fishers were unable to get their catch to markets and consumers, leading to a decline in demand and prices. The closure of ice-storage facilities, which were not considered essential services, made it impossible for fishers to preserve their catch. Many fishers were thus forced to “dump” their catch back into the sea. As a result, many workers in the processing, harvesting, and marketing industries lost their jobs.
  • Unlike the ILO standards relating to seafarers, the ILO framework does not include a minimum basic wage figure for fish workers. As a result, salaries are usually less than the national minimum wage and rank among the lowest per capita income.

    Many fishers work informally or are self-employed, and thus are excluded from labor protections and do not benefit from social protection schemes, including social security, workers’ compensation, and health insurance. In small-scale fisheries, most workers operate under oral agreements that lack fixed or enforceable terms and benefits.
  • What is at stake for fisheries is a profound degree of inequality among developing and developed States and small-scale and large-scale fishers. In 2018, global subsidies amounted to $35.4 billion, 87 percent of which were from countries with a high human development index value.

    Approximately 80 percent of global subsidies were dedicated to the large-scale fishing sector and 19 percent to small-scale fishing. Globally, per fisher, large-scale fisheries in developed countries were subsidized at a rate 36 times higher than those in developing countries, and small-scale fishers in developed countries were subsidized at a rate 21 times higher than those in developing countries.
  • Creating marine protected areas, or other area-based management tools, on the high seas without doing anything to address power imbalances might push more industrial fleets into the exclusive economic zones of developing countries.

    This creates a significant risk of threatening local food security. More generally, States must not lose sight that one of the objectives of the Agreement (Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity) is to support food security and other socioeconomic objectives, including the protection of cultural values.

    Given the central role small-scale fishing plays in coastal communities, this objective can be met only if States respect, protect and fulfill human rights in coastal communities, especially in the context of area-based management tools.

Article courtesy by Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor, Travel Impact Newswire

About the author

Avatar of Imtiaz Muqbil

Imtiaz Muqbil

Imtiaz Muqbil,
Executive Editor
Travel Impact Newswire

Bangkok-based journalist covering the travel and tourism industry since 1981. Currently editor and publisher of Travel Impact Newswire, arguably the only travel publication providing alternative perspectives and challenging conventional wisdom. I have visited every country in the Asia Pacific except North Korea and Afghanistan. Travel and Tourism is an intrinsic part of the history of this great continent but the people of Asia are a long way away from realizing the importance and value of their rich cultural and natural heritage.

As one of the longest-serving travel trade journalists in Asia, I have seen the industry go through many crises, from natural disasters to geopolitical upheavals and economic collapse. My goal is to get the industry to learn from history and its past mistakes. Really sickening to see the so-called “visionaries, futurists and thought-leaders” stick to the same old myopic solutions which do nothing to address the root causes of crises.

Imtiaz Muqbil
Executive Editor
Travel Impact Newswire

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Share to...