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A new report from the World Bank confirms that overfishing and mismanagement of fisheries isn’t just bad for the environment, but also results in a huge economic loss. Over $80 billion in potential gains are forgone each year by the fisheries sector because of empty or depleted oceans. To top it off, much of this lost revenue is affecting people in need: small scale fishermen in developing countries.

The report, entitled the Sunken Billions Revisited, explains how, over the past century, overfishing has depleted most fisheries of their stock. In the 1970s, the percentage of fisheries that were “fully fished, overfished, depleted, or recovering from overfishing” was already at over 60%. By 2005, this number had increased to about 75%, and by 2013 about 90% of all fisheries fell into this category. That means that only about 10% of fisheries are currently under-fished.

State of global marine fish stocks, 1974–2013.
Courtesy of World Bank

“This study confirms what we have seen in different country contexts—giving the oceans a break pays off,” said Laura Tuck, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development.


The study treats the entire world’s fisheries as one single large fishery; by putting a dollar figure on the lost income created by overfishing, the report seeks to illustrate the importance and urgency in “improving marine fisheries governance.” The benefits of healthy fisheries extend beyond just financial gains.

“Moving toward more sustainable fisheries management, through approaches that are tailored to local conditions, can yield significant benefits for food security, poverty reduction and long-term growth,” said Tuck. The logic is simple: empty oceans equal fewer and lower quality fish, which in turn results in a net loss of food, jobs and money. Unfortunately, the solutions to achieve healthier oceans aren’t as simple.

Still, through increased management and conservation programs, the report proposes that healthy fishing stocks and $80 billion in additional revenue could be reached in a few years. By following a rapid conservation model, global fisheries would experience a net loss of just over $40 billion over four years, but then recover all of these losses in the fifth year of fishing, once fishing stocks have returned to healthy levels. Furthermore, once healthy fishing stocks have been reached, annual revenues for the global fishing industry would be $60-80 billion higher than at current levels.

Two models of economic output.
Courtesy of World Bank

Alternatively, the report also outlines a more moderate approach, which would avoid any significant short term losses for the fishing industry, but would take much longer to reach peak healthy fisheries. As a result, the report explains that the financial gain “under the moderate path is about $270 billion lower than it would be under the most rapid path.” Still, both plans seem to be win-wins: the world’s oceans get a chance to recover and fishermen get more money.


The World Bank doesn’t point to one specific recommendation on how to fix the world’s fisheries, but rather points to region specific solutions. In the past, the World Bank has had success in helping countries better manage their fisheries. Like in Peru, where a number of development loans were used to increase the management of the local anchoveta fishery, and provide economic incentive for fishermen to move towards other labor sectors. In a matter of about 7 years, 300 ancoveta fishing boats were retired, about 25% of the entire fleet. As fishing pressure decreased, local fishermen began catching larger, better fish that they could sell for higher prices.

Similarly, in the Western and Central Pacific the World Bank helped implement a sort of cap and trade system to help manage and buildup the tuna fisheries. The results there have also been encouraging. While fish stocks have benefited, so have the fishermen, with total revenues for that region increasing “from $60 million in 2009 to over $350 million in 2015.” These types of regional specific solutions are what will likely lead to healthier global fishing stocks.

The World Bank report comes at an important crossroads in the future stability of our planet. Climate change will increasingly threaten food security, with the International Panel on Climate Change predicting that climate change will have “significant negative impacts” on fishery production levels. And the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, according the United Nations. In order to feed 9.7 billion people in a climate change filled future, we’ll need to have healthy, productive and economically efficient fisheries.