Sea bird colonies on cliffs at Fowlsheugh RSPB reserve. Scotland. June 2006.

Industrial Fisheries Sustainability

Catches of marine fish have increased steadily for much of the past century, driven by rapid advances in technology and the needs of a growing human population.

About industrial fisheries

There is, however, a wealth of evidence that marine fisheries worldwide are now failing, with many stocks over-exploited and at risk of collapse.

This decline has led to predictions that the supply of fish for human consumption from the wild will fall short of demand (the so-called 'fish gap'), especially with a burgeoning human population.

In a bid to bridge this gap, aquaculture has become the fastest growing sector in the world food economy. As stocks of wild-caught fish dwindle further, aquaculture and mariculture are projected to increase dramatically in the next few decades.

What are industrial fisheries?

'Industrial' fisheries catch fish not for direct human consumption, but for processing into fish meal and oil. About half is supplied as 'aqua-feed' for the fish-farming industry, while the rest goes to make livestock feed or oil-based human consumption foodstuffs.

These fisheries, which predominantly target small, bony fish such as sandeels, sprats or anchovy, are more accurately described as 'forage' or 'feed' fisheries, rather than the 'food' fisheries which catch species like cod, haddock and tuna for human consumption.

Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with gannets & kittiwakes


A functional summary of the discussion held as part of the RSPB Sandeel Workshop. PDF, 636Kb.

RSPB sandeel workshop

Fisheries targeting small-to-medium pelagic, so-called forage fish, impact on human food security and marine ecosystems. PDF, 277Kb.

Forage Fish: From Ecosystems to Markets

Fishing down the food chain: the rise of industrial fisheries

The global and European expansion of aquaculture is creating unprecedented demand for fish meal and oil for farmed fish.

Fish meal and oil come predominantly from wild stocks of 'pelagic' fish harvested by 'industrial' fisheries.

Three of the world's five largest fisheries are now for such feed fish, and these industrial fisheries account for a quarter of the total global catch.

A study in 2008, Forage fish: From ecosystems to markets, showed that forage fish account for 37 per cent (31.5 million tonnes) of all fish taken from the world's oceans, and 90 per cent of that catch is processed into fishmeal and oil, the rest destined for human consumption.

Despite the size and importance of these fisheries, there is uncertainty about their sustainability. Many involved in these fisheries argue that they are a sustainable and efficient use of marine resources.

What damage are we doing?

Concern is growing, however, over the consequences of catching feed fish from low down the food chain and whether we risk fundamental and irreversible changes in the fabric of marine ecosystems.

Feed fisheries are noted for their sheer scale – for example at its peak in the 1990s the sandeel fishery accounted for over half of the fish landed from the North Sea and even now accounts for a few hundred thousand tonnes every summer. 

In years of high stock abundance, the Peruvian anchovy fishery accounts for nearly one-tenth of the global tonnage of fish landed annually. Concerns have been raised about the effects of such extensive extraction of fish on the stocks themselves and on the marine food web, in particular on breeding seabirds and other dependent predators whose foraging areas for these small prey species overlap with industrial fisheries targeting the same fish.

In light of this uncertainty, concern and conflicting views, in 2004 we commissioned Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd to evaluate the sustainability of industrial fisheries used in fish meal and oil production (see Assessment of the sustainability of industrial fisheries producing fish meal and fish oil document).

Shy albatross Diomedea cauta, birds flocking around a small fishing boat, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Alternative supplies of fish meal and oil

Fishing boat operating close to Dunnet Head RSPB reserve

There is an urgent need to find ways of relieving the growing pressure on industrial feed fisheries as the predominant sources of fish meal and oil. 

Improving the sustainability of fisheries

Illegal fishing vessels off the coast of Ascention Island, Island in Saint Helena, South Atlantic Ocean

The use of products from feed fisheries looks set to continue. The challenge is to improve their sustainability, whilst developing sustainable alternatives to reduce reliance on them as a resource.