German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN)


Global fisheries

Trawlers operate at ever greater depths. Photo: Tasja Schürg (BfN)
Trawlers operate at ever greater depths. Photo: Tasja Schürg (BfN)

Both the OSPAR Commission’s quality status reports on the North-East Atlantic and the Helsinki Commission’s reports on the Baltic Sea regularly identify fisheries among the gravest threats to marine ecosystems. 87 percent of fish stocks worldwide are now either overfished (30 percent) or exploited to the limits of their biological capacity (57 percent). Only about 13 percent of fish stocks are now classified as not fully fished (FAO 2012). Since the mid-1990s, the annual global catch from the world’s oceans has remained stuck at around 80 million tonnes, despite an increase in fishing effort. Fisheries have intensified and become more industrialised, using bigger ships with ever more powerful engines, satellite navigation, electronic search equipment and more efficient fishing gear. Fisheries are extending their geographical reach and encroaching on sensitive marine areas such as the deep seas with their unique ecological communities. The problems of overfishing are made even worse by poor regulation, illegal fishing and weak inspection regimes.

Severe impacts on fish stocks

The impacts of fisheries are very serious for commercially exploited fish stocks:

  • Depletion of fish stocks to critical levels
  • Changes in size and age distributions (fewer large fish) mean a lack of large individuals with high reproductive capacity
  • Loss of genetic variability in fish stocks
  • Reduced biological resistance to ecosystem and climatic change

Modern intensive fisheries also cause severe harm to the entire marine ecosystem and to species, ecological communities and habitats that are not direct targets of fishing activity.

Major impacts on marine ecosystems

The main impacts of fisheries on marine ecosystems include:

  • Bycatch, in both active and passive fishing gear, of non-target species such as sharks, rays, protected fish species, benthic invertebrates, marine mammals and seabirds. Bycatch and discards can amount to ten times the quantity of fish landed;
  • Food scarcity for top predators such as seabirds, large fish and marine mam-mals due to their prey – smaller shoal fish species such as such as sandeels and sprat – being harvested for industrial use;
  • Damage and destruction to benthic communities and sensitive habitats such as seamounts and reefs by bottom-contact fishing gear and most of all heavy bot-tom trawls;
  • Increasing commercial fishing of long-lived deep sea fish species whose slow growth and late maturity make them especially sensitive to overfishing.

The orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a long-lived deep sea fish that does not reach maturity until about 30 years of age. Photo: Tasja Schürg (BfN)
The orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a long-lived deep sea fish that does not reach maturity until about 30 years of age. Photo: Tasja Schürg (BfN)

BfN in action

BfN works nationally and internationally for major change and improvements in fisheries management everywhere. This includes:

  • Consistent application of the ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in fisheries management;
  • Implementation of effective fisheries management measures to ensure that the conservation objectives of marine Natura 2000 protected areas are attained;
  • Adjustment of fishing capacity and fishing effort to the available resources;
  • Introduction of selective fishing gear and reduction in bycatch of juvenile, undersize fish and non-target species;
  • Discard bans and mandatory landing for all catches except species that stand a chance of survival such as sharks and rays;
  • Fishing bans for overexploited fish stocks.


Directorate Marine Nature Conservation