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Case Study

Aug 13, 2013

The Status of Haiti’s Fisheries: When Numbers Don’t Match Reality

In September 2011, the New York Times published an article about Haiti’s “Ailing Reef,” highlighting a study that connected massive reef die-off to over-fishing. “It’s probably the worst overfishing I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” Gregor Hodgson, director of the NGO that first recorded the die-off, told the Times.

Though numerous media sources have called attention to Haiti’s overfished reefs, the island nation was ranked as the number 1 performer in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) for the indicator “Fish Stocks Overexploited or Collapsed.” This ranking suggests that Haiti has the lowest percentage of fish stocks overexploited or collapsed in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Clearly, there is a mismatch between these news reports of overfishing and Haiti’s top 2012 EPI ranking.

Fish Stocks Collapsed and Overexploited 

To understand this jarring discrepancy, it’s helpful to take a closer look at the indicator itself. Fish Stocks Overexploited and Collapsed (FSOC) identifies species that are being exploited above a sustainable level, risking stock depletion. For a given species, stocks that are caught after the year of peak catch and total 10 percent to 50 percent of the peak catch are considered overexploited, and those less than 10 percent of the peak catch are considered collapsed. If, for example, a fisherman catches 100 trout in his best trout-fishing year, and is now catching fewer than 50 a year, it means that the trout stock are now overexploited; if he catches less than 10, the stock is collapsed.

Since scores are based on the optimal yield rate of a particular species, stock data for a breadth of species is required to create an accurate picture of the state of fisheries in a particular country. This is where Haiti and other countries with limited catch data fall through the cracks.

Reef Reality

“Haiti’s fisheries are a disaster. The reefs are covered in mud,” said Daniel Pauly, a professor at the UBC Fisheries Centre and principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project – which is the source of the EPI’s FSOC data. That Haiti ranked number 1 in the 2012 FSOC indicator does not signify a movement toward sustainable fishing, but rather exemplifies a trend that Pauly called “extremely dangerous:” small countries generally don’t report catch data pertaining to non-commercial species. Though they might catch their commercial species sustainably and maintain a healthy stock for exports, unreported species -- for example, fish caught for domestic consumption -- are often vastly overfished. In the case of Haiti, Pauly estimates 90 percent to 100 percent of their fish stocks are overexploited.

Haiti’s fisheries are a disaster. The reefs are covered in mud

For Nicaragua, which ranked number 2 in the FSOC indicator in the 2012 EPI, this tendency is of particular concern. Nicaragua’s main commercial fish (and the main species for which it reports stock data) are shrimp and lobster. Shrimp trawling fosters the highest rates of by-catch of all fisheries worldwide.[1] Though a high yield of shrimp may look good on Nicaragua’s performance in the FSOC indicator, the corresponding high yield of fish caught unintentionally in shrimp trawl nets—fish that go uncounted, unreported, and often discarded—spells danger for the vitality of Nicaragua’s noncommercial fish stocks.

Moving Forward

The FSOC indicator can only work if a country has logical statistics for particular species, rather than few large fishing groups, Pauly said. As the examples of Nicaragua and Haiti suggest, smaller countries in Central America and the Caribbean (with the exception of Mexico) generally lack adequate stock data to create an accurate score in the FSOC indicator. Countries that report more completely, such as Australia, include catch data for at least a dozen species.

In the 2014 EPI, which will be released in January, the FSOC category will not rank countries with insufficient stock data. Though several countries will be omitted because of these more stringent requirements, it is a necessary revision to prevent misleading results. The 2012 EPI FSOC indicator reveals the performance of countries with ample reporting, but it also highlights the necessity for better data across the board. The 2014 EPI will address the data gaps caused by low reported data and provide updated catch statistics that offer a better reflection of under the sea realities.


[1] Hall, M; Alverson. "By-catch: problems and solutions". Marine Pollution Bulletin 41 (1–6): 204–219. 2000.