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Issue Profile


Fisheries assesses countries’ fishing practices - both the use of heavy equipment and the size of the catch.

What it measures: The Fish Stocks indicator measures the percentage of a country’s total catch — within its exclusive economic zone — that is comprised of species listed as overexploited or collapsed. The Coastal Shelf Fishing Pressure indicator assesses the total catch from trawling and dredging equipment divided by the total area of each country’s exclusive economic zone.

Why we include it: This category reflects overall fishery health by showing whether countries are harvesting fish and invertebrates at unsustainable rates or through practices that significantly harm the coastal shelf ecosystem. These two indicators reveal the level of fishing pressure within each coastal country’s exclusive economic zone.

Where the data come from: The data are compiled and analyzed by the Sea Around Us Project, University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre. The Sea Around Us bases its information on data from the FAO, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the STATLANT database, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), and data provided from Canada, the United States, and other governments.

What the target is: 0% for Fish Stocks; High performance benchmark (5% percentile of the data) for Coastal Shelf Fishing Pressure. For more information, click here

Description: The collapse of the cod population off the northeastern coast of North America is an oft-told cautionary tale of rapid decline. A fishery once so robust that legend told of people walking across the water on the backs of fish, it went from the primary source of an entire region’s economy to desolation almost overnight. Beyond its suddenness, what made the collapse of the cod fishery so shocking was that at the time it was believed to be among the best managed in the world, protected by Canadian and American policies that pushed out foreign fleets, and fiercely guarded by the communities who worked there. By 1992, when the number of northern cod in the fishery was estimated to be about 1 percent of what it had once been, conventional wisdom about proper management went out the window.1

Fisheries across the planet have experienced their own collapses, overfished to the point where recovery may be impossible. Some have fallen apart despite protections and policy advancement, as the case of the North American cod illustrates. Some have been obliterated by lack of regulation and wasteful practices that include the wanton capture and disposal of unintended species, known as bycatch. In either case, major problems in fisheries management have been exposed. Regulation and advanced technology do not necessarily ensure sustainability; signs that sudden collapse is imminent might not be clear; and a full understanding of the ecological dynamics that govern the sustainability of fisheries has not been achieved.

Fisheries management tends to depend upon setting exploitation levels within a range at which species can replace their numbers through reproduction. The metrics for calculating these levels, however, are still a work in progress. In many cases, scientific understanding of how to calculate sustainable yields has not developed as quickly as fishing technology. Since World War II, technology-driven productivity has enabled exponential increases in the number of fish harvested by a single ship in a single day. Overfishing first came to international prominence during the 1970s, and it remains a critical environmental problem throughout much of the world, especially where countries perceive fishing as necessary for food security, a means to development, or a key economic asset.

Exclusive economic zones (often called EEZs), formally adopted in 1982, are a key tool in effective fisheries management. An exclusive economic zone stretches 200 nautical miles outward from a country’s coastline. There, the state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, allowing it to enforce domestic policies on sustainable fishing practices by limiting or eliminating fishing by other countries. Namibia’s fisheries, for example, have significantly benefited from the creation of an exclusive economic zone. Prior to its establishment in 1990, Namibian fishermen caught less than 5 percent of the total fish caught off Namibia’s coast. Instead, South African, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian fishing boats dominated Namibia’s waters. By the 1980s, approximately 90 percent of the country’s fish stock was overexploited or collapsed. Since 1990, however, the fishery has recovered by more than 30 percent.

Volume of fish caught is not the only potential risk to fisheries. Ocean ecosystems are significantly affected by the way in which aquatic species are harvested. Bottom or benthic trawling and dredging, which leave widespread, lasting damage, are used heavily in fisheries the world over. Respectively, these methods employ either a large net or a mechanical arm dragged along the ocean floor, hollowing out deep furrows. Aimed primarily at collecting benthic species like rockfish, cod, flounder, shrimp, and scallops, dredging and trawling break off brittle bottom flora and fauna such as sponges and corals and catch unintended marine species. Bycatch often includes sea turtles, which are particularly slow to reproduce.2 The EPI’s Coastal Shelf Fishing Pressure indicator measures the degree to which intensive and destructive fishing equipment, like trawlers and dredgers, operates within a country’s exclusive economic zone.

An assessment of countries’ catch data is paired with the Coastal Shelf Pressure indicator. Fish stocks, or the estimated sub-populations of given species, are becoming easier to track. As with most environmental concerns, monitoring is the primary condition of successful fisheries management. Fish stocks are listed as undeveloped, developing, fully exploited, overfished, and collapsed, according to the size of catch relative to the historical peak catch. The Sea Around Us Project, which contributed the data for this indicator, created an additional category — “recovering”— to account for fisheries where populations have begun to rebound as a result of effective management.

In calculating data for the Fish Stocks indicator, Sea Around Us determined that the reporting of low or erroneous catch data by a number of countries has led to misrepresentation of the real performance of their fisheries. For this group of 57 countries, Sea Around Us did not calculate stock status plots, which comprise the data used to determine the proportion of fish stocks overexploited or collapsed. This discrepancy was stark for Haiti, which achieved the first rank in this category in the 2012 EPI. Haiti may have reported its catch of commercial species, but its reporting in respect to destructive fishing practices and bycatch was lacking. Haitian reefs are near collapse, and the country’s fishery is among the most heavily depleted in the world. Many other countries have had issues with questionable data that do not allow assessment of the status of fish stocks. Some countries penalized in the 2014 EPI include Belgium, Monaco, Slovenia, Israel, Eritrea, Benin, Belize, and Singapore.

The means for holding countries accountable for bad reporting are gradually emerging. Recently, a group of researchers used Google Earth mapping to expose potential underreporting of fish catch in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (see Box: Google Earth Used to Capture Underreporting in Annual Fish Catch). They used satellite images of fishing weirs—a type of large, stationary trap—to estimate real catch sizes, finding that they exceeded reported catches by as much as 600 percent. Another major cause of misreporting is the tracking of catch quantities solely for commercial species, which disregards the volume of bycatch.

Sadly, incomplete or inconsistent reporting, deliberate underreporting, and poor monitoring of fisheries is common. The 2014 EPI is sensitive to this unacceptable global trend. It penalizes a total of 57 countries by scoring them with the lowest observed indicator scores for both the Fish Stocks and Coastal Shelf Fishing Pressure indicators. Countries who report bad data for one or more EEZ were also penalized, given the worst observed value. The countries that fall into this category include Australia, France, the Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. By penalizing these countries, the 2014 EPI aims to encourage them to pursue better monitoring and reporting of both their exclusive economic zones and their fish stocks.

[1] Myers, R., Hutchings, J., and Barrowman, N. (1997) Why do fish stocks collapse? The example of cod in Atlantic Canada. Ecological Applications 7:91-106.

[2] de Quevedo, I. A., Cardona, L., De Haro, A., et. al. (2010) Sources of bycatch of loggerhead turtles in the western Mediterranean other than drifting longlines. ICES Journal of Marine Science 67:677-685.


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The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is constructed through the calculation and aggregation of 20 indicators reflecting national-level environmental data. These indicators are combined into nine issue categories, each of which fit under one of two overarching objectives. Click on "Learn More" to explore the complete methods.