Fisherman in the Middle Eastern country of Oman sort their morning catch

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that of the world's 15 major fishing regions, four are depleted and nine are declining. The FAO estimates that 10 percent of the world's marine fish populations are depleted, 15 to 18 percent are nearly depleted, and 50 percent are at the point of decline.

About 3.5 million boats currently fish the world's oceans. Fifty-four million people worldwide earn their living from commercial fishing. The decline in fisheries has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenues.

Yet the demand for fish continues to rise. Warm water fish like tuna and swordfish, and cold water fish like cod, hake and salmon - all principal fisheries at the turn of the century - are now severely depleted. As these species have declined, fishermen have turned their sights to more abundant species like capelin and menhaden, once derided as 'garbage' fish. Now even the populations of these species are declining, posing a threat to the entire marine food chain.

Rising demand and thinning stocks have led the fishing industry to turn increasingly to technology and mechanization. The world's largest 'factory' super-trawlers are longer than a football field and tow a net so large it could encircle more than a dozen Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Such ships are capable of catching and processing more than 400,000 pounds of fish a day, every day.

Along with targeted fish, the FAO estimates that indiscriminate fishing practices result in the deaths of between 18 and 40 metric tons of bycatch - unwanted fish, marine mammals, seabirds, turtles and other marine life - nearly one-third of the annual global catch.

As stocks deplete, the fishing industry is increasingly dependent of government subsidies. An estimated $54 billion is spent subsidizing an industry that produces only $70 billion worth of fish.

Eighty to 100 million tons of fish are caught worldwide every year, four times the amount caught fifty years ago. Almost three quarters comes from fish stocks already depleted or over-fished. Though fish catches have decreased steadily since the 1980's, demand has increased steadily.

Given that the world's population grows by 90 million people annually, and is predicted to double in the next 50 years, this constitutes a looming disaster. Fish constitutes about seven percent of the world's food supply. The FAO estimates that a billion people worldwide rely of fish and fish products as their main source of protein. In many developing countries, fish represents up to 25 percent of annual protein intake, and some small island states depend on fish almost entirely.

At present rates, scientists estimate that by 2050, per capita consumption of fish protein will be half the 10 kilograms per person it was in 1993. Such a significant loss of protein from the diets of a billion people could translate into higher rates of malnutrition, disease and political instability.

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