New research reveals population trends for world seabirds

RHAU Donnecke(1)

A Rhinoceros Auklet (seabird) eating sandlance (Photo: Daniel Donnecke)

New Sea Around Us research has found drastic decline in the monitored portion of the global seabird population.

The paper, published in PLoS ONE, reports that the monitored portion of the global seabird population decreased overall by 69.7 per cent between 1950 and 2010.

According to Michelle Paleczny, a lead author of the paper, and recent graduate of the zoology program at UBC, these findings likely reflect a global trend because of the large and representative sample. A decline this drastic can cause changes in island and marine ecosystems in which seabirds play a variety of vital roles.

“Decline in seabird abundance stands to disrupt natural processes in island and marine ecosystems in which seabirds play an important role — by acting as predators, scavengers, cross-ecosystem nutrient subsidizers, and ecosystem engineers,” Paleczny says.

In order to investigate global patterns of seabird population data, the researchers assembled a global database of seabird population size records and applied multivariate autoregressive state-space (MARSS) modeling to estimate the global path of all seabird populations with sufficient data. They obtained data from primary sources including journal articles, books, and unpublished reports.

Several human activities are known to threaten seabird populations, including entanglement in fishing gear, overfishing of food sources, climate change, pollution, disturbance, direct exploitation, development, energy production, and introduced species. Seabird populations are strongly affected by threats to marine and coastal ecosystems, and can indicate  the status of marine ecosystem health.

“Knowing this information helps us to measure and assess the overall effect that human activities and threats have had on seabirds and marine ecosystems over time,” Paleczny explains.

You can read the full report here

New data on reported and unreported marine catches now available online

Researchers with UBC’s Sea Around Us project have launched a new web platform at that provides the first comprehensive coverage of both reported and unreported fish caught by every country in the world.

It reveals that official catch reports considerably underestimate actual catches around the world. For example, researchers found there was considerable unreported foreign fishing between 1950 and the early 1970s on Canada’s East coast. In fact, more than half of fish caught were unreported at one point. Much of this ‘catch’ consisted of so-called discards.

UBC professor Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller plan to publish a global estimate of fisheries catch in a peer-reviewed paper.

“The new Sea Around Us data have significant global scope and are long awaited by many groups worldwide,” said Zeller, senior researcher and project manager for Sea Around Us. “Accurate estimates are important for policy makers and fisheries managers to make economical and sustainable decisions about our fishing policies and fisheries management.”

The new data combine estimates of unreported catches — determined through extensive literature searches, consultation with local experts, and calculation of discarded fish — with officially reported data for small and large-scale fisheries for every country. The data emerged from a decade-long catch reconstruction project.

“We know these data will have major global impacts and now they are accessible in a visual, simplified and comprehensive way,” Pauly said.

Accurate catch data provide important insights into fisheries, fish populations and underlying ecosystems, and such data can have economic impacts.

The Sea Around Us is currently funded by The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. This is the first time the project has released new data in over five years. It can be accessed at


About UBC’S Sea Around Us
The Sea Around Us was initiated in 1999, and aims to provide integrated analyses of the impacts of fisheries on marine ecosystems, and to devise policies that can mitigate and reverse harmful trends while ensuring the social and economic benefits of sustainable fisheries. Sea Around Us has assembled global databases of catches, distributions of fished marine species, countries’ fishing access agreements, ex-vessel prices, marine protected areas and other data – all available online.

Sea Around Us is a long-standing collaboration between the University of British
Columbia and The Pew Charitable Trusts, and since 2014 is supported by The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

About The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
Founded in 1988, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is dedicated to transforming lives and strengthening communities by fostering innovation, creating knowledge and promoting social progress. The Sea Around Us program is another example of how the Foundation supports the use data and technology to inform conservation priorities and actions.

View this press release on UBC News here

Study finds fish catches in Panama vastly under-reported

New Sea Around Us research estimates Panama’s total fish catches were vastly under-reported — by almost 40 per cent — between 1950 and 2010.

The recent study, led by Sea Around Us’ Sarah Harper and co-authored by Kyrstn Zylich, Dirk Zeller and  Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Héctor Guzmán, was published in Marine Fisheries Review’s most recent issue.


Panamanian artisanal fisher cleaning his daily catch

The research not only found a high number of fish — including tuna, shellfish and shark — taken from Panama’s waters was unaccounted for, but it also revealed data deficiencies.

“Fisheries catch data collection, as is the case in many countries, focus mainly on large-scale operations and the commercial sector under the assumption that small-scale fisheries are insignificant,” Harper said. “This catch reconstruction highlights the substantial under-reporting of small-scale catches.”

Other major components missing from official Panamanian data include discarded bycatch, which is often overlooked but can be considerable, according to Harper. Poor fisheries monitoring, data collection and lack of human resources to spot errors also contribute to data deficiencies.

Accurate catch accounts are important to the national economy, especially in Panama, where fish like lobster and shrimp are major exports.

“Given the important economic and food security contributions of Panama’s fisheries, efforts must be made by fisheries governing bodies to improve catch data collection and reporting,” Harper said.


Breaking ground on illegal fishing in Senegal


Photo credit: Dyhia Belhabib


One of our PhD students Dyhia Belhabib headed a study that revealed catch numbers in Senegal have been misreported largely due to high levels of illegal fishing.

Belhabib’s research —a joint project with Sea Around Us and US Agency for International Development— found that the number of industrial catches is vastly underestimated.  She worked with the DPM, World Wildlife Fund and data from the U.S. Navy, in the study that began in March 2012. It was published earlier this month.

In effect, the study has increased Senegal’s awareness of illegal fishing vessels. Earlier this month, they arrested members of an illegal Russian vessel for fishing in Senegalese waters.

Belhabib’s report stated that official reports and fishers’ accounts document the presence of illegal vessels—which are thought to be a major cause of problems for Senegalese artisanal fisheries.

Belhabib noted that artisanal fisheries have increased in both time and space.

“They go out more often and travel further away,” she said.  “It’s been undetected for years.”

Senegalese artisanal fishing numbers have been reported at 80 per cent, but Belhabib’s research discovered the numbers are closer to half artisanal fishing and half industrial.

She stressed the importance of the findings, as they’ll help fishery decision-makers make more informed policy choices.

“These findings can help solve the problems of over-capacity in Senegalese waters,” she said.


You can read more about the study here:

See press on illegal fishing in Senegal here:

Google Earth reveals unreported fishing

Screen shot 2012-09-19 at 1.24.15 PMIn the Persian Gulf, large, semi-permanent fish traps take advantage of tidal differences to catch a wide variety of marine species. These traps, called fish weirs, have been used around the world for thousands of years, but only recently have researchers quantified what they catch using imagery captured from space.

In a new study published today in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, Sea Around Us Project researchers used satellite imagery from Google Earth to estimate that there were 1,900 fishing weirs along the coast of the Persian Gulf during 2005 and that they caught approximately 31,000 tonnes of fish that year. This catch is almost six times larger than the official amount (5,260 tonnes) reported by the seven countries in the region to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.


This study highlights the utility of Google Earth and other remote sensing tools for validating catch statistics and fisheries operations in general.

You can find out more about the study here:
Press release from the University of British Columbia,
Web feature summarizing the study from The Pew Charitable Trusts,
Journal article published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Al-Abdulrazzak D and Pauly D (2013) Managing fisheries from space: Google Earth improves estimates of distant fish catches. ICES Journal of Marine Science. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fst178


Ensuring better fisheries management in West Africa

This week, the Sea Around Us Project’s Principal Investigator, Daniel Pauly, and one of our PhD students, Dyhia Belhabib, attended the Regional Marine and Coastal Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, where representatives from eight West African countries gathered to discuss the status of fisheries in the region and their future. Their goal was to engage the countries in tackling unreported fishing.

By working with researchers at the Sea Around Us Project to assess their fisheries from 1950 to 2010, these countries have identified the extent of unreported fishing in their waters – which is often as much as double what is officially reported.

“Fishing operations in West Africa have been catching much more than anyone previously realised and reported,” says Dyhia Belhabib. “The research we are conducting in partnership with West African countries gives them the first complete historical picture of their fisheries.”

In response, some countries in the region have started to take steps to address the gaps and improve fisheries management. In Senegal, the government has developed a fisheries commission and signed an agreement to improve the current reporting and management of its fisheries.

“This joint research is shedding new light on the true extent of past fishing in West Africa,” says Daniel Pauly. “Our hope is that these countries will now adopt the results and use them to contribute to better fisheries management in the future.”

You can read the complete press release in English and French here.

EU fishing companies reap profits in developing countries, while taxpayers foot the bill

Infographic from The Pew Charitable Trusts, who also funded the research.

Infographic from The Pew Charitable Trusts, who also funded the research.

The European Union (EU) covers 75% of the access fees that allow its vessels to fish in developing countries’ waters while the fishing companies pocket the profits, according to new research from the Sea Around Us Project.

In a study published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, the authors analyzed access agreements that allow EU-based fishing fleets to operate in Africa and the South Pacific. They found that EU governments pay 75% of the annual access fees while the fishing industry pays the remaining 25% — but that represents only about 2% of the revenue it generates from selling the catch.

“The EU’s fishing companies are benefitting from these agreements far more than the developing countries where they go to fish,” says Frédéric Le Manach, a PhD student at with the Sea Around Us Project and the study’s lead author.

You can find out more about the study here:
Press release from the University of British Columbia,
Journal article published in PLOS ONE.

Le Manach F, Chaboud C, Copeland D, Cury P, Gascuel D, Kleisner KM, Standing A, Sumaila UR, Zeller D and Pauly D (2013) European Union’s public fishing access agreements in developing countries. PLOS ONE.

Documenting history in Turkey


Aylin Ulman

The author conducting research on recreational anglers on Galata Bridge, in the Golden Horn estuary of Istanbul (© A. Ulman)

by Aylin Ulman

In 2011, I began working for the Sea Around Us Project to complete catch reconstructions for Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea countries. I quickly realized, while studying Turkey’s fisheries, that some marine ecosystems of Turkey recently underwent immense reductions of commercial species [1], leading to entire trophic shifts, but little data were available to explain these issues. At the beginning of my MSc with Daniel Pauly in 2012, it was decided that I’d go to Turkey to document the shifting baselines syndrome, i.e., gradual shifts in perception of the ecosystem, and collect details on these missing species/habitats.

My father was part of this study, as he is part of the first generation of scuba divers from Istanbul in the late 1950s and remembers a time long gone-by, when the Bosphorus was pristine and teeming with marine life. He has always been a typical eastern Mediterranean fisher, which does not normally go well with proud marine conservationists such as me. However, documenting shifting baselines in Turkey allowed me to turn his older generation’s Turkish traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into recording the missing pieces of biological history.

To assess the shifting baselines syndrome, I compared today’s level of fishing effort, catch amounts, catch composition, and mean sizes to the time when these fisheries began; had them rate the quality of fishing now and when they first started; asked about any local extirpations or serious collapses in fish abundances; asked about the changes in catch of several other key taxa; and then queried the fishers about how they would improve fisheries.

The present plight of Turkish fisheries are likely a combination of the following: they have a tremendous fishing fleet (over 17,000 commercial vessels), very sophisticated technology (i.e., sonars and GPS), no catch restrictions, little enforcement of regulations, and also grapple with pollution issues.

I attended meetings for both the small-scale and industrial sectors and quickly realized that some sectors were more affected by the changes in biodiversity and catches than others. Consequently, I decided to interview fishers from all sectors (industrial, artisanal, and recreational) to understand their unique perspectives. Thanks to my prior work with the Sea Around Us, I knew over 100 Turkish names for fish, which was essential in conducting my surveys. I concentrated mostly on the Istanbul Bosphorus (where fishers depart to fish each of Turkey’s four seas), the Dardanelles (home to the most productive migration route for the key pelagic species), and the southwestern peninsula (which separates the Aegean Sea from the Mediterranean).

I first began my survey training on my father’s fishing friends in Datça, on the very southwestern peninsula, where he is the vice-president of the local fisheries co-operative. Everywhere, fishers were very open and helpful to me, which surprised me. Many were asking me: “Why does our government not try to learn how our seas have changed, yet a Canadian is out there with us trying to understand it?” I then realized just how privileged we are to be able to conduct this type of study. I was most surprised by how welcomed I was by the industrial fishers. I had gone there with a preconceived notion that these were the bad guys, wielding an immense fishing power. However, I quickly learned that these were the true ‘traditional’ fishers of the country, many whose families had been fishing for hundreds of years. They really care about the future of the fisheries and are desperately seeking some sort of output control to manage the stocks.

As I surveyed each fishing sector, and made many new friends, I gained new insights into a few common illegal fisheries of the Bosphorus, like the sea snail, Mediterranean mussel and bottom trawl fisheries, and now I have numbers to better estimate them.

I realized that the rate of ecological change is unbelievable for certain areas. For example, the Golden Horn estuary of the Bosphorus was teeming with swordfish, bluefin tuna, lobsters and Atlantic mackerel just 60 years ago, all of which seem to have vanished since the 1970s. Older fishers rarely bring up these species in conversation anymore, but are still haunted by their disappearances.

If I had to remember just a few quotes from this field trip, they would be:

-“Forget about making money [fishing], we do not even enjoy this anymore”;
-“30 years ago, 3 months of fishing would leave your pockets full for the other 9 months, now we fish every day and can barely afford our bread”;
-“Both small-scale and medium-scale fisheries are just not viable anymore, only the large-scale fisheries can survive, we need to find other work to complement our fishing salaries”; and
-“We have seen the best fishing years imaginable, but our children will only know those years through encyclopedias”.

On a side note, I was staying in Taksim Square when I was in Istanbul, where east meets west, and ancient history is met with modernity. There, I got to witness the Turkish national revolution, and its daily progression first hand. Its early stages were a very elated street party, comparable in my lifetime only to the Toronto after the Blue Jay’s World Series wins of 1992 and 1993. The educated half of the country united for the first time in history in Taksim Square to oppose actions of the Prime Minister. The protesters went from feeling utterly powerless to realizing that united they were strong, and that the world indeed was listening (for a little while anyways). I have never felt more proud to be Turkish, that is, until they began to use tear gas; I then realized that human rights and democracy have a different meaning than in Canada, and that it was better to be safe than arrested…

The shifted baselines of Turkey had not been previously studied. There is no other way to find out this information besides speaking to the fishers whom have witnessed these changes first hand. I hope to make my findings accessible to the fishing community in their local publications so that those without the prior ecological knowledge can at least try to imagine it, and even pass it down. Now that we know that Turkish citizens have a voice, it is now time for Turkish fishers to have a voice.


Ulman A, Bekişoğlu Ş, Zengin M, Knudsen S, Ünal V, Mathews C, Harper S, Zeller D and Pauly D (2013) From bonito to anchovy: a reconstruction of Turkey’s marine fisheries catches (1950-2010). Mediterranean Marine Science 14(2): 309-342.

Climate change has impacted global fisheries for decades

CheungGraphic_web_editedA new paper from the Sea Around Us Project published in the journal Nature reveals that warmer ocean temperatures are driving marine species towards cooler, deeper waters, and this in turn, has affected global fisheries catches.

William Cheung, Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly used temperature preferences of fish and other marine species as a sort of “thermometer” to assess effects of climate change on the world’s oceans between 1970 and 2006. They found that global fisheries catches were increasingly dominated by warm-water species.

Click on the image to see how the catch composition of global fisheries has changed in different parts of the world.

To find out more about the research you can access the following resources:
Comment piece in Nature News & Views
Press release
Article published in Nature

Chinese foreign fisheries catch 12 times more than reported

China DWF mapChinese fishing boats catch about US$11.5 billion worth of fish from beyond their country’s own waters each year – and most of it goes unreported – this is according to a new paper led by the Sea Around Us Project, published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.

The study estimates that China’s catch in foreign waters is about 12 times greater than what the country reports to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, an international agency that keeps track of global fisheries catches.

Much of the fishing occurs off the coast of West Africa.

You can read more about the findings at Nature, “Detective work uncovers under-reported overfishing.”

See the scientific article, published in Fish and Fisheries, here (open access).

And get the press release and associated materials, including a map illustrating where and how much Chinese vessels currently fish beyond their own waters.