Fishy Business at the Worldwatch Institute

Published August 24, 1995

The Worldwatch Institute, founded in 1974, is one of the country’s best-known environmental groups. Its president, Lester Brown, is often quoted in the press and on television. In 1990, the Institute co-produced with “Nova” a ten-part series for television, based on its annually updated State of the World–used as a text in hundreds of university classrooms around the country.

The Worldwatch Institute commands national attention, but a closer look at its publications suggests that what respect it has may be undeserved. For example, the Institute’s work on fisheries has been marked by false gloomy forecasts, inaccuracies, and inconsistency.

Mr. Brown wrote in 1974, in an essay dramatically titled “Deep trouble in oceanic fisheries,” that the world fish catch was falling. A year later, he wrote that not even the most optimistic observers could foresee large gains in catches. Writing in 1978, Brown claimed that the world fish catch was leveling off or dropping. And in 1981, he once again wrote that the catch appeared to be leveling off.

Contrary to Mr. Brown’s gloomy appraisal, world fish catches increased at a fairly steady rate between 1972 and 1990, for a total gain of about 50 percent. Total world fish catches more than quadrupled between 1950 and 1990, and catches per capita more than doubled during that period. Total world catches have leveled off only in the last three or four years, largely due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a major fishing country.

Recent Worldwatch reports still fail to get the story right. In 1991, the Institute reported that falling fish catches jeopardize a key source of protein . . . even though graphs in the same essay show catch increases over many years. One section of the report quotes a Canadian expert as saying, “Due to lowered fish production . . . more than five million Filipinos do with less than enough seafood; many starve.”

But statistical publications issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) show the Philippines among the top dozen fish-producing countries in the world, with catches increasing steadily in recent years. Per-capita consumption of seafood in the Philippines also has increased. The country exports substantial amounts of fishery products. Claiming that Filipinos are starving for lack of fish is misleading at best.

Philippine fisheries are mentioned again in a 1993 Worldwatch Paper. Here the Institute reported that the coastal population in the Philippines is growing faster than the rest of the country, in part because people who gave up farming were seeking access to fishing grounds where they could hope to make a living. The ex-farmers must not have read Worldwatch’s 1991 report! Nor, apparently, did the author of the 1993 Worldwatch Paper.

There is confusion in some Worldwatch publications between marine catch and total catch. Freshwater catches, currently about 15 percent of total world production, are sometimes included by the Institute with the marine catch. Moreover, Worldwatch in one instance credits the world’s fish farmers with producing 14.5 million tons of fish in 1988. But FAO estimated total aquaculture production at 14.5 million tons. It may be permissible to include some three million tons of mollusks and nearly a million tons of crustaceans as fish. But should three million tons of cultured seaweed really be counted as “fish”?

Perhaps we should forgive the Worldwatch staff member who made those mistakes. After all, he is very busy indeed, writing in the same State of the World report about the world economy, quality of life, global warming, acid rain, species loss, and the effects of Third World debt on forest protection and soil conservation. He also covers infant mortality, including the effects of female literacy and sexually transmitted diseases. He even wrote a chapter on steel recycling. In the Institute’s latest State of the World, he addresses himself to the problems of refugees. Could it be that Worldwatch values versatility and a consistently gloomy point of view over subject-matter expertise?

Mr. Brown and his group fit nicely into the category of “environmentalist” recently described by Alston Chase as “More moralists out to convert than scholars seeking to understand.” Their guiding principle seems to be: Don’t pay too much attention to inconvenient facts, don’t mention previous mistakes, and don’t stop making predictions of doom and gloom just because they haven’t been right in the past.

John P. Wise has worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service and for international fisheries organizations for more than thirty years. He is the author of many publications on fisheries and marine biology, including a chapter on food from the sea in The State of Humanity, edited by Julian L. Simon.