UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its latest report on global fisheries and aquaculture with no new 2008 catch and production figures, as the agency continues to piece together 2007 data.

Nevertheless, FAO is sounding an alarm on gradual declines in wild catch fishing production and depletion of stocks, while being careful to note that growth in the global aquaculture industry is largely making up the difference and seems poised to overtake capture fishing as the world's leading source of seafood.

Efforts to reduce the overcapacity in fishing fleets, fed by generous subsidies from European and Asian nations, have failed, and progress toward reversing the depletion of the ocean's resources is too slow, the agency warns.

FAO is also warning governments to do more to understand the likely effects of climate change on fishing and how best to adapt to the challenge.

The most recent data suggest that the vast majority of the world's wild fish stocks either are being overexploited or have reached their maximum productive capacity as fishing fleets have expanded and moved into previously untapped regions of the seas. Twenty percent of fish stocks have room to grow, according to the latest available data.

"Overall, 80 percent of the world fish stocks for which assessment information is available are reported as fully exploited or overexploited and, thus, requiring effective and precautionary management," FAO says in its report.

The northeast Atlantic Ocean is among the regions suffering from the highest numbers of overexploited stocks, the report says. That area is home to a popular bluefin tuna fishery, where European fleets have been openly breaking their catch quotas for years.

The West Indian Ocean and Northwest Pacific fisheries also suffer from overfishing.

Trends in the data from 2005 to 2006 suggested that the condition of the world's wild fish stocks is worsening, and most observers widely expect 2007 and 2008 figures to show the same. But FAO officials in Rome say they are still in the process of simply gathering 2007 numbers and have yet to request catch figures for last year, a reflection of constraints on time and manpower at the fisheries and aquaculture department.

"You're talking about a huge amount of data," said FAO spokesman George Kourous. "Not all countries are in a position to report it in real time. Often, it gets reported in mixed formats or with different measures."

Still, China likely retains its top spot in wild-fish production, with 17 million metric tons during 2006. Peru and the United States round out the top three, at 7 million metric tons and 4.9 million metric tons, respectively. The northwest Pacific Ocean is the world's most productive fishery, supplying the world with 21.6 million metric tons in 2006.

Early 2007 data suggest worldwide production from capture fisheries, excluding China, had risen by at least 3 percent in 2007. Last year, China revised downward its 2006 catch figures by 2 million metric tons, citing enhanced data collection, throwing into doubt its 2007 reported catch numbers.

Anchoveta, Alaska pollock and skipjack tuna are the world's most heavily exploited wild fish species. Capture fisheries production has largely stayed the same over the past few years, rising and falling between 90 million to 94 million metric tons annually, hitting 92 million metric tons in 2006. Ebbs and flows in the catch numbers can largely be explained by the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has a strong effect on Peruvian anchoveta, Kourous explained.

But the world's three largest fisheries could now be feeling the effects of depletion due to overfishing. Last year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration closed the Alaska pollock season early after alarms were raised over low catch numbers, sending prices for the fish spiking temporarily.

Aquaculture rising  FAO figures show that aquaculture's share of the global fish industry continues to rise, with China leading the surge.

"After growing steadily, particularly in the last four decades, aquaculture is for the first time set to contribute half of the fish consumed by the human population worldwide," said Ichiro Nomura, assistant director general of FAO's fisheries and aquaculture department. "This reflects not only the vitality of the aquaculture sector but also global economic growth and continuing developments in fish processing and trade."

In 2006, China grew 34.4 million metric tons of fish on farms, far outstripping the 17 million metric tons that nation caught on the open ocean. China accounts for roughly 66 percent of the world's total aquaculture production in tonnage, and that country exported $9.3 billion worth in 2007.

Worldwide aquaculture has grown on average by about 6.9 percent annually in recent years. FAO estimates that the industry expanded by a further 7 percent in 2007, but 2008 production growth numbers could be affected by worsening economic conditions later that year. FAO had already earlier reported that growth in aquaculture in China appears to be leveling off.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500