Of the estimated 41 million of fishers and fish farmers 73 percent were employed in capture fisheries and 27 percent in aquaculture production. However, these figures are indicative, as some countries do not collect employment data separately for the two sectors and some other countries’ national systems do not yet account for fish farming.
The overall number of fishers has been growing on average at the rate of 2.9 percent per annum since 1990, while the comparable growth in aquaculture has been 8.0 percent, with part of the increase being the effect of better reporting by countries. Since 2000, however, in many developed countries, figures on employment in aquaculture indicate that a levelling has started to occur, due to a parallel slow down of the rate of growth of farmed fish and shellfish production.
The growth of employment in fish farming and other culture practices has occurred mainly in Asia, and notably in China where the reported number of people engaging in cultivation of aquatic life has doubled in the past decade. Greater economic opportunities derive from the commercial aquaculture production sector.
Closely reflecting the different population shares and the relative predominance of labour-intensive economies in continents, 88 percent of the world's fishers in 2004 were concentrated in Asia. Africa, where artisanal fisheries still dominate but local industrial fisheries are gradually developing, represented 6.9 percent of the world's fishers. South American share in the world total is declined from 4.0 percent in 1970 to 1.7 percent in 2004. In the same year, the share of North and Central American countries was 2.1 percent. Europe has dropped markedly from 5.4 percent in 1970 to 3.6 percent in 1980, 2.3 percent in 1990 to 1.6 percent in 2004. In scantily populated Oceania, commercial fishers only number about 0.1 percent the world total, but often account for a significant part of the economically active population in agriculture, and in its Small Island Developing States the fish they produce is crucial for the food security of the population.
In 2004, 97 percent of the world fishers and fish farmers were from developing countries and they produced 78.5 percent of the 140.5 million tonnes of world fish. If China is excluded, 65.1 percent of world fishers and fish farmers were from developing countries in 2004, which produced 44.7 percent of world fish production. In most developing countries of low and middle-income, where the majority of people are employed in the agricultural sector, the number of people employed in fishing and aquaculture has been growing steadily.
In industrialized economies offering occupational alternatives, the numbers of fishers have been on a declining trend or at best stationary. Estimates indicate that there were about one million fishers in industrialized countries in 2004, showing a decline of 18 percent compared to 1990. Fishing as a source of employment is shrinking in capital-intensive economies, notably in most European countries and in Japan. This is due to the combination of several factors including lower catches, programs of fishing capacity reduction and the increased productivity brought by technical progress in fishing. In Japan and Norway, the number of fishers has declined to less than half between 1970 and 2004, with a decrease of 58 percent and 54 percent, respectively. In many industrialized countries, the decline occurred mainly for fishers operating in capture fisheries, while they experienced an increase in the number of fish farmers.
Profile of fishers
A characteristic of the workforce in fishing in developed economies is the advancing of its age profile due to a lessened attraction of the profession to the younger generations.
For instance, according to the 2003 Fishery Census of Japan, the proportion of men aged years old and above was 47 percent in 2004, 23 percent higher than in 1988. Comparatively, the younger group of workers (under 40 years of age) which in 1982 represented one-quarter of the total number of marine fishery workers in Japan had declined to 13.3 percent in 2003. The number of Japanese workers employed in offshore and distant water fishing declined during the period 1998-2003 by 28 percent to 25 000 people in 2003.
Comparative employment and income statistics are often not available at this level of detail in countries where fishing and aquaculture are less prominent in the economy. In many developing countries the largest number of fishers, their spouses and families find an occupation in coastal artisanal fisheries and associated activities. Their socio-economic importance, though more difficult to measure, is undeniable not only in terms of contribution to production and income but also in terms of food security of the coastal communities.
Though employment in fishing and fish farming cannot be taken as the sole indication of the importance of fisheries to the national economy, it is interesting to note that in 2004, fishers and aquaculture workers represented 3.1 percent of the 1.36 billion of world population economically active in agriculture, compared to 2.3 percent in 1990. Most continental shares are close to the world average, except in Africa where the percentage of fishing and aquaculture workers is a low 1.3 percent of the agriculture labour force and in North and Central America, where this share is 1 percent point higher than the world average. However, national numbers of both fishers and economically active population in agriculture may often hide the real importance of fisheries and aquaculture in providing locally employment opportunities, as often those two industries are the backbone of coastal areas.
In many countries of the world fishing is a seasonal occupation or a part-time one, peaking in the months of the year when riverine, coastal and off-shore resources are more abundant or available, but leaving time in seasonal lows to other occupations. This is especially true in fisheries for migratory species and those subject to seasonal weather variations.
The database on world numbers of fishers and fish farmers is disseminated as a trilingual Fisheries Circular "Numbers of Fishers", No.929 (and subsequent revisions). It presents the number of people engaged in fishing according to the working time devoted to the occupation, as national annual averages, from 1970 onwards. Starting with data for 1990, the database includes employment in aquaculture and separates inland and marine fisheries, on a gender disaggregated basis.