The time has come for responsible fishing guidelines to be enforced as law internationally because the voluntary code of conduct currently in place has failed to save the world's fish from being depleted, fisheries researchers say.

A recent study found "dismayingly poor compliance" among countries around the world with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1995, said a commentary published this week in Nature.

The study was conducted by Tony Pitcher and Ganapathiraju Pramod of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, along with Daniela Kalikoski of University of Rio Grande in Brazil and Katherine Short of World Wildlife Fund International.

The researchers examined fishing practices of 53 countries that land 96 per cent of the global catch.

Some of their key findings were that:

  • More than 90 per cent of the countries failed to deal with their own excess fishing capacity.
  • Over 80 per cent of them had "unsatisfactory" scores when it came to irresponsible practices such as bottom dragging and catching juvenile fish.
  • Only a few countries had methods to ensure fish and shellfish won't be fatally trapped by lost fishing gear and traps.

"Overall, compliance is poor, with room for improvement at every level in the rankings," the commentary said, adding that even top-ranking countries such as Canada were given "fail" grades for certain practices and none achieved a "good" ranking.

Only Norway, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Iceland and Namibia received overall compliance scores of 60 per cent, and 28 countries that haul in 40 per cent of the global catch had "unequivocal fail grades overall," the study said.

Developing countries tended to receive lower scores, but the report noted that "disappointing scores from some European Union nations, with the undoubted resources and know-how to implement the code, reinforce a low priority given to improving fisheries management."

The researchers said aid to provide patrol vessels and modern devices has improved compliance in some poorer countries, and additional aid could lead to similar improvements in others.

It added that while it may have been necessary 13 years ago to make the agreement voluntary, there is more widespread agreement now that continued overfishing is hurting ecosystems and threatening food supplies, and something needs to be done.