The agency has been collecting and publishing data on fishing and fisheries for over 60 years, amassing a wealth of information that is simply not available elsewhere. Speaking in an interview for the organistion, FAO chief of fisheries information and statistics Richard Grainger says the work is vital in the global fight against hunger and malnutrition.
Why count fish?Mr Grainger says that the survey involves much more than counting fish. FAO collects all sorts of data, ranging from how many fish there are produced in a given area, to how many boats are fishing for them and how much of a country's protein consumption incomes from fish and aquatic resources.
The statistics are really about people and the millions that depend on fishing and fish farming for food and income. Of particular concern are those in the developing world, who make up the vast majority - around 40 million people.
Another 100 million people are involved in the small-scale post-harvest sector, with millions more working in seasonal or occasional fishing activities, says the FAO. And, all this activity means food and jobs for people who often urgently need both.
Mr Grainger explained that without the statistics, policy and management amounts to 'stabs in the dark'.
"We spend a great deal of time making sure countries are measuring the same things in the same way. If one person measures landings of whole “Cornish salmon” in one place and another person fillets of “hake” someplace else, well that doesn't tell us much, even though they are, as it turns out, measuring different products of the same kind of fish. Now imagine this on a global scale across scores of different languages. Some fish have dozens of different names just within the same country or region," he added.
Getting the right resultsFisheries statistics are obtained from national reporting offices and, wherever possible, verified from other sources such as regional fishery bodies or field projects. Additional research is often required so that estimates can be produced when data are lacking or unreliable.
Managing the data and publishing it involves the creation of databases, undertaking analyses, writing statistical yearbooks, reports, and the online dissemination of information.
But achieving the right picture is not easy. Different research groups compare data and methods and although most of them are working towards the same goal, there can be anomalies. "However, the ultimate goal is to present the clearest picture of the world's fisheries and aquaculture so that humankind can responsibly manage them. There's a lot at stake," says Mr Grainger.
Some of these controversies have centred on the reliability of the information that governments provide to FAO and there are some valid concerns.
FAO is dependent on countries to provide with reliable data; and many FAO members have expressed concern about the quality of some sets of fishery statistics and have adopted a strategy to improve them.
The FAO does operate a strict quality control process for submitted data, comparing it to alternative sources of information and past trends, etc. and it will make necessary adjustments and corrections to ensure that the numbers are as solid as possible.
Obtaining reliable source data is of paramount importance, particularly for policy-making and management at the national and regional levels. The FAO has a team of experts that are sent out to different countries to bring them up to date with collection and reporting techniques and processed. And this is an area where FAO is uniquely qualified. It has more than 60 years experience and also operates an ongoing international working party that regularly evaluates these issues and makes proposals on data collection and reporting.
To read the complete interview click here