A global assessment of fishing patterns and fishing pressure from 110 different Ecopath models, representing marine ecosystems throughout the world and covering the period 1970–2007, show that human exploitation across trophic levels (TLs) is highly unbalanced and skewed towards low productive species at high TLs, which are around two TLs higher than the animal protein we get from terrestrial farming. Overall, exploitation levels from low trophic species were <15% of production, and only 18% of the total number of exploited groups and species were harvested >40% of their production. Generally, well-managed fisheries from temperate ecosystems were more selectively harvested at higher exploitation rates than tropical and upwelling (tropical and temperate) fisheries, resulting in potentially larger long-term changes to the ecosystem structure and functioning. The results indicate a very inefficient utilization of the food energy value of marine production. Rebuilding overfished components of the ecosystem and changing focus to balancing exploitation across a wider range of TLs, i.e. balanced harvesting, has the potential to significantly increase overall catches from global marine fisheries.