Consumers are increasingly aware of where their foods come from, and many are now turning the spotlight on the fishing industry for its destructive practices that are harming human, plant, and animal life. Although the fishing industry is rarely held accountable for the damage that it creates, an increase in education around commercial fishing and destructive fishing practices can pave the way for a brighter future.
What Is Overfishing?
Overfishing means catching too many fish at once so that the population becomes too depleted to recover. Fish then become underpopulated in the overfished area and that throws off the balance of the surrounding ecosystem. Overfishing is often associated with commercial fishing and companies hauling in massive amounts of fish, hauls that are also accompanied by other sea dwellers that they didn’t intend to catch, who are termed bycatch.
Overfishing is not limited to the ocean; it can happen in any body of water whether a pond, river, or lake. It is a form of resource depletion and lowers overall biomass levels. Some of the earliest overfishing occurred in the early nineteenth century when humans, seeking blubber for lamp oil, destroyed whale populations. After the 1950s, intensive fishing spread from a few concentrated areas to encompass nearly all fisheries. By the mid-1900s, Atlantic cod and herring, and sardines from California, were also fished almost to extinction.
What Causes Overfishing?
While there are many causes of overfishing, increasing human demand, subsidies, poor management of fisheries, and lack of protective regulations are the biggest drivers.
Subsidies, otherwise known as the financial support provided to the fishing industry by world governments to offset the cost of doing business, help keep these massive operations afloat and perpetuate the problem. Subsidies lead to overcapacity of fishing vessels and skew production costs so that fishing operations can continue when they would otherwise be unsuccessful. The worldwide fishing fleet today is estimated to be up to two-and-a-half times bigger than we really need.
Poor Management of Fisheries
Many fisheries around the world have no rules or regulations that attempt to protect the oceans and sea life. Their practices and activities are barely monitored or not overseen at all.
Fishing areas are largely unprotected to this day. Only 1.5 percent of the ocean has been declared a protected area, leaving most of the ocean open to fishing fleets that can harm and deplete fisheries. Shockingly, more than 80 percent of protected ocean areas still allow fishing.
Why Is Overfishing a Problem?
Overfishing affects the environment, aquatic animals, and humans alike, and its consequences are extremely severe.
How Does Overfishing Affect the Environment?
In intensely overfished areas the whole ocean ecosystem is thrown off balance, with the potential for wide-ranging unintended effects.
The scraping of the ocean floor in a practice called “bottom dragging” is devastating to sponges, coral, and other species that provide a habitat for marine life. This destruction disrupts the natural functioning of the ecosystem.
The unintended capture of multiple species of aquatic life happens frequently while fishing, and those animals are called “bycatch.” Aquatic species that are swept up by people fishing for large quantities of fish are typically returned to the ocean, only to die from injuries. Sharks, for example, are very susceptible to overfishing or becoming bycatch. When large predators are removed from the ecosystems they help to regulate, creatures further down the food chain are often negatively impacted. Turtles, sea lions, and dolphins are frequently caught as bycatch. More than one-third of all sharks, rays, and chimaeras are now at risk of extinction due to overfishing.
Coral Reef Destruction
Overfishing has been identified as the most serious threat to coral reefs. Of the world’s coral reefs, 55 percent are affected by overfishing. When a fish population declines, algae can grow unchecked and eventually smother corals. Other destructive fishing practices such as blast fishing also hurt coral reefs by physically destroying entire sections. Blast fishing can destroy 64 square feet of reef with each explosion.
How Does Overfishing Affect Humans?
Millions of people depend on fishing for their livelihood, while billions rely on fish as a source of food, especially in developing countries. In addition, oceans make up 70 percent of Earth’s surface. Flourishing sea creatures and the overall health of marine life are essential for a healthy planet. Marine phytoplankton (tiny ocean plants) produce an estimated 80 percent of the oxygen we breathe through their photosynthesis. The oceans are the lungs of our planet and protecting them means protecting ourselves.
Even when a particular species of fish is targeted by the fishing industry, the effects don’t necessarily stop there. The resulting ecological imbalances can lead to sudden growth or collapse in other species too, with more endangered creatures in need of protection as the natural order and food chain is thrown off balance.
Overfishing Facts and Statistics
- The oceans are home to up to 80 percent of all life on planet Earth.
- Today only 3 percent of Pacific Bluefin Tuna remain.
- Overfishing puts the $42 billion tuna industry at risk of collapse.
- Approximately 50 million sharks are killed every year as bycatch.
- For the first time, sharks are going extinct because of humans.
- Six out of seven species of sea turtles are either threatened or endangered due to fishing.
- Research indicates that in the U.S. approximately 4,600 sea turtles are captured, killed, or injured each year by the fishing industry.
- In the Atlantic waters off the coast of France, 10,000 dolphins may well be being killed as bycatch each year by indiscriminate trawlers.
- Fishing nets make up 86 percent of the large plastic waste in the Pacific garbage patch.
- Fishing has become a major threat to coral reefs worldwide, from the Caribbean to the Middle East.
- Scientists predict that 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050.
- Up to 5 million fish are caught each minute, or 2.7 trillion every year.
- The largest trawl nets are so big that they can swallow up to 13 jumbo jets.
Understanding the vast amount of disruption and harm that overfishing creates is the first step toward putting feasible solutions into action.
Fisheries, retailers, and consumers need to be aware of the true cost that comes with consuming ocean life on such a vast scale. Many people are unaware of the long-term damage that overfishing causes to our oceans, marine life, and important underwater ecosystems.
Fisheries need to be regulated and follow guidelines that aim to cause the least amount of harm and destruction possible. Retailers and consumers need to be aware of these regulations and hold the fishing industry accountable. Practices like long-line fishing, bottom trawling, and blast fishing must be regulated, if not completely banned.
At the rate that we are pillaging and polluting the oceans, and changing them via climate change, ecologists predict that by 2048 they could be completely fishless. We need to drastically reduce the amount of sea life that we fish, farm, and kill as bycatch.
Alternatives to Consuming Sea Life
There are companies out there that create sustainable versions of our favorite seafood products, such as Good Catch Foods, New Wave Foods, Gardein, Quorn, and more. They are able to produce tasty, plant-based versions of fish, shrimp, sushi, and other foods without killing sea life and harming the oceans in the process.
Are There Concerns About Farmed Fish?
There are many concerns about farming fish over their wellbeing, the health of the ocean, and human health. Farmed fish account for over half of the fish eaten in the U.S.
While many people seek out fish for the supposed health benefits, those who eat fish from fish farms are often surprised to find out the nutritional benefits of fish are greatly decreased when they are farmed. Fish are often recommended for their omega-3 fatty acids, but wild fish get their omega-3s from aquatic plants. Farmed fish are often fed corn, soy, or other feedstuff that contain little to no omega-3s. In addition, farmed fish are continuously dosed with antibiotics, leading to antibiotic-resistant disease in humans.
Fish farms also perpetuate overfishing. Free From Harm says: “While some farmed fish can live on diets of corn or soy, others need to eat fish—and lots of it. Tuna and salmon, for example, need to eat up to five pounds of fish for each pound of body weight. The result is that prey (fish like anchovies and herring) are being fished to the brink of extinction to feed the world’s fish farms.”
In addition to health concerns, ethical concerns are at play as well. Research shows that fish experience pain and stress. Farmed fish are subjected to the stress that comes along with living in hyper-confined areas, as well as being killed in slow and painful ways such as asphyxiation or starvation.
The Road Ahead
Overfishing is a serious problem and a threat to humans, aquatic animals, and planetary health alike. We must change our ways if we want to see ocean life and the seas themself thrive. With so many delicious plant-based seafood options on the market today, it’s easy to consume plant-based seafood without the terrible consequences that are inherent to overfishing.
Calen is an activist, blogger, and freelance writer who focuses on unlearning the harmful ideas that society has taught us while creating direct change.