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Can We Stop Overfishing Before It’s Too Late?

Eric Justian
| Friday March 14th, 2014 | 3 Comments

FishermanFish has been part of the human diet and culture since the beginning of time.  It seems almost inconceivable that it could suddenly stop being available. But we’re headed for a cliff if we don’t improve sustainable fishing worldwide.

Last year I found myself sputtering in disbelief when the waitress told me lake perch sliders were no longer available at my favorite local bar and grill.  That same week a local fast food place that had always offered a lake perch sandwich switched to a generic fried “fish” sandwich. Along the Michigan coast of Lake Michigan, yellow perch has long been traditional and ubiquitous fare. But numerous factors including severely limited commercial fishing and a precipitous drop in Lake Michigan perch populations has eroded availability of this cultural staple.

This is a microcosm of an even larger issue. The world’s oceans are in decline. Ocean catch reached its highest point, “peak fish,” back in the 1990s. It’s been declining fairly steadily since then. We’re taking more fish from the ocean in unsustainable ways than the ocean can provide. As of 2010 fishing operations harvested over 80 million metric tons of wild caught fish worldwide. That doesn’t even include the bycatch — the undesired marine life caught while harvesting a desired species. Bycatch, estimated to be between 7 million and 38 million metric tons globally, can sometimes dwarf the desired harvest for a given species.  In one extreme example, wild shrimp can come at a cost of 62 pounds of bycatch per pound of shrimp. So when we talk about the depletion of ocean wildlife, it goes beyond what we see on our plates.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization 87 percent of the wild fisheries globally are stressed. That is, they’re either over exploited, fished at the maximum level, are depleted or working toward recovery. In the past 10 years, many top predator populations, like tuna, have declined by 90 percent causing a massive imbalance in the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, demand for fish is outpacing the growth in the human population. While the world’s population grows at 1.7 percent annually, fish production grows at 3.2 percent annually.

Wait a minute…if wild ocean catch peaked in the late 20th century, how can fish production be rising? The answer there is aquaculture. Farmed fish accounts for almost half of the fish consumed by people worldwide these days, and this total continues to grow. Aquaculture comes with its own ecological complications and threats to wild fish populations. They’re likened to “floating pig farms” in the ocean, producing enormous amounts of concentrated waste with oxygen-consuming bacteria that suffocates life at the ocean floor. They are also breeding grounds for diseases and parasites that spread to the general fish population. And it’s also worth noting that about a quarter of the food for that farmed fish comes from ocean catch. There’s no free lunch to be had with farmed fish as it’s currently practiced.  It produces more fish, but adds more hardship to the already threatened wild populations which make up over half of the fish supply. It’s not a cure-all.

So here we are: growing demand for fish as the human population explodes and ocean species decline. Almost half of the world’s population, 3 billion people, rely on this resource for a key source of protein. And communities in virtually every coastal nation on Earth rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

What will happen  if we don’t manage this resource wisely? We’re already seeing the effects of overfishing above and beyond the ecological disaster.  The loss of fishing revenue can shred the generations-old underpinnings of communities. “Many of the Somali pirates we hear about used to be small, local fishermen but were displaced by large commercial fishing operations that depleted the fish” says Cheryl Dahle, founder of Future of Fish. The displaced fishermen sought out another way to provide for their families: piracy.

In 1992, the cod fishery collapsed along the Atlantic coast of Canada. Whole Newfoundland communities which had made their living on fishing for centuries experienced massive unemployment and community upheaval. Another fishing disruption in the groundfish fishery along the coast of New England caused similar disaster. According to research underway by Future of Fish:

“The challenges associated with the transition to sector management combined with deep cuts in quota have resulted in financial and psychological crisis for many members of the fishery. Some are unable to bring in enough income to cover basic living expenses…A recent study found that due to the fishery’s disaster declaration in late 2012, incidence of social disruption (e.g., changes in family, work, and community interactions) and high levels of psychological stress were common among groundfish permit holders.”

A friend of mine from a multi-generational fishing family experienced the same thing growing up. When commercial fishing in the Great Lakes was severely limited in 1985 her father, a commercial fisherman, lost his livelihood and had to move the family to another coastal region.

Fishing is important business for coastal communities.

In 2010, fish production accounted for $218 billion in economic activity globally, a lot of which supports fishing communities in the developing world that rely on this resource as food and a living. It is absolutely essential — ecologically, economically and socially –to take a long-term, strategic view of this resource. I’d always wondered why if the state of the oceans is so dire, why not simply make a massive effort to stop eating fish? Dahle says: “This punishes the communities who depend on fishing. And we need to learn to have a more positive relationship with this resource.”

Of course, overfishing is only a part of the problem facing ocean ecosystems. Our oceans face pollution, agricultural runoff, invasive species and a changing climate — just to name a few things. Where does overfishing rank in the order of threats? “Don’t ask me to rank them,” says Dr. Richard Methot, NOAA Science Advisor for Stock Assessments. “Fish stock as a factor is the thing that is most visible for us…increasingly we recognize that as we get the fishing up to sustainable levels the other impacts are easier to see. Addressing the particular impact of pollution or climate change will happen locally. We address all the factors within the ecosystem context.”

Dahle agrees, declining to rank overfishing against other threats to ocean life: “Overfishing is absolutely fixable, and the most direct threat to individual species. We have to stop taking too much out of the ocean because overfished systems are less resilient to the other threats.”

The United States and other developed nations have the resources to support excellent fishery management practices, identifying troubled fisheries and setting catch limits that help fish populations rebound to sustainable levels. Unfortunately, we in the U.S. import 86 percent of the fish we eat. So domestic management is only a small part of the scope. But of the thousands of fisheries around the world, only hundreds are closely monitored. So how do we promote sustainable fisheries around the world?

U.S. fish consumers must work to create demand for restaurants and distributors to know where our fish comes from. As I stated earlier, many companies, particularly of the fast food variety, identify their seafood simply as “fish” — it’s almost comical in its animal-class generality like offering “bird” nuggets or maybe a juicy “mammal burger.” This vagueness also makes it impossible for consumers to have an educated understanding of what they’re eating. Dahle says: “Consumers should ask about the fish they’re buying. The server may not know. But what it does is it creates a demand for having that information.”

It’s also important for consumers to actually know to the best of their own ability where their food comes from. For this there are many tools. NOAA offers FishWatch.org to help consumers make wiser, more educated choices about the seafood they’re purchasing: where it comes from, how it’s harvested and pointers on how to avoid “seafood fraud” (intentionally mislabeled fish).  All aspects of the supply chain should be transparent and traceable. Too often the fish we eat is commoditized to the point where sustainable fish is mixed in with unsustainable fish.

Governmental agencies monitor fish stocks and ecosystems and establish catch limits, while nongovernment organizations work with fishing communities worldwide to establish catch limits and no-fish zones where fish can spawn and repopulate the region for sustainability.

Other organizations like Future of Fish seek to empower entrepreneurs to develop innovative practices for a sustainable global supply chain for seafood.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural organization is also calling on entrepreneurs and all elements of the fishing supply chain to reduce fish waste. According to a recent report published in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology, Norwegian fishermen dumped about 220,000 tons of wild fish scraps into the sea after processing their catch. These sorts of scraps include such parts as fish heads which are consumed in many parts of the world, and contain a lot of meat.

The global overfishing crisis is an instance where we know the threat and the risks, but we also have a firm understanding of the solution: known management practices and reaching out to third world communities, making the most of the product, traceability and creating demand for knowing where our fish come from. It benefits everybody to avert this disaster.

When asked about the future of the world’s oceans, Dahle says: “I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic because we know what to do.”

Future of Fish Overfishing Infographic

Image Credit: Heather Paffe

Infographic courtesy of Future of Fish


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  • Eric Bischoff

    We should repurpose the world’s Navy to manage ocean overfishing.

  • James

    I agree. Our nation’s Navy should help out to control over-fishing. Also, consumers need to cut back on fish. There are any other sources of protein. We don’t need fish to live. Do we want an ocean without any fish in the future?

    • Susanne Shaw

      The worst thing about overfishing is the waste! I’ll wager hardly any of it actually gets eaten. First of all, the preservation processes are inefficient and the waste in cutting loses a lot of edible parts, too.