Could we be fishing the life out of the sea in our quest to have tasty seafood to eat? The statistics of overfishing seem to imply that this could be happening at a very rapid pace. We’ve been worried about the acidification of the oceans and global warming affecting wildlife habitats, but our fishing habits could be causing even more damage.
According the UN Environmental Program, we are in a situation where there could be no fish left in just 40 years.
Overfishing occurs in an environment where fish and other sources of seafood are caught or harvested faster than they are able to reproduce. The combination of high demands for seafood with poor overall management of local biomass populations and fisheries has created a world where better fishing technology has devastated the overall supply of food.
- 70% of the world’s fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce.
- The percentage of fish stocks that have already been fully exploited or are known to be in decline: 80%.
- 90% of the world’s population of predatory fish, including tuna, cod, and halibut, are already gone.
- Cod fisheries that collapsed in the 1990’s have failed to replenish their biomass, even though a complete ban on fishing has been in place for over two decades.
- The WWF predicts that the breeding population of Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is one of the ocean’s largest and fastest predators [and sought-after as a delicacy used for sushi] will disappear by 2017 unless catches are drastically reduced.
- 40% of the world’s trawling grounds are now in waters deeper than 200 meters, exploiting fisheries that are vulnerable to exploitation.
- Up to 25% of the global catch from commercial fishermen is discarded because it is dead or dying.
- It is estimated that 27 million tons fish which are caught annually are discarded, their protein completely wasted.
The way we fish is causing a number of problems that must be addressed if we are going to continue having a sustainable seafood supply. Millions of pounds fish are wasted every year just because they aren’t the right type of fish, are too small, or just don’t make it into the processing center on time. This is a food source that could eliminate hunger in the world today. Because we are completely mismanaging this resource, instead of curing world hunger, we are putting fish species to the brink of extinction and wasting what we do catch. It isn’t just the fish population that is at risk either: more than 100,000 albatrosses and 300,000 dolphins, whales, porpoises, and sea turtles are killed every year because of ineffective fishing.
Could Your Favorite Seafood Be Gone Next Year?
- More than 1 billion people worldwide depend on fish as their primary source of protein .
- According to the United Nations, 17% of fish stocks worldwide are currently overexploited; 52% are fully exploited; and 7% are depleted.
- Catches of Pacific herring have decreased by 71% in the last 50 years.
- Total harvesting of wild fish from the world’s oceans stands at approximately 90 million tons.
- Commercial fishing from the world’s lakes and rivers has quadrupled in the last 50 years to now total 8.7 million tons annually.
- Overfishing leads to a loss of between $6-$36 billion in food production revenues every year.
- Production of farmed fish has increased from 24 million tons in the mid-1990’s to 67 million tons in 2012.
- Fish farming is the fastest growing agricultural industry in the world today, having seen sustained growth of 8% annually for over 30 consecutive years.
- Fishermen are now fishing “down the food web.” They are catching smaller species that used to be considered “bait” or were food for the larger fish that are no longer abundant enough to catch.
Although we were slow as a global society to consider fish farming as an agricultural industry, it is a growing movement that is helping societies be able to meet the demands for seafood without completely decimating supplies. Even so, wild caught fish still make up more than 50% of the market when compared to farmed fish. This means that we all have a long ways to go to make sure that the seafood proteins that are being consumed are sustainable. If everyone got behind fish farming and made it a point of emphasis, there may be fallout from the commercial fishing industry for profits and this could have an economic ripple through many communities, but it would help to potentially restore fish populations.
Where Is Overfishing Happening Right Now?
- 99% of the worldwide annual commercial ocean catch comes from coastal waters, within 200 nautical miles of the coastline.
- About one-third of the world’s coral reef systems have been classified as highly degraded or virtually destroyed.
- 17 million tons of fish come out of Chinese fisheries every year, leading the world in the amount of species that are caught.
- The United States is the fourth most fished region, though fishing rates are 25% of Chinese numbers.
The good news is that the official numbers of overfishing have begun to level off. These statistics do not, however, account for black market fishing that may be occurring. Although illegal and personal fishing may only be an overall fraction of the millions of tons of fish that are caught every year, they are still part of the overall impact that is occurring the world’s oceans today. In order to continue having fisheries, we must be able to do more to innovate how we obtain protein from the sea and how we are able to protect it.
What Could Be Changed To Protect More Sea Life?
- Just 1.6% of the world’s oceans have been declared as marine protected areas.
- The percentage of marine protected areas that are open to fishing: 90%.
- Illegal fishing accounts for an estimated 20% of the world’s catch and as much as 50% in some fisheries.
- The costs of illegal fishing are significant, with the value of pirate fish products estimated at between $10-$23.5 billion every year.
- Today’s worldwide fishing fleet is estimated to be up to 2.5x the capacity needed to catch what we actually need.
- The Marine Stewardship Council has set environmental standards for sustainable fisheries, but it only accounts for about 10% of the overall market annually.
- The prime cuts of Chilean sea bass served in restaurants often come from mature fish up to 200 years old.
- For some of the 200+ farmed aquatic animal and plant species, particularly salmon and shrimp, the methods currently used require high energy inputs and can cause environmental degradation similar to industrial/chemical agriculture.
Over the past 5 decades, what we have come to think of as a vast and unending supply of fish from the ocean has turned out to be quite the opposite. We’ve discovered that instead of a rich, diverse amount of sea life that is virtually unending, the world’s oceans are highly sensitive and vulnerable to the changes that overfishing cause. Although this has devastated some fisheries, there is still some good reasons to have hope that the problem can be solved. Aggressive aquaculture has proven to be beneficial, but many societies have grown accustomed to abundant seafood and don’t care about the plight of the oceans. Until we can change the dinner table perspective, no real change is likely to be achieved.
Is There A Future If There Is No Fish?
- 40,000 jobs were lost with the collapse of just one overfished cod population.
- The largest factory trawler, a 144 meter long vessel, can carry 7,000 tons of processed fish in its freezers.
- Some super-sized tuna fishing vessels can catch 3,000 tons of fish in just one trip.
- We have lost 99 percent of European eels, and 95 percent of Southern bluefin and Pacific bluefin tunas.
- Salmon have disappeared from many rivers on both side of the Atlantic, and appear on many national and regional threatened species lists.
- According to a 2010 study by Oceana, overfishing subsidies total an estimated $16 billion annually, which is equivalent to roughly 25% of the value of the world fish catch.
We are at a critical turning point right now. We can either come together to stop overfishing and allow the world’s oceans to begin recovering or we can allow things to continue on the same path that we’ve been on right now and allow the entire network of fish to collapse within our lifetimes. If we want our children or grandchildren to have sustainable oceans and seafood to eat, then aquaculture needs to become a priority for us. Otherwise the world we will give to future generations will be far from an ideal planet and we’ll only have ourselves to blame.