How Bad Is Overfishing & What Can We Do To Stop It?


photo: Jim G via flickr

By now you'd have to have been living on a desert island by yourself with an imaginary coconut companion to not know that overfishing is a serious problem for all the world's oceans. The good news is, though the future for fish looks pretty dire if we keep up how we've been fishing, we already have seen conservation successes to show the way forward and stop overfishing.Just so we're all on the same page though, let's set out the state of the problem first.

Global Fish Stocks to Collapse by 2050 at Current Exploitation Rates
Perhaps the first thing to wrap your head around is just how to measure the problem. When the only official global statistics available for fisheries are based on self-reported data by nations and three- to four-fold underestimations are common, according to independent scientific assessments, the magnitude is hard to fully gauge.

In the worst case, back in 2008, researchers learned that the officially reported catches for American Samoa were nearly seventeen times lower than the independently assessed amounts. Not good.

Nevertheless, it's estimated that one-third of all fish stocks globally have collapsed--having less than 10% of their maximum observed population--and that at current fishing rates all fish stocks worldwide will collapse by mid-century. A full three-quarters of the world's fisheries are now either collapsed, over-exploited, significantly depleted, or recovering from being over-exploited.


photo: David Ooms via flickr
Large Corporations Set to Profit From Bluefin Tuna Extinction
Perhaps the most potent example of the competing interests involved here, and the highly politicized nature of what really is an ecological question, you just have to scan headlines going back to the spring of this year.

Even though entire cadres of international scientists said Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks are being fished at unsustainable levels--at current rates extinct within three years--and the US and the EU (but not every member state) supported a ban on international trade in the highly-valuable fish, CITES failed to protect the species.

The whole time Japan, the world's largest consumer of the fish by far, said it would not abide a ban, should one be enacted and exerted behind the scenes pressure to ensure a ban did not pass.

With large industrial players in Japan like Mitsubishi standing to make profits well into the billions of dollars should the fish go extinct, thanks to controlling some 30-45% of the current frozen stock of bluefin, the reasons finance trumped science here should become clear.


image: putneymark via flickr
We've Been Collapsing Fisheries For a Millennia
Before you assume that this is all a modern concern, solely the result of industrialized fishing techniques (which are indeed part of the problem), it's worthwhile remembering that humans have been taking more fish from the oceans than are ecological sustainable, and before that from inland waterways, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Going back 1000 years in Europe, it was declines in freshwater fish thanks to human pressure which first pushed fishermen out into the oceans in larger numbers. Five hundred years ago, it was the decline of coastal fish that brought deep-sea trawling into existence.

The key difference between past ages and now is that in the past there was always another area to move on to. Even if there were effects on fishing in one particular region--sometimes long-lasting, witness areas of far northern Maine which still haven't recovered from the collapse of the sardine fishery, and likely never will--another fishery could be opened by exploration. Today this is decidedly not the case.

One hundred fifty years ago the planet was still an open planet. Human populations and their impact were still well within the carrying capacity of the planet to absorb any harm caused. Today, with the population of China or India alone equal to that of the entire planet in 1850, human activity has expanded to the point where we are crashing into inflexible ecological boundaries on a planetary scale. Earth is closed.

If there's any sort of silver lining to this cloud it's that we've got examples of how to stop continued overfishing.


photo: Zheng Xu via flickr
Conservation Works, Catch Shares Work
Just in May, NOAA released the 2009 Status of US Fisheries report, showing that four US fisheries have been rebuilt to healthy levels after years of overfishing--Atlantic swordfish, Atlantic scup, Atlantic sea bass, and St Matthew's Island blue king crab, all returned to healthy levels. In US waters, 85% of fish stocks examined were free from overfishing. Conservation works.

NOAA head Jane Lubchenco describes how catch share systems can work globally to preserve fish for future generations,

The shares of the fishery are allocated to entities--those might be fishermen, or boats, or communities--and let's say that fisherman have a guaranteed fraction of the catch that is their privilege to catch every year. So the total amount of fish that can be caught in any year is divided into these fractions. For example you might be allocated 10 percent of the total catch for the year; I might be allocated 5 percent of the total catch for the year. It's like dividing up a pizza. [...] And the amount that can be caught in any one year is determined scientifically by what is sustainable for that fishery.

This works by aligning economic and conservation incentives. Since you are allocated a percentage, if the fishery declines you are entitled to fewer and fewer fish. It's not a guarantee of conservation, but it certainly can help--and are far less likely to cause a mad dash for fish as present quota systems do.

Alongside that, fisheries closures, either year-round or during crucial times in the season, and establishment of marine reserves so that fish can have refuges where the can flourish, can both help repopulate failing population levels.

Enforcement is Key Though...
The crucial variable in all this is enforcement. Though nations can control territorial waters--if they choose to, Libya for example actively turns a blind eye to overfishing in its waters, as do a number of other nations--in the open ocean things become much more difficult.

Even with scientifically determined quotas, marine reserves and catch share systems in place, if the rules are not enforced, it all falls apart. Going back to the bluefin example, if the quota is 15,000 tons a year but the actual take, due to utter lack of enforcement, is 60,000 tons, you simply can't manage the fishery well. And when, as is the case with certain fisheries, you have organized crime syndicates involved, it all gets that much more complicated.

Remove Subsidies & Environmentally Destructive Fishing Becomes Far Less Profitable
It also gets much more complicated when you start talking about the level of subsidies given to support large-scale fishing--remember, as with agriculture, it's not the small operations receiving the majority of assistance, it's industrial producers. Globally some $20 billion is handed out annually. In subsidies for fuel alone, $6.3 billion is spent; an additional $8 billion goes into rehabilitating large ports.

Both help prop-up destructive industrial-scale fishing, when small-scale fishing actually uses 75% less energy to catch the same volume of fish, employing far more people to do so, and does so in more environmentally friendly ways, generally producing far less by-catch waste.

Remove these subsidies and industrial fishing suddenly becomes a much less profitable enterprise.


What fish you eat and don't eat, as well as how much of it you eat, are both important personal actions. Photo: Becky Stern via flickr
Dietary Choices Biggest Impact Individuals Can Have
As always, there's a consumer angle in this, a way for the individual to take action, even if many of the solutions to overfishing have to take place at the collective level.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to join up with a group like Sea Shepherd and take direct action against poaching fisherman, but simply by ensuring that the seafood you buy has come from a fishery with sustainable population levels and with good management is a big step forward. There are plenty of sustainable seafood wallet cards and phone apps now available for this.

Then there is simple demand reduction. Eat less fish. It may be a healthy source of protein as well as other nutrients, but the fact of the matter is that there isn't much in fish that can't also be derived from plant sources. Whether you choose to eliminate fish entirely or not, simply cutting back is a good thing. If the binary veg or non-veg approach doesn't suit you, adopt a weekday vegetarian diet and then eat fish only on the weekend.

Without action both nationally and internationally, individual action will be insufficient to prevent overfishing. However, cutting back on the amount of fish eaten, and ensuring what is eaten is from sustainable source is about the biggest impact a single person can have.

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More on Overfishing:
Japan Will Ignore Ban on Bluefin Tuna, Says The Fish Isn't That Endangered
Is This the End of the Line for Fish?
Fuel Subsidies Simply Prop Up Destructive Industrial Fishing, Hurt Small-Scale Fishermen

Tags: Blue August | Fishing | Oceans