Sat, Mar

“If you're overfishing at the top of the food chain, and acidifying the ocean at the bottom, you're creating a squeeze that could conceivably collapse the whole system.” - Carl Safina.


Humans have an uncanny ability for destruction. This isn’t intentional. It’s somehow hardwired into us. In fact, the very skills that have allowed us to survive for thousands of years are often the same ones that lead to our destruction. We’re seeing this more and more in recent decades.

As the population skyrockets and our natural resources dwindle, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. We must continue to use the earth’s resources to survive, and yet the more we use the more danger we put ourselves in. This can be clearly seen in the fishing industry.

One of the greatest ecological, manmade threats now wreaking havoc on our ecosystem is overfishing.

An average person is now consuming twice (about 20kg per year) as much food than they did 50 years ago. Additionally, the global population has nearly quadrupled since the end of the 1960s. In other words, we are not only eating more, but we’ve also created four times more mouths to feed. As a consequence, the health of the seas, its inhabitants, and those whose livelihood depends on it, are suddenly finding themselves struggling.

Daily, innumerable quantities of fish are hauled out of the sea. Unfortunately, that tonnage is much more that can be naturally replenished. By the numbers, 30% of the waters that are commercially fished are overfished and in need of emergency action.

Worse over 60% of fishing waters - the same one that were in abundance in the last 30 or so years - are fully fished.

What Causes Overfishing?

There are dozens of reason for overfishing. Blaming overpopulation and our growing appetite for sushi would be a simplistic and naive assessment. It is essential to note that each region has a political and economical incentive for creating the crisis. We simply can’t place Pakistan, Ireland, and China into the same boat. Each country and government has contributed their own unique problems.

Nonetheless, there are a few reasons that are universal:

- The challenge of regulation. Keeping an eye on, tracking, and policing the oceans is a daunting task. Most governments are well aware that they lack the resources for such work. For every vessel stopped, 30 more make port.

- Lack of oversight. Fleets, ships and even mobile factories are barely monitored in many countries, allowing to overfish at will.

- Lawless international waters. Twenty miles off the coast of every country, vessels enter international waters, a no man’s jurisdiction where there are little to no regulations.

- Lack of knowledge of fish populations and quotas. There really is no index to determine how many squids, tunas or, for that matter, any other species of marine animal there is swimming around in the ocean. This makes it challenging for countries to know what types of quotas to place on the fishing industry.

- Ignorance and corruption. Most customs officials are either ignorant regarding the species of fish they’re allowing for import or are they are accepting bribes. This leads to a great deal of confusion and allows many fishermen to get around fishing laws.

- Unreported fishing. In many cases, small vessels are able to fly under the radar. They can make port and unload their catch without anyone being the wiser.

- Mobile processing plants. One of the greatest assets in the illegal fishing trade is the mobile processing. A gigantic tanker that processes, it’s capable of quickly canning and wrapping the day’s catch. More and more, companies are importing canned goods instead of fresh fish.

- Subsidies. Many countries offer high subsidies for fisherman. These benefits, which in some places even include free housing, have thrown more kindling on the fire. It’s estimated that there are almost 3 times more fleets than needed.

- Unprotected waters. Only 1.5% of the world’s oceans are protected waters. This means that the 98.5% left are fair game for fishermen. Large swaths of these areas are being harmed or depleted. Some of the areas most impacted by overfishing are:

  • The Arctic
  • Coastal East Africa
  • The Coral Triangle (comprised of waters off of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste)
  • The Gulf of California
  • The Mesoamerican Reef (off the coasts of Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala)
  • Southern Chile
  • The Galapagos

Consequences of Overfishing

It’s estimated that most of the world’s marine ecosystem is fished far beyond the capacity to sustain a fish population, with many species finding themselves on the threshold of extinction.

This in itself is a troubling condition that could have calamitous repercussions and long-term effects on humanity’s consumption and dietary needs. Still, on a global scale, this consequence is only one of many problems.

One of the greatest dangers of overfishing is the chaos that it creates in a perfectly balanced ecosystem. For example:

- Predators, particularly large ones like sharks, dolphins, whales, and tuna, are susceptible to nets. In many cases they are innocent bystanders, caught in a trawler’s nets. This is known is in the industry as bycatch (when fishermen unintentionally catch one species while hunting their target). These animals help maintain balance in the ecosystem, not only keeping down potentially harmful species but also serving as decomposing material for sea fauna and food for other symbiotic species.

- On the other side of the coin, overfishing also negatively impacts fish that are near the bottom of the food chain. As predator numbers begin to plummet, the species that rely on the predators also start to suffer.

- Algae is essential for a burgeoning oceanic ecosystem, but too much of it can be disastrous. As fish populations begin to dwindle and fewer fish feed on algae, the amount of algae will increase. The acidity of algae, not to mention other organic and chemical properties of it, can negatively impact fish population, plankton, and reefs.

- An explosion of algae due a lack of scavengers has put the world’s coral reefs at risk. The algae itself isn’t harmful, but a bio product of it (Dissolved Organic Carbon or DOC) is. DOC feeds and promotes the propagation of harmful natural pathogens that, in large amounts, can deprive a reef the energy to sustain itself.

- Many coastal nations rely on the fishing industry for a huge portion of their gross domestic product, often on the sale taxes it generates.

- Dozens of coastal ghost towns can trace their population exodus to overfishing. Rural, and in many cases isolated communities, rely on fishing not for for dietary purposes, with fish being their main source of protein. With the depletion of the fish population, they find their very way of life threatened. A great majority of island bound communities in the lower Pacific are tied to the seas and their resources and find themselves in danger.

- Some species find themselves constantly on a knife’s edge. Species like Bigeye tuna, Bluefin tuna, Skipjack tuna, Yellowfin tuna, Albacore tuna, Abelone (from Japan and China), Atlantic and Pacific cod, Atlantic Halibut, Spiny lobster (from the Caribbean area), and many more are getting pushed to extinction.

- Ghost fishing is when nets, gear, artifacts and the objects used for fishing are unceremoniously dumped into the ocean (because they’ve served their purpose or on account that the illegal fishermen want to get rid of the damning evidence). These tools attract scavengers of the deep; creating perfect traps to ensnare all manner of marine animals.

- In many cases, fishermen disregard maritime law and venture without permission into foreign waters. The sovereign nation has no other choice but to respond to this invasion. When this takes place, the fisherman’s nation might see it as a sign of aggression, and vice-versa. A famous example of this is the Cod Wars, fought between the British and the Icelandic.


Unless drastic action is taken, humanity could find itself facing a crisis. The more the seas are depleted, the more we are harming ourselves. We’re killing one of our primary food sources, destroying a beautiful ecosystem, and wreaking havoc on the earth. Clearly, something must change.

This change, however, isn’t simple. It involves multiple nations working together to create a practical plan for preserving the waters. Yet despite the difficulty, it must be done.

Again, to quote Carl Safina:
For each of us, then, the challenge and opportunity is to cherish all life as the gift it is, envision it whole, seek to know it truly, and undertake—with our minds, hearts and hands—to restore its abundance. It is said that where there’s life there’s hope, and so no place can inspire us with more hopefulness than that great, life-making sea—that singular, wondrous ocean covering the blue planet.

We couldn’t agree more.

By John Hawthorne, Freelance Contributor

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