Global consumption of fish is outpacing natural production, posing a significant threat to marine ecosystems. Commercially valuable species such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder are fished at enormous quantities to the point where populations of said species are dangerously low.
Presently, our capacity for fishing is about three times stronger than needed and the techniques of the global industry would be enough to fish the Earth’s oceans four times over. About 70 percent of the world’s species of fish are exploited or depleted and according to the United Nations, one in five people on the planet depends on fish as a primary source of protein.
What’s Happening Under the Waves?
Fishing is big business with the global fishing industry worth an estimated 240 billion USD per year. Among the most fished species are bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, hake, greenland halibut, tropical shrimp and prawns among many others (for a longer list, please see Greenpeace’s Red List). With more mouths to feed on the planet than ever before, fish stocks – like numerous other sources of food – are withering under the pressure, with numerous species becoming endangered or extinct. According to WWF, if we continue to consume fish at current rates, stocks of all species currently fished for food could be exhausted by 2048.
Though humans have been turning to the oceans for food for centuries, it was not until the post-industrial revolution age that fishing started to go into overdrive. According to National Geographic ”in the mid-20th century, international efforts to increase the availability and affordability of protein-rich foods led to concerted government efforts to increase fishing capacity. Favorable policies, loans, and subsidies spawned a rapid rise of big industrial fishing operations, which quickly supplanted local boatmen as the world’s source of seafood.”
This helped trigger the massive global appetite for fish and seafood and today people consume about four times the amount of fish in comparison to 1950. Since then, big fish stocks have declined by about 90 percent according to one study. Fishermen are going farther and wider to secure a catch as traditional marine fishing areas show depleting numbers of commercially valuable fish.
About half the fish we consume comes from fish farms, giant fenced-off or caged-in underwater areas where specific fish and marine species are bred in high quantities. Also known as open aquaculture, fish farming itself is not new but, in line with the growing demand for fish, has been scaled up significantly in the modern age. As with land farming practices, some fish farms are well-managed and some are not. Poor aquaculture management can lead to a raft of problems including: chemicals and antibiotics used seeping into the waterways; excessive amounts of fish waste in concentrated areas which can affect the nutrient level of the water; as well as disease and health problems in fish due to poor or cramped conditions in the farms. On the flipside, proper, sustainable management of fisheries and aquaculture has been deemed key in helping to replenish depleting stocks (alongside a host of other contributing factors).
Check out this video put together by Ocean 2012 detailing overfishing on the global scale:
Down the Web: Weeding Out the Little Guys
As the top-down push for more fish continues, several small-scale yet crucial factors are being overlooked, namely the overpopulation and subsequent fishing of smaller fish in areas where predator numbers are now minimal; trapping and discarding of non-targeted creatures by high-volume catching techniques; and the decline in success among traditional fishermen.
As larger fish and predators, including sharks, fall victim to overfishing, smaller, plankton-reliant fish begin to overpopulate and are then targeted by resource-starved fishermen, making it even harder to replenish disappearing species of the larger variety. This phenomenon is referred to as “fishing down the web” and has a negative effect on maintaining or restoring delicate marine eco-systems that have been overfished.
The emphasis on non-selective, high volume catching methods (i.e. bottom trawling nets) directly results in large numbers of discarded or unwanted fish, dubbed bycatch. An estimated 27 million tonnes of fish (between 8 and 25 percent of total catch) falls into this category.
Mechanised forms of fishing (designed for high volume catches) are also pushing out smallscale fishermen in an effort for fishing companies to meet the global demand for fish.
Foreign Players and Regulatory Grey Spots
Fisheries management is subject to the rule of the state governing the body of water where the fishery is located. One of the issues that makes fishing so hard to properly regulate and overfishing so difficult to control is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), also dubbed ‘pirate fishing’ whereby foreign vessels illegally fish within another state’s waters; and/or do not report or underreport their catch. WWF estimates that the illegal fishing trade is worth between 10 and 23.5 billion USD per year.
The UN’s International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) is an attempt to offer guidelines for sanctions against such activities however, combatting IUU requires a global effort and some argue that the sanctions put forward by the IPOA-IUU are not strong enough to deter pirate fishing altogether.
One example of how fishing regulations are exploited is India’s Letter of Permit scheme, run by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, which allows local fishermen to use foreign fishing vessels to access deeper and wider fisheries than normal so long as the vessel is also registered with an Indian authority.
The result of this has seen a group of foreign fishing companies enter Indian waters with forged registration paperwork and transfer their catch in the area to carrier vessels while still on the water in order to circumvent the mandate of the fish being brought back to Indian shores, costing the local industry millions in lost revenue.
It is not just a country’s economy and food supplies that are threatened when foreign vessels illegally fish from someone else’s pool. The impact on people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods can be huge. Some have linked the rise in Somali piracy in the ’90s to overfishing after foreign trawlers entered Somali waters, following civil war and the collapse of government, and illegally fished, which had a devastating effect on Somali fishermen. As a partial result of this, pirate gangs formed to ward off foreign vessels. While some question just how much of a role this may have played, many agree that the blow to people’s livelihoods could have created fertile ground for the pirate movement to rise up.
Changing the Tide
With supply unable to meet demand, new, more sustainable approaches to fishing must be implemented. Activists are calling for more stringent capping quotas on the amount of allowed fish per haul, while surveillance and sustainable aquaculture could also have a role to play.
A number of technological applications are being introduced to help curb overfishing, namely by monitoring certain areas to keep tabs on illegal fishing as well as new techniques to minimise bycatch. In 2014 Google teamed up with Oceana and SkyTruth to launch the Global Fishing Watch project, an interactive web tool that allows members of the public to check up on trackable fishing activity in the ocean. The latest development comes from the UK-based marine technology firm Fishtek Marine, who is trying to market their newest innovation: a small, simple gadget that could drastically reduce the number of sea mammals that are inadvertently captured in commercial fishing nets.
Stronger Enforcement of Capping and Quotas
A number of fisheries already operate under imposed quotas, or regulated catch allotments or capped periods of time within which to fish, however, due to lack of proper monitoring in some parts, it can be easy for fishermen to ignore these quotas or exploit regulatory loopholes in favour of catching more fish. World Ocean Review outlines one example where fishermen were able to circumvent laws imposed in the Pacific halibut fishery, statting that ”…at the end of the 1980s, fishing was only permitted for three days a year. In practice, during this very short fishing season, a vast fishing fleet was deployed and caught the same quantity of fish as had previously been harvested in an entire year.” In order for caps and quotas to work effectively, a concerted effort is required from authorities to ensure that those out on the water play by the rules.
Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) placed emphasis on the need for ecosystem-based fisheries management back in 1995, as concern about depleting fish numbers began to cause ripples through the industry.
An ecosystem-based approach dictates that all aspects of the industry be reassessed to determine whether methods comply with sustainability goals. Knowledge of and respect for the integrated nature of creatures and organisms in any marine ecosystem forms the crux of an ecosystem-based approach, drawing the focus away from single, commercially-valuable species in any region and encouraging fishermen to view their catchment areas as diverse, ecological communities that must be maintained. Experts argue that any approach to sustainable fisheries management should encompass all human-related activities that occur at sea, such as oil spills, sewage disposal and toxic waste dumping.
Such an approach requires stringent government or related authority monitoring to ensure workers adhere to guidelines. The government’s approach thus far has focused on the economic factor and it has pushed for more advanced techniques to increase output. As tests continue to show that fish numbers are depleting (some rapidly), the move forward must take priority away from economic goals and focus primarily on fishing methods that are sustainable.