Educational Series: Overfishing is a Crisis for Marine Life

By Nick Engelfried
The oceans are one of Earth’s great strongholds of biodiversity, home to hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species. From microscopic plankton to giant blue whales–the largest animals that ever existed–life in the oceans takes on a dizzying array of shapes and forms. Marine ecosystems are also incredibly diverse, from coral reefs bursting with color, to deep-sea environments where the only light comes from bioluminescent fish and invertebrates. Yet, like so much of the natural world, oceans are under threat–and a primary cause is overharvesting of marine life by people.

For thousands of years, human cultures have thrived by sustainably harvesting food from the seas. However, problems emerge when animals are taken from their environment faster than the population can replenish itself–especially by industrial fishing vessels, whose goal is to catch vast quantities of fish in order to maximize profits. This unsustainable harvesting is what overfishing refers to, and the problem is one of the leading causes of ocean biodiversity loss. Worldwide, one-third of the fisheries–or regions with significant fishing activity–about which we have reliable information are already being overharvested to an unsustainable degree. This includes 20% of fisheries in U.S. waters, and fully 64% of those in Europe. Without urgent intervention, fish populations and even entire species are in danger of declining to the point where recovery becomes impossible.

One of the primary causes of overfishing is the use of indiscriminate methods by industrial boat fleets. Technologies like driftnets, which consist of immense walls of netting that trap any marine creatures unlucky enough to swim into them, catch thousands of aquatic animals, including non-target species that are later thrown out as “bycatch” and left for dead. Driftnets remove huge quantities of edible fish from the oceans, but in the process also kill countless marine mammals, sea turtles, and non-target fish. Whales, dolphins, turtles, and seabirds who become entangled in nets are unable to swim to the surface for air and eventually die slow, miserable deaths from drowning. All of this makes driftnets among the least sustainable methods available for harvesting food from the oceans.

Other destructive fishing technologies include longlines, or lengths of fishing line that stretch for miles and are equipped with thousands of baited hooks; purse seine nets huge enough to envelop entier fish schools and then cinch tight around them to prevent their escape; and bottom trawls that scrape along the seafloor, sweeping up and destroying anything in their path. Each of these methods is designed to pull as many fish as possible from the water, as quickly as they can, making overharvesting all but inevitable unless their use is held in check. Like driftnets, longlines, seine nets, and bottom trawls result in large amounts of bycatch. Curbing the use of these technologies is one of the most important things we can do to protect ocean ecosystems.

Passing new laws and regulations to govern the behavior of fishing fleets is essential–but so is enforcing existing rules so as to eliminate illegal fishing activity. Illegal fishing is an international, multibillion criminal business that accounts for as much as 30% of the harvest of the most valuable fish species. Tracking down and stopping rogue fishing vessels on the open seas presents unique challenges, but there are proven strategies for preventing illegally caught fish from entering the market. One approach is to require sellers to provide greater transparency about where their seafood comes from, ensuring that illegal catch can be identified and prevented from ever making it onto consumers’ plates. Guaranteeing all seafood can be traced to its point of origin is a major goal of groups pushing to conserve the world’s fish populations.

Fortunately, there is evidence that when properly enforced, regulations banning destructive fishing methods have a real, positive impact. A state ban on gillnet fishing in California, which covers state waters and passed in 1994, has led to a rebound in the populations of species like harbor porpoises which are commonly caught in the nets and bycatch. In California’s Morro Bay, the harbor porpoise had declined to an estimated fewer than 600 individuals by the early ‘90s, after decades of drift net usage. By 2012, the population had rebounded to more than 4,000. Successes like this show that eliminating harmful practices has a real, tangible impact on some of the oceans’ most vulnerable inhabitants.

In fact, the U.S. has made substantial progress toward curbing overfishing since the days when fishing boats roamed the seas utterly unregulated. The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act put in place a system for regulating each of the nation’s major fisheries to prevent overharvesting and allow depleted populations to rebound. The Natural Resource Defense Council reports that 47 large populations of fish–or fish stocks–in U.S. waters have been allowed to recover under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. However, there is still much more work to be done, as another 49 stocks are still being harvested at an unsustainable rate.

To truly ensure the recovery of the oceans, we must end the use of the most destructive fishing methods–and a bill under consideration in Congress would do just that. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, which would build on California’s driftnet ban by effectively extending it to all U.S. waters. The bill also includes other provisions to protect fish stocks, such as a crackdown on the illegal fishing industry. It now awaits movement in the Senate, and if passed would become one of the most significant federal-level fishing reforms in years.

Consumers can also do their part. If you eat seafood, avoid buying species associated with unsustainable fishing practices. Greenpeace has created a “red list” of such species, which includes Atlantic salmon, Alaska pollock, red snapper, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic and Greenland halibut, and bluefin, big eye, South Atlantic, and yellowfin tuna.

Climate change, plastic pollution, and other pressing environmental problems have increased the urgency of dealing with the overfishing crisis. For example, as marine waters warm due to climate change, many fish species will have to seek out colder waters and shift their ranges accordingly. This presents new challenges to fishery regulators, who have tended to assume populations will stay put indefinitely. The reality of climate change demands a more comprehensive approach to fishery management that accounts for how populations may move and change in response to new environmental pressures.

By advocating for laws and regulations that discourage overfishing, and by buying and eating responsibly, we can all play a role in ensuring a healthier future for marine ecosystems. The time to act on behalf of the world’s oceans is now.

Photo credit: Joe Laurence

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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