According to the World Wildlife Fund, overfishing “occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction”. And right now, it causes serious problems, not just to sea life, but also very real economic and social problems to coastal communities across the world.
There are billions of people (an estimated 56.6 million people were engaged in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture in 2014, according to the UN’s FAO report) relying on the oceans for food, and it is the source of income for millions. In 2014, global total capture fishery production was 93.4 million tonnes, according to the same report. The major producer was China, followed by Indonesia, the US and Russia, while the most productive are was the Northwest Pacific.
However, despite often being portrayed as a generous and limitless spring of food in several cultures for centuries, the last fifty years have seen increased fishing efforts, which are demolishing fish stocks in the ocean to a very dangerous point. Still according to the WWF, more than 85% of the world’s fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits, needing harsh management plans. In 2014, 31.4% of assessed fish stocks were estimated as fished at a biologically unsustainable level and therefore overfished, says the UN report (in 1974, they amounted to about 10%), although environmentalists accuse the report of not acknowledging the true situation.
Fishing fleets are two to three times as large as what our oceans can sustainably support (there were about 4.6 million fishing vessels in 2014), and the fishing practices themselves are worrying: Bycatch, discards, and bottom trawling destruction are methods considered to have a destructive influence on non-target species, according to overfishing.org. Bycatch is when an unwanted species is captured while fishing another, while discards are species thrown back after they are captured (most can be assumed dead or not able to survive). Bottom trawling occurs when a large net is dragged across the sea-floor, damaging most of its wildlife. These cause the needless loss of billions of fish, along with marine turtles and cetaceans.
Another problem of overfishing is the lack of property rights, leading to the “open access” nature of many fishing zones, and that also leads to the lack of government regulation and oversight, specifically in high seas, where there are very few international regulations, which are often unable to be enforced. Even on their national waters, many countries don’t impose legislation strong enough to limit fishing capacity to a sustainable level. Scientific advice is seldom included on fish quotas, and the customs agencies don’t always make sure the fish entering the country was caught sustainably, or even legally, which is another very grave problem. Illegal fishing amounts for about 20% of the worlds catch, and ranges from national to international waters, small-scale operations to large industrialized ones. Its costs are evaluated at between US $10 to 23.5 billion every year.
Other impacts of overfishing include the disruption of the maritime communities by fishing mainly top predators. This leads to an abundance of smaller animals at the bottom of the food chain, threatening the rest of the ecosystem, like the massive increase in the number of jellyfish populations, competing with fish for food, eating their eggs and generally depleting their populations due to the overfishing of a jellyfish predator, allowing the jellyfish population to grow immensely. Besides, many communities around the world depend on fish as their source of protein. Overfishing is a threat to their long-term security and access to food, especially in developing countries, and it also is extremely important to those communities’ economy, as some of the major source of revenue is fishing, dependant on the fish stocks.
It is also a safety concern, as the decrease of a fish species that predated on snails caused several incidents of schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms that affects the intestines and the urinary tract and is spread by drinking water with said parasites. It was the overfishing of the snails’ predators that led them to proliferate and infect the water, causing the disease.
Overfishing is a real problem, with real impacts on sea and land, to the environment and to us. Despite an increase on regulation, it still doesn’t stop it from happening. The UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea’s article 61 mandates that coastal states shall ensure the maintenance of living resources on their Exclusive Economic Zones, and fight overfishing. However, there is not much regulation on high seas and international waters, and many states do not actively enforce this rule. Although many countries, particularly developed ones, have adopted measures such as fishing quotas (maximum numbers of fish allowed to be caught), closed seasons (periods of the year where fishing is illegal in a given area), size limits (the minimum fish size authorized to be caught) and the creation of marine reserves and protected areas, there is still a long way to go.
Many deep-sea fisheries, operating in international waters and destroying corals and sponge beds in the sea floor, are paid around US $152 million per year in subsidies by governments. Without them, these operations would be operating at a loss of $50 million. Removing these subsidies would render these operations impossible, and reduce both the habitat destruction and the overfishing caused by them.
Consumer awareness is also essential. In September 2016, Google partnered with Oceana, an ocean conservation NGO, and Skytruth, an NGO that uses pictures from space to motivate environmental protection and awareness, in developing a website, Global Fishing Watch, to monitor fishing activities. Overfishing is ultimately supported by the fishing industries lobbying efforts, by under-developed countries’ lack of effective regulation, and, mainly, by illegal fishing and lack of rules in international waters.
The UN’s 2016 report projects that total fishery production in 2025 reach 196 million tonnes, almost all of it from developing countries. Some believe that, in 25 years time, many important fish stocks will be gone, if this rate continues. The risk is huge. Not only will this contribute to the elimination not just of species, but of entire ecosystems, placing the oceans’ ecological unity nearer collapse, we also risk losing a valuable food source billions are dependent on.