Overfishing: a problem for everyone

I am currently writing a series of articles for a Chinese produced magazine which targets wildlife conservation. As you may guess, they started with Panda conservation, so the magazine is called Giant Panda, but they are running a series on over exploitation of natural resources. Which is where I come in, contributing a series on fisheries. Over the next few months I will post abridged versions of these articles here. The first, as the title suggests, is about overfishing.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to most people that many of the world’s fisheries are overexploited. Most of the world’s population eats seafood. In fact, the amount of seafood that each person eats, on average, has risen to 19.2 kg per person per year, with over 1 billion people relying on seafood for their primary source of protein. This means that seafood is an extremely important part of our lives. The problem is that over 90% of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overfished (FAO 2014 report on the global fisheries), meaning that if we take any more from those fish stocks they will collapse, perhaps forever.


Over fishing and fisheries collapse

Overfishing has a long history. One of the best documented cases of a fish stock collapse is that of the Atlantic Cod. When the fishery was discovered in the late 1400’s the cod were so plentiful that it was assumed that the stock was unending. There are stories of people dipping a basket into the ocean and pulling it out full of cod! Catches of cod steadily increased from the early 1500’s, supplying a major proportion of the world’s protein, but were relatively small until industrialisation meant that catches increased dramatically. In the late 1960’s the annual catch peaked at over 1.5 million tonnes, an unsustainable catch. Years of overfishing caused the stock to collapse, and despite ever-improving fishing technology and manpower, the catches continued to decline until the fishery was forced closed in 1992. By that time, the total biomass of cod remaining in the Atlantic was estimated to be less than 1% of the original stock, and still has not and may never recover.  (for a great read on this topic pick up the book “Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world” by Mark Kurlansky).

The most important lesson to learn from the Atlantic Cod fishery is that any fishery which is overfished can and will collapse. In the last decade alone, many important fisheries have been listed as overfished, including the Largehead hairtail (Trichiurus lepturus), of which over 1 million tons is caught in Asian waters annually, the Mediterranean hake (Merluccius merluccius) and red mullet (Mullus barbatus), Cunene Horse Mackerel (Trachurus trecae), White Grouper (Epinephelus aenus), a number of shrimp species, the list is extensive, and most countries in the world feature at least one fishery. As mentioned above, over 90% of the world’s fisheries are already heading in the direction of being overfished and without good management they too will collapse. Unfortunately, the true frequency with which fisheries collapse can be masked by catch statistics. Global annual fisheries production has been relatively stable since the 1990’s. On the surface, it would appear that fisheries are well-managed and sustainable. What happens in reality, however, is that as we overfish one stock and it becomes unviable, either economically or biologically, so it is replaced by another, new fishery. So, the overall global catch stays the same but we have simply shifted the damage. Usually this means that we are doing something known as “fishing down food webs”, whereby we overfish one stock and then move on to fish a different species further down the food web, often the food of the species that is now over fished! This leads to a situation where the productivity of the oceans as a whole has reduced because the catch is now coming from a previously unfished source. Over time, this continual overfishing causes not only a decline in fish abundance but also massive damage to the ocean ecosystems (which will be topics of future articles in this series).

Fishing down foodwebs

Ecosystem Impacts

Overfishing doesn’t only impact the particular fish species that is over exploited; it is not simply a matter of thinking “it is only one fish species, we will do better next time”. Removing a species from an ecosystem is like removing one cog from a finely tuned machine – it stops working properly. This is especially the case because many of the species that we prize play critical roles in regulating the function of ecosystems. When these species are removed from the ecosystem it begins to become unwell, not providing all of the ecosystem services that we take for granted. Then, as we fish down the food web and remove more species, the ecosystem degrades further.  A very good example of this is shark fishing. Sharks are usually the top predators in ecosystems and control how it functions. To be healthy and function properly, marine ecosystems need these top predators. However, nearly all shark fisheries in the world are over fished, with some species of shark becoming extremely rare. As most species of shark are long-lived they tend to be particularly susceptible to over fishing, and the only way that their populations will recover is by not fishing them.

Indeed, some of the most dramatic changes we see in ecosystems are because of over fishing. A good example from colder oceans would be the overfishing of large predatory fish such as snapper, which are prized by humans to eat, allowing species like sea urchins to become overly abundant because normally the predatory fish would keep their numbers in balance. While sea urchins are a natural part of the ecosystem, in large numbers they completely consume kelp forests, which are the base of the food chain and removing them causes the loss of hundreds of species. Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples, and every country in the world has examples of ecosystems which are degraded by overfishing.


Why aren’t fisheries sustainable?

The answer to this question is that they actually are sustainable, as long as we do not take too much. In fact, the goal of fisheries managers is to maintain catches at the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), or the catch that you can take from a particular fishery forever. In its simplest form, the MSY is an easy concept – you just need to harvest slightly less than the total number of fish which recruit to the fishery each year. It is, however, exceptionally hard to calculate the MSY for a fishery for a number of reasons, in particular that (1) we cannot know how many fish there actually are because we cannot actually count them all, (2) the number of fish which recruit into a fishery, the number we need to know so that we can set catch limits, is dependent not only on how many fish are in the stock, but also a myriad of environmental factors, and (3) we don’t really know how many fish are being taken from a stock because of unmonitored recreational and illegal fishing. This third pressure can be very problematic as people often take fish that are too small, and taking fish before they are able to reproduce (that is, they are immature) means that they cannot contribute young to the next generation before they are caught. In addition to these factors, governments, businesses and the public in many countries often place immense pressure on fisheries managers and fishermen to take more fish to keep supply high. Ultimately, this proves to be counterproductive as when a fishery becomes fully exploited, catches begin to decline and prices rise. Increasing fishing effort at this point leads to overfishing and extremely high prices, making that particular species unavailable to everyone, from the consumer who can’t afford to buy it to the fisherman who can no longer make a living and also the forgotten victim – the ecosystem itself.


What’s the solution?

Contrary to what we used to believe, the oceans are not an endless supply of resources; the ocean has a limited productivity budget. But, this doesn’t mean that we cannot sustainably harvest seafood from the oceans, we just need to ensure we don’t take too much.

What does this mean for the future? At a time when the consumption of seafood is increasing, 90% of the world’s fisheries cannot produce any more, meaning that we need to look to other ways to produce our seafood and reduce consumption. The logical way to do this is through environmentally sustainable aquaculture, or farming of seafood. Aquaculture is already common around the world, making up over 40% of total seafood production, but there is still a lot of room for sustainable expansion.

How can you help? The best way to help is to be a discerning consumer. Rather than not eating seafood, ask where it comes from. Is it from a wild fishery? If so, is it sustainably managed? Is the fish you’re eating grown in aquaculture in a sustainable manner? While it may be hard to get the answers to these questions, if you ask at restaurants or where you buy your seafood you will then force the suppliers to ask the same questions. This will then force industries to become more responsible and manage fisheries in a sustainable manner. In some countries, this public pressure has shown to be an effective way to change fishing practices.


Next time

In the next article I will discuss two different types of fishing, trawling and long-line fishing, and the damage that they cause to marine ecosystems.