Originally published in The Environmental Magazine
Over a relatively short period of time, humanity has developed a massive appetite for seafood. In the early 1960s, the average person consumed just under 20 pounds of fish per year. Today however, that number has risen to over 40 pounds per year. In its effort to satiate this massive demand, the fishing industry has removed tremendous numbers of fish from the ocean, and continues to do so to this day. In 2016, the UN estimated the world’s total catch to be approximately 90 million tons.
This Herculean fishing effort has led to a serious depletion of the world’s fisheries. As it currently stands, we have overfished approximately 30 percent of the world’s stocks. This means that we are fishing them above their replenishment rates, and that they will go extinct if a change isn’t made. Out of the non-overfished stocks, the majority are fully fished, meaning that any increase in the amount of fish being removed from them on an annual basis will lead to their eventual collapse.
Unsurprisingly, the collapse of a fishery can have massive consequences for both the environment, and those who rely on fishing for their survival. A clear example of this phenomena was the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery. This once-thriving fishery collapsed very rapidly after supporting thousands of workers for several decades. Once fishermen drove the population below a certain critical level, nothing could stop it from plummeting to a minuscule fraction of its initial size.
If we do not take action soon, an entire third of the world’s fisheries could suffer the same fate. For the 40 million global citizens who make a living off of fishing, this is a very big issue.
Thankfully, there are many field tested solutions that have been conclusively proven to help restore depleted fish stocks.
One of the simplest is the creation of Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. As their name would suggest, Marine Protected Areas are locations where regulatory bodies have restricted fishing in some way. These restrictions can be either total or partial. Examples of partial MPAs are those in which certain forms of fishing are banned, or where fishing is only banned during part of the year.
Unsurprisingly, MPAs begin to have a positive effect on population densities immediately after their creation. Studies show that fish biomass within MPAs can increase four to five times after establishment, and that the diversity of species within the area increases as well. At the moment, Marine Protected Areas cover only 3.6% of the world’s oceans. Increasing this percentage would be one of the best ways of restoring the world’s fish populations.
If left to their own devices, fishermen will often deplete fish stocks to a point of near extinction. This unsustainable behavior is driven by the fact that fishermen must compete with one another for their share of the catch. Even though they know doing so will lead to long term depletion, it is still in their short term best interest to take as many fish as they can. If one fishing boat does not do so, it is highly likely that another will capture the excess catch.
Regulations can address this issue, but only if strategically planned and properly implemented. The primary pillar upon which effective regulations rest is good data. Specifically, good data about how many fish fishermen can remove from a given stock per year without reducing said stock in the long run.
After scientists establish a reasonable catch limit, governments can enact regulations. One of the simplest is lowering the number of days in which the fishing of a certain area is allowed. While this strategy seems like a logical way of reducing excess catch, it suffers from several significant flaws.
Following the implementation of a time restriction, fishermen will usually increase the amount of effort they put into fishing during the unrestricted periods of the year. They tend to invest in more efficient gear, and will often work more hours per day during the open season. This creates dangerous working conditions, and can sometimes completely negate the effects of the restriction.
One of the better methods for regulating fish populations is to issue catch quotas to all fishermen in a certain area. After a fishing operation reaches its quota, the law requires it to cease any further fishing. The instigation of these quotas allows fishing to take place in a more relaxed, and therefore safer, fashion. It also does far more than simpler, time-based restrictions, to insure that stock depletion does not take place . Another benefit of structured catch quotas is that they allow fishermen to trade with one another. For example, if a certain fishing operation needs to take some of their boats out of the water for maintenance, they can sell a portion of their quota to another operation. This reduces losses for the seller and improves profits for the purchasing party.
Another, more controversial solution to overfishing, is aquaculture. This form of fish production has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the past several decades. In 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that aquaculture accounted for approximately 47 percent of all global fish production (with wild capture accounting for the remaining 53 percent).
The degree to which an aquaculture farm is beneficial for the environment depends on numerous factors. Those farms that aquaculturists run in inland areas, and that use sustainably raised feed, can sometimes be fairly neutral for the planet. Unfortunately, many operations do not fit this description. Aquaculture is frequently conducted in large, ocean based containers, from which escapes are common. When farmed fish manage to get out of their enclosures, they can mingle with their wild counterparts and pollute the gene pool. Feed sources are another huge problem with many of today’s aquaculture operations. In some instances, aquaculturists feed their livestock fishmeal created from wild caught fish. Using wild caught fish to feed farmed fish is a prime example of agricultural inefficiency.
So what can be done?
As consumers, the best action we can take to help the world’s fisheries is to consume less fish, particularly threatened species. Another great option is to eat species of fish whose populations are currently stable. When voting, we can choose candidates who are in favor of creating Marine Protected Areas and instating well planned fishing regulations.
If you want to learn more about the sustainable fishing practices, consider watching this excellent youtube series on the topic by The Conservation Strategy Fund — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4AXnZOsrK8&list=PLBfu1mD9hk66c1Q23AOAAhCvkVLC2XZKm
If you would like to develop a clearer idea of the scale at which fishing is currently being practiced and learn more about the topic of global fishing in general, check out this excellent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association — http://www.fao.org/3/I9540EN/i9540en.pdf