Last Updated on February 24, 2022
As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like
drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler.
There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity.
All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen, but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source. As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are, and what meaningful steps — not simply theater to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.
Indeed, over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12 percent of the world relies on fisheries in some form or another. 90 percent of these being small-scale fishermen — “think a small crew in a boat, not a ship,” using small nets or even rods, reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use.
There are 18.9 million fishermen in the world, with 90 percent of them falling under the same small-scale fisherman rubric discussed above.
Overfishing Definition: What is Overfishing?
First, take heart: As a recreational fisherman you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing.” This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends.
Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30 percent of commercially fished waters being classified as “overfished.” This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.
There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves.
At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand-in-hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Over 80 percent of fish are caught in these kinds of nets but fish aren’t the only things caught in nets.
What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is
one reason why it’s bad. Others include:
Increased Algae in the Water: Like many other things, algae is great but too much of it is very bad. When there are fewer fish in the water, algae doesn’t get eaten. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
Destruction of Fishing Communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
Tougher Fishing for Small Vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
Ghost Fishing: Ghost fishing refers to abandoned man-made fishing gear that is left behind. It’s believed that an estimated 25,000 nets float throughout the Northeast Atlantic. This left behind gear becomes a death trap for all marine life that swim through that area. While much of this is caused due to storms and natural disasters, much of it is the result of ignorance and neglect on behalf of commercial fishermen.
Species Pushed to Near Extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing, such as several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
Bycatch: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatch is: It’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a byproduct. The possibility of bycatch increases dramatically with overfishing.
Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20 percent of all fish in the United States is lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the Third World this rises to 30 percent thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
Mystery Fish: Because of overfishing, there are a significant amount of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13 percent of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers.