Life on Planet Earth hinges on the delicate balance of the marine world, which is greatly impacted by the fishing industry
Not only does half of the world’s population rely on fish as a major source of protein, but the global economy also relies on it. Fish is one of the most highly traded food commodities and fuels a $362 billion global industry, accounting to World Wildlife, with fishing serving as the main livelihood for millions of people around the globe. It’s essential for the health of our global population that the fishing industry is kept in order, but this industry faces many problems.
Moderate and regulated amounts of fishing are healthy for keeping the ecosystem in check, but problems within the fishing industry are leading marine life species to be killed more rapidly than they can replenish themselves. Problems such as overfishing, plastic pollution (as explored in the documentary Seaspiracy), habitat degradation and bycatch (capturing unwanted marine life when fishing for a certain species) are imposing drastic consequences that have a ripple effect across the entire planet.
Many groups are working to conserve ocean resources, but there is a dire need for improvement in global fish management in order to sustain the food chain and livelihoods of all that depend on it.
To better understand these problems and their impacts, let's take a closer look at several key aspects of the fishing industry.
Methods of fishing
Fish are caught in a variety of ways, some more sustainable than others. Unfortunately, much of the fishing industry goes unregulated and poses a threat to marine life and ecosystems. It is estimated that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing nets make up $36.4 billion in the industry each year.
The manner in which fish are caught determines the level of risk of associated problems, specifically bycatch. Sustainable Fisheries outlines the following commercial fishing methods, categorized by fishing with nets, fishing with lines and harvesting shellfish.
More than 80 percent of fish are caught with nets, so this is what we will focus on here. This includes pure seine fishing—the most common way fish are caught—which locates a school of fish and loops the ends of the net around it like a drawstring bag to capture the fish and pull them onboard. Since this is a targeted approach on a specific school of fish, bycatch tends to be minimal.
Another type is trawling, which pulls a weighted net through the water or along the bottom. Habitat destruction is a concern with bottom trawls, as the nets can disturb environments on the ground like coral or sponge gardens, but bycatch is also relatively low.
Perhaps the biggest concern for bycatch is called gill nets, which are set up to be a wall with holes in it, where fish swim into and get stuck. However, this poses a major risk to unintended sea animals like turtles, whales, dolphins, sea lions and seals, who also get caught in the nets. The fishing industry is shifting away from using gill nets because of the associated bycatch, but since they don’t require a boat with a big engine, gill nets are still often used in less developed parts of the world.Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash
Limits and regulations
In order to protect marine biodiversity and regulate the industry, various measures and policies are in place to conserve stocks and prevent overfishing. Fisheries are held accountable with fishing quotas, bag limits, licensing, closed seasons, size limits, and marine reserves and marine protected areas are created to provide safe places for the oceanic species that live there.
Some governments use Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ) for fisheries and vessels, allocating them rights to harvest a certain portion of fish based on their catch sizes of previous years. ITQs are transferable through buying and selling in an open market if a given fishery does not reach its quota. This alleviates the pressure to "race for the fish". Although they do have their challenges, ITQs have been proven to be effective if the fisheries abide by them.
Another measure to regulate the fishing industry is creating protected areas in the ocean that conserve marine life and reefs, as well as prevent overfishing. For example, Ecuador recently expanded the marine reserve around the Galapagos Islands (an extremely biodiverse archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution), to now protect 198,000 square kilometres, preventing overfishing and shielding the migration path for the marine creatures that live there such as sea turtles, sharks and whales.
Many other efforts are being implemented to regulate the fishing industry and protect the underwater world. However, despite these measures, fishing is difficult to properly monitor and control, and illegal fishing is still very much an issue.
Overfishing is a dire problem that affects not only marine ecosystems but the entire food chain and livelihood around the globe as well.
Currently, the annual amount of fish being caught is unsustainable. The number of overfished stocks in the world has tripled in half a century; today, half of the world’s assessed fisheries are pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. One-third of all sharks, rays and chimeras are at risk of extinction because of overfishing, according to a study re-assessing their IUCN Red List of Threatened Species extinction risk status. Depleting the ocean of its species impacts the entire food web and leads to the loss of other marine life.
But the reliance goes beyond just the underwater world; billions of people around the world rely on fish for protein. Many developing, coastal communities around the world depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood. Overfishing causes them to lose their fish economy, jobs and primary food source.
The fishing industry has a significant responsibility to choose sustainable methods, abide by regulations, and take all actions possible to protect the delicate ecosystem of oceanic life. As consumers, we have a responsibility to make informed choices, and if we choose to consume fish, we must consider the risks and factors at stake and select our food sustainably. Otherwise, there will be no more fish left for future generations to eat; there will be no more fish left at all.