Not long ago fish and other sea life were considered endlessly renewable resources. Even when a supply of fish ran low, all the local fisherman needed to do was lay off the fishing of that species for awhile and they could be confident it would repopulate.
But increases in both word demand for seafood and the technologies used for fishing, as well as poor management in the fishing industry, are leading us towards a world where the populations of our oceans are no longer sustainable. Marine biologists say that if overfishing continues at its current rate, the world’s seafood supply will run dry by 2048. But lack of sushi grade tuna is not the only problem.
A Growing Concern
Three quarters of the world’s edible fish are harvested at a higher rate than they can replenish their populations. In the most popular varieties of large fish such as tuna, halibut, and cod the number is closer to nine out of ten. As fishing techniques have evolved in the last few decades fewer fishermen and fewer boats are needed to catch larger and larger numbers of fish. While this has kept costs low, its effect on fish populations is devastating.
Boats use machine-run lines with thousands of hooks that go to an ocean depth of 75 miles and hold tens of thousands of fish. Advances in vessels allow industrial fishermen to harvest in deeper waters and more dangerous shores which previously served as reserves for fish populations. What’s worse is that many techniques damage the environments and ecosystems by destroying corals, rock formations, and other features of ocean geography. As technology and demand continues to increase, these problems are likely to get worse.
The Consequences of Overfishing
Overfishing affects more than just the species of fish that are harvested. Oceans and lakes are delicate ecosystems. Disturbing one element disturbs them all. For example, sharks are among the most damaged species by overfishing. When the populations of predators like sharks are devastated, smaller fish are free of predation and can therefore explode. This causes them to consume more resources from their environment which depletes that environment’s ability to sustain other populations in turn. The entire system suffers.
Estimates say that 400 million people rely on fish as their primary protein source, mostly in Southeast Asia and Africa. As world population increases this number is likely to go up dramatically as livestock as a source of protein become increasingly expensive. Many experts look to wild seafood as a good source of food for future populations. It is a feasible solution to the ballooning world population, but it cannot work if overfishing continues at anything like its current rates.
Possible Solutions to Overfishing
The good news is that unlike so many other world problems, promising solutions to overfishing are well understood. Fish populations are astoundingly resilient, and the same forward march of technology that currently threatens marine environments and populations can also help to restore them. The bad news is that it’s one thing to understand a solution and something else entirely to prevent it.
One solution is to more fully embrace farming of fish. Over 40% of fish currently consumed across the globe is already farmed. However, large scale farming has its own downsides. Farmed fish are usually fed on smaller fish that are caught in the wild, which still threatens fish populations and ecosystems. Scientists are working on creating a vegetarian feed that supplies farmed fish with the Omega 3 fats required to keep them healthy and tasting right, but they aren’t quite there yet. Fish farms also create pollutants, and that problem would need to be addressed going forward.
A better solution might be to encourage more sustainable fishing practices. Areas with well managed fisheries and well-enforced conservation laws have shown huge increases in their local marine life populations and the health of their aquatic ecosystems. However, currently only 1 % of the world’s oceans are protected. Even in protected areas the laws are only as effective as the enforcement. Most of the improvement has been made in developed countries, and it is difficult to convince developing nations to focus on sustainable practices when they have starving people to feed.
The next few years are vital. Marine scientists say that we haven’t crossed the point of no return, and good practices can steer our oceans back towards recovery. One important step you can take is to make sure you buy only sustainably-source seafood. It seems small, but it helps to reduce demand for the kind of fish caught by the most dangerous fishing practices. As demand for that type of fish decreases, fewer and fewer fisheries will use those practices.