The Coming Seafood Crisis: Path to Sustainability or Collapse

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In the decade since David Biello warned of the catastrophic consequences of over-fishing the planet’s oceans in a Scientific America article (Overfishing Could Take Seafood Off the Menu by 2048) the looming problem has still not yet been solved.

Biello wrote in 2006 that “In 1994, seafood may have peaked. According to an analysis of 64 large marine ecosystems, which provide 83 percent of the world’s

Illegal Fishing Vessel off the coast of Sierra Leone. Image credit: Kieran Kelleher - NOAA

Illegal Fishing Vessel off the coast of Sierra Leone. Image credit: Kieran Kelleher – NOAA

seafood catch, global fishing yields have declined by 10.6 million metric tons since that year. And if that trend is not reversed, total collapse of all world fisheries should hit around 2048. “Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the oceans species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood,” notes marine biologist Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University. Marine biologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, gathered a team of 14 ecologists and economists, including Palumbi, to analyze global trends in fisheries. In addition to data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stretching back to 1950, the researchers examined 32 controlled experiments in various marine ecosystems, observations from 48 marine protected areas, and historical data on 12 coastal fisheries for the last 1,000 years. The latter study shows that among commercially important species alone, 91 percent have seen their abundance halved, 38 percent have nearly disappeared and 7 percent have gone extinct with most of this reduction happening since 1800. “We see an accelerating decline in coastal species over the last 1,000 years, resulting in the loss of biological filter capacity, nursery habitats and healthy fisheries,” notes team member Heike Latze, also of Dalhousie.” A decade later we are still facing a potential catastrophic food disaster.

Amanda Leland (Senior Vice President, Oceans, Environmental Defense Fund) currently warns that We have a choice to get fishing right. If we don’t, we’ve got a serious food crisis on our hands.”

So What Happened to all the Fish?

Population growth, demand for seafood and enhanced technology for ever more efficient fishing have been rapidly depleting seafood resources. The growing population’s demand, when paired with boats that can stay out longer in the sea, boats that are floating factories that can catch and process the fish – and you have overfishing. Since the size of their catch has been dwindling over the years, the fishing fleets have resulted to casting out bigger nets. These nets are indiscriminate. For every 1 ton of prawns caught, 3 tons of little fish are caught in the prawn nets and thrown away. The Ocean is unable to renew sufficiently fast what we are rapidly consuming.

According to “the whales, sharks, Bluefin tuna, king mackerel, dolphins and marlin are disappearing or have already disappeared. It took us only 55 years to wipe out 90% of the ocean’s predators causing a disruption of the marine ecosystem. After the big fish, commercial fishermen will just go down the food chain, until we’ve depleted everything.” continues by noting that “it’s the aquatic equivalent of deforestation. Boats cast huge and heavy nets that are held open by heavy doors weighing several tons each and drag them across the ocean floor! Just imagine the devastation that causes. Destruction of Habitat. Coral Reefs which are home to 25% of all marine life are being destroyed. The reefs grow at a rate of 0.3 cm to 10 cm a day. What you see now has been growing for the last 5,000 to 10,000 years. Climate Change. The increase in sea water temperatures are attracting invasive species which are competing with us for our food. In the past decade there has been an ever growing demand, from an ever growing population. The ‘net’ result has been overfishing to the point of depleting sustainable levels of seafood.”


The National Geographic defines ocean overfishing as “simply the taking of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for fished species to replace themselves. The earliest overfishing occurred in the early 1800s when humans, seeking blubber for lamp oil, decimated the whale population. Some fish that we eat, including Atlantic cod and herring and California’s sardines, were also harvested to the brink of extinction by the mid-1900s. Highly disruptive to the food chain, these isolated, regional depletions became global and catastrophic by the late 20th century.”

Fish in buckets

Image: NOAA

The World Wildlife Fund reports that “Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. Gathering as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious consequences. The results not only affect the balance of life in the oceans, but also the social and economic well-being of the coastal communities who depend on fish for their way of life. Billions of people rely on fish for protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world. For centuries, our seas and oceans have been considered a limitless bounty of food. However, increasing fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices are pushing many fish stocks to the point of collapse. More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities, which lead to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies.”

Marine scientists know when widespread overfishing of the seas began. And they have a pretty good idea when, if left unaddressed, it will end. In the mid-20th century, international efforts to increase the availability and affordability of protein-rich foods led to concerted government efforts to increase fishing capacity. Favorable policies, loans, and subsidies spawned a rapid rise of big industrial fishing operations, which quickly supplanted local boatmen as the world’s source of seafood. These large, profit-seeking commercial fleets were extremely aggressive, scouring the world’s oceans and developing ever more sophisticated methods and technologies for finding, extracting, and processing their target species. Consumers soon grew accustomed to having access to a wide selection of fish species at affordable prices. But by 1989, when about 90 million tons (metric tons) of catch were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high-water mark, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since. Fisheries for the most sought-after species, like orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and bluefin tuna have collapsed. In 2003, a scientific report estimated that industrial fishing had reduced the number of large ocean fish to just 10 percent of their pre-industrial population.” (Source: National Geographic) provides illustrative examples such as “the single best example of the ecological and economical dangers of overfishing is found in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1992 the once thriving cod fishing industry came to a sudden and full stop when at the start of the fishing season no cod appeared. Overfishing allowed by decades of fisheries mismanagement was the main cause for this disaster that resulted in almost 40.000 people losing their livelihood and an ecosystem in complete state of decay. Now, fifteen years after the collapse, many fishermen are still waiting for the cod to return and communities still haven’t recovered from the sudden removal of the regions single most important economical driver. The only people thriving in this region are the ones fishing for crab, a species once considered a nuisance by the Newfoundland fishermen. It’s not only the fish that is affected by fishing. As we are fishing down the food web the increasing effort needed to catch something of commercial value marine mammals, sharks, sea birds, and non-commercially viable fish species in the web of marine biodiversity are overexploited, killed as bycatch and discarded (up to 80% of the catch for certain fisheries), and threatened by the industrialized fisheries. Scientists agree that at current exploitation rates many important fish stocks will be removed from the system within 25 years. Dr. Daniel Pauly describes it as follows: “The big fish, the bill fish, the groupers, the big things will be gone. It is happening now. If things go unchecked, we’ll have a sea full of little horrible things that nobody wants to eat. We might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton.””

Overfishing is as big a threat to humanity as it is to earth’s oceans.

This May Not End Well – Global Food Disaster Looms

Currently 3 billion people living on the planet rely on seafood as a key protein source for survival. Millions of people worldwide depend on the oceans for their daily livelihoods and hundreds of macro and micro economies are reliant upon fishing and seafood harvesting.

Faced with the collapse of large-fish populations, commercial fleets are going deeper in the ocean and father down the food chain for viable catches. This so-called “fishing down” is triggering a chain reaction that is upsetting the ancient and delicate balance of the sea’s biologic system. A study of catch data published in 2006 in the journal Science grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048.

The Environmental Defense Fund warns that “of all the threats facing the oceans today, overfishing takes the greatest toll on sea life—and people. Overfishing is catching too many fish at once, so the breeding population becomes too depleted to recover. Overfishing often goes hand-in-hand with wasteful types of commercial fishing that haul in massive amounts of unwanted fish or other animals, which are then discarded. As a result of prolonged and widespread overfishing, nearly a third of the world’s assessed fisheries are now in deep trouble—and that’s likely an underestimate, since many fisheries remain unstudied. Overfishing endangers ocean ecosystems and the billions of people who rely on seafood as a key source of protein. Without sustainable management, our fisheries face collapse—and we face a food crisis. Poor fishing management is the primary cause. Around the world, many fisheries are governed by rules that make the problem worse, or have no rules at all.” reports that “people are driving marine ecosystems to “unprecedented” mass extinction, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Science. Large-bodied animals will be the first to go, the study says—blue whales, great white sharks, and bluefin tuna, for example. Their size is part of their vulnerability, making them more susceptible to fishing and hunting by humans, ‘the dominant threat to modern marine fauna,’ the researchers found. ‘If this pattern goes unchecked, the future oceans would lack many of the largest species in today’s oceans,’ co-author Jonathan Payne, associate professor and chair of geological sciences at Stanford University, told the Guardian. ‘Many large species play critical roles in ecosystems and so their extinctions could lead to ecological cascades that would influence the structure and function of future ecosystems beyond the simple fact of losing those species.’ The study states that ‘The preferential removal of the largest animals from the modern oceans, unprecedented in the history of animal life, may disrupt ecosystems for millions of years even at levels of taxonomic loss far below those of previous mass extinctions…. Without a dramatic shift in the business-as-usual course for marine management, our analysis suggests that the oceans will endure a mass extinction of sufficient intensity and ecological selectivity to rank among the major extinctions” of the current era.’ In fact, the researchers note, it could usher in a new one—the Anthropozoic era, meaning one created by humans. That’s not to be confused with the Anthropocene, an epoch which scientists estimate is already here.”

Contemporary Responses

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

We’ve had an over-fishing problem for a long time and over the past 55 years, as fisheries have returned lower and lower yields, humans have begun to understand that the oceans we’d assumed were unendingly vast and rich are in fact highly vulnerable and sensitive. Add overfishing to pollution, climate change, habitat destruction and acidification, a picture of a system in crisis emerges.

As part of the response to these trends, we’ve seen the rise of farm-raised fish and aquaculture. It’s a good idea, but it’s brought its own set of issues.

Rick Moonen writing in The Huffington Post BLOG states that “aquaculture may be fairly new, but what many consumers don’t realize is that the practice has brought its own set of dangers. Many farming processes, specifically salmon, include the same types of antibiotics and overdosing problems we’ve been warned about with commercially raised cattle. Crowded pens, sea lice infestations, toxic chemicals used to eradicate weed and algae growth – all symptoms of irresponsible farming practices, all present in modern day aquaculture. While the message may be bleak, it’s not all bad news. Similar to commercial cattle operations, I’m now seeing responsible, passionate, and thoughtful aquaculture operations come into their own. These types of operators, including Canada’s True North Salmon, have taken a different approach, using environmentally friendly practices and vertical integration to provide our county’s favorite fish in a better way. These companies have looked past profits, and are raising fish in their native environments, embracing their natural habits and using antibiotics when needed, not as a blanket or preventative solution. Driving this positive change? I give the credit to consumers: you’ve asked the right questions; you care about where your food is coming from. I’m proud to be a part of a huge movement to protect our oceans, and every time a restaurant customer checks Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app or site before ordering, we further that cause and that protection. I’ve given my career to this cause, and to see change on a consumer level keeps me going. I encourage each and every consumer to continue until we have more responsible solutions than irresponsible ones. Keep asking questions when you dine out and at the grocery store, know which choices are responsible and which ones contribute to environmental damage – and frankly aren’t good for your body.”

The Environmental Defense Fund suggests that “with smarter management systems, known as fishing rights, we can reverse the incentives that lead to overfishing. Under fishing rights, fishermen’s interests are tied to the long-term health of a fishery. Their income improves along with the fish population.” suggests that the effects of overfishing are still reversible, that is, if we act now and act strongly. They advocate the following actions:

“When fish stocks decline and fisheries become commercially unviable the damaged stock gets some rest and generally struggles along on a pathetic level compared to its pre-fishing level, but doesn’t go biologically extinct. A damaged system is struggling and shifting, but can still be active (e.g. filled with jellyfish instead of cod).  If we want to we can reverse most of the destruction. In some situations, it might only take a decade, in other situations it might take many centuries. Yet in the end we can have productive and healthy oceans again as is shown in many examples around the world. We do however need to act on it now, before we cross the point of no return.

Every long-term successful and sustainable fishery, near-shore or high-seas, needs to be managed according to some basic ground rules:

  • Safe catch limits

A constantly reassessed, scientifically determined, limit on the total number of fish caught and landed by a fishery. Politics and short time economic incentives should have no role in this.

  • Controls on bycatch

The use of techniques or management rules to prevent the unintentional killing and disposal of fish, crustaceans and other oceanic life not part of the target catch or landed.

  • Protection of pristine and important habitats

The key parts in ecosystems need full protection from destructive fisheries; e.g. the spawning and nursing grounds of fish, delicate sea floor, unique unexplored habitats, and corals.

  • Monitoring and Enforcement

A monitoring system to make sure fishermen do not land more than they are allowed to, do not fish in closed areas and cheat as less as possible. Strong monetary enforcement is needed to make it uneconomic to cheat. We need to make sure management systems based on these rules are implemented everywhere. In combination with the banning of the lavish -hidden- subsidies to commercially unviable fisheries.” further suggests individual actions to address this looming issue:

“It’s fair to say that individuals cannot solve this global problem all by ourselves, we need politicians to strengthen international law. What we can do is make a difference. Over a decade ago many people started buying dolphin-friendly tuna. Now the time has come to buy ocean friendly tuna.  Here are some of the actions you yourself can undertake.

  • Be informed

Read up a bit on the issues of overfishing, have a look at some articles on this site, see if you can find some information regarding your local situation. Keep in mind that while this is a global problem every local situation is different.

  • Know what you eat

If you eat fish make sure you know what you eat, and pick the ones with the lowest impact. Have a look at the Guide to Good Fish Guides for some tips.

  • Spread the word

I know, it’s all rather obvious, but this is simply how it works. Let your voice be heard!

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