Overfishing: Reasons, Impacts, and Solutions

Let’s start with the basics: what is overfishing?

Overfishing happens when a fish species is removed from their natural habitat at a rate that cannot be replenished. This is a serious issue that can lead to population declines, adding to the risk of their extinction.

Types of Overfishing

  • Ecosystem Overfishing

It’s important to remember, each species of fish is part of a larger ecosystem. Overfishing a certain species directly impacts the  food chain surrounding them. 

For example, when a predatory species, like tuna, experiences a decline in its population size, many of the marine species that tuna consumes will grow in numbers, leading to a potential overpopulation. The ocean keeps a delicate balance - any substantial change in a species’ population size can cause a ripple effect. 

  • Recruitment Overfishing

A decrease in population size limits the ability of a species to replenish its population through reproduction. Just like with any living being, an adequate number of fish in a breeding stock is necessary in order for the population to continue supporting itself. 

Recruitment overfishing takes place when the spawning (parent) stock is reduced. If, year after year, only the mature adult population is fished, this will leave behind the younger species. If they don’t have the reproductive capacity to continue perpetuating the species, the population as a whole could be jeopardized. 

  • Growth Overfishing

If fish are harvested before they reach their growth potential, this is referred to as a growth overfishing. When many fish are caught at a young age, this can have a significant impact—particularly for the types of fish that change sex with age. 

There are more than 500 species that change sex as adults and when a shortage of one sex takes place, it can diminish the reproductive capabilities of the species as a whole. 

  • Bycatch

Bycatch is a name for the non-target marine species that are inadvertently caught during a commercial fishing operation. Because they contain no commercial value or cannot be properly marketed and sold, these animals are either injured or killed before being discarded.  

In some cases, the number of bycatch ends up being significantly higher than the number of fish brought into port to be marketed and sold. 

It's important to recognize that overfishing effects aren’t just impacting the fish species we consume commercially. It also impacts many of the marine animals commonly caught in the middle as bycatch like sharks, turtles, fur seals, whales, and porpoises.

In fact, it's been reported that 40% of the world's total marine catch is actually bycatch. This means that 63 billion pounds of marine species are unintentionally captured, harmed, or killed every single year. This issue is a huge contributor to ocean overfishing, and brings about many of its own concerns.  

Impacts of Overfishing

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the impacts of overfishing are  “the most serious threat to our oceans.” It takes a toll on our marine life, our people and our planet.

The overfishing statistics are staggering.  Due to increased demand, a changing climate, and overfishing, 90% of our global marine fish stocks are fully exploited, and in many cases , depleted. 

Why is overfishing a problem? It can have a range of ecological, economic, and social impacts. Here are a few overfishing facts to be aware of.

  • An overfished population can have a significant impact on sea creatures along the food chain (including marine species, sea birds, and humans). 
  • Changes in population of some species can also lead to damage to coral reefs and other components of an ocean’s ecosystem. In fact, over 55% of the world’s reefs are threatened by overfishing. 
  • When a fish population’s numbers decrease significantly, it can also impact their size, age, and genetic diversity, making the species as a whole more susceptible to climate change related stress. 
  • Overfishing can compromise the livelihoods of the 820 million people who rely on fishing and aquaculture.  
  • In many areas of the world, fish provide an important—and sometimes the only—source of protein. When overfishing impacts how much they’re able to catch, it can threaten human communities, too. 

What Causes Overfishing?

Overfishing is largely the result of poor management of fisheries—either rules that do more harm than good, or no rules at all. 

In many areas of the world that lack the resources needed, tracking and regulating fishing areas is difficult. In international waters, there are often very few (if any) rules regarding fishing practices. Even when regulation does exist, there is a general lack of oversight and many fishing fleets are not monitored—meaning that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing often contributes to overfishing.

Ultimately, while we know that overfishing is a serious problem, education and knowledge regarding fish populations is still limited. We don't have universal standards or pre-established quotas for most fish species and eaters often don't know the impact of their fish dinner. 

Thankfully, some overfishing solutions have started to emerge.


Solutions to Overfishing

Fortunately, we’re starting to see solutions to overfishing transform the industry. In countries like the United States, Namibia, Belize, and Denmark, we’ve seen the creation of fishing rights. Fishing rights are improved systems for managing the fishing process while encouraging the fishermen to prioritize the health and longevity of the fish populations. In this way, they’re setting themselves up for long-term financial success while, simultaneously, helping to restore the fish populations year after year. 

Additionally, conservation organizations have partnered with governments around the world to help establish protocols to properly manage the fish populace. Many of these groups are partnering specifically with governments in developing countries to help set up procedures for sustainable fishing practices.

In response, many fisheries have adopted sustainable fishing protocols that can help support fishermen, fish stocks, and local ecosystems.

On the other end of the food chain, we now have organizations committed to providing education to retailers and consumers, encouraging them to be informed and seek sustainable sources for their seafood. This support puts additional pressure on fisheries to comply with standards that support sustainable fish stocks. 

Now that we’ve learned how to stop overfishing, you can help the cause, too! By supporting sustainable fisheries and buying directly from the fishermen themselves, you can help create the demand for a fish industry that's more transparent, respectful of our ecosystems, and supportive of sustainable fish stocks for the generations to come.
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