What is Sustainable Commercial Fishing?

Summer is coming, which means that delicious summer food is, too. As we prepare to eat grilled fish and salmon poke bowls, we might wonder where that salmon is coming from and how it’s been caught. This leads us to a question that many of us have been asking recently: what is sustainable fishing?

In this article, we’ll dive into some of the sustainability problems with commercial fishing, how proper sustainable methods can help to correct them, and how they’re  being implemented.

Facts and Common Mistakes In Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing has made a lot of meals possible. Between fish sticks, sushi, and fancy bluefin tuna dinners, the tireless efforts of commercial fishing operations have put food on many of our plates.

Unfortunately, at the other end of that dinner comes significant environmental and social concerns—most importantly, the fact that we’ve overexploited 31% of global fish populations and nearly 60% of fish populations are dangerously close to overexploitation. This is due, in large part, to unsustainable fishing techniques that destabilize marine environments, overharvest fish stocks, and jeopardize climate stability. 

Depleted fish stocks and environmental problems are commonly associated with the following fishing practices:

  • Bottom trawling: Heavy weighted nets are dragged along the floor of the ocean in order to catch large quantities of fish while significantly damaging the sea floor and nearby species.
  • Cyanide fishing: Typically used to collect live fish for aquariums, a cyanide mixture is sprayed to stun the fish. This makes them easier to catch but can harm marine organisms outside of the target population.
  • Dynamite fishing: Many countries have banned this practice, which involves using explosives to kill mass numbers of fish—but also harms habitats.
  • Ghost fishing: This occurs when nets or other fishing materials are left unattended, still catching and killing marine life. 
  • Bycatch: Considered to be one of the most significant issues to threaten sustainable fish stocks, bycatch occurs when species outside of the target population are caught, harmed or killed, then discarded.
  • Lack of Regulation: Any fishing technique, even those used in sustainable methods, can quickly become a problem if left unregulated. 

We’re catching and consuming fish at rates higher than ever before—and our demand will only continue to rise as our population continues to grow. We all know that fish and seafood are an important part of our diets, so how can we continue to eat while taking care of our oceans?  This is where sustainable fishing comes in.

Sustainable Fishing Practices

What is Sustainable Fishing?

Sustainable fishing methods take into consideration marine ecosystems, reproductive rates, and fish population numbers in order to maintain a balance that contributes to healthy fish stocks and healthy oceans.

However, no fishing technique can be truly sustainable without strict management. If a fishing method is deemed safe and sustainable, but is overused and has no limitations, it can easily turn harmful. 

A huge part of any sustainable fishing effort is the ability for the area, participants and practices to be heavily regulated and supervised. Without this piece of the sustainability puzzle, no commercial technique on its own can create harmony between the people and the ocean. 

Sustainable Fishing Methods

Sustainable fisheries use practices that are scientifically established and respect not just the fish, but also their habitats and the people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods. 

We are proud to say with confidence, Alaska is the gold standard when it comes to sustainable fishing. Not only are sustainable techniques the only methods permitted, they’re also watched under a very close eye. Every aspect of the fishing process has a set of rules, from the size and color of the net, to the fishing areas and timeframes open on any given day. Our local Fish and Game patrol our waters day in and day out to ensure these strict laws are enforced at all times. 

Sustainable  fishing methods include:

  • Purse seining: With purse seining, a large net is deployed to surround a school of fish (usually salmon or herring), then brought up to the fishing vessel. When done properly, bycatch rates are low.
    • Longlining: This technique uses a long  single line (about 28 miles on average) that can contain hundreds, or thousands, of baited hooks designed to reduce bycatch. This technique is typically used to source halibut, black cod and other ground fish.
    • Gillnetting: A long, free-floating panel of netting is used to effectively catch targeted fish (typically salmon) without much bycatch or harm to the environment. 

    Regulations and How to Enforce Sustainable Fishing

    Now that we know these facts about fishing, let’s talk about how it’s regulated.

    Currently, there are several laws that govern U.S. fisheries management and are designed to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and provide social and economic benefits, along with sustainable and safe seafood. 

    The U.S. has also established a rights-based fishing system, also known as “catch shares.” Instead of encouraging fishermen to catch as many fish as fast as they can, it reinforces that they’re stewards of their respective portion of the ocean. They adhere to limits and can catch based on an allotted percentage. This has led to safer fishing, more careful fishing, less bycatch, and recovered fisheries. 

    We’re fortunate to live in a country that has the highest capacity for enforcement of these systems. Globally, however, many countries are under-resourced and unable to regulate and enforce sustainable fishing. 

    To help correct that, organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council have stepped in to provide globally recognized standards for sustainable fishing. They work with independent and accredited certifiers to provide a blue MSC label for fisheries that fish at a level that supports healthy fish populations, minimally impacts ecosystems and other species, and complies with relevant laws. 

    In addition to the laws and global organizations that help to enforce sustainable fishing, we have a role to play, too! By supporting fisheries and companies that use sustainable fishing techniques, we can create a world that has healthy fish populations, ecosystems, and humans.

    Why is Sustainable Fishing Important?

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization themselves, “fish is crucial to a nutritious diet in many areas of the world.” Around half of the world’s population gets 20% of their animal protein from fish, which also provides many essential nutrients, like long chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iodine, iron, and a range of minerals. 

    When sustainable fishing is done right, not only does it provide one of the healthiest food sources we’ve got, but it can also have a minimal impact on our environment - keeping our oceans healthy while providing supportive livelihood opportunities and vibrant resources for millions of people around the globe. 

    Unfortunately, the FAO reported that biologically sustainable ranges have dropped from 90% in 1974 to just 65.8% in 2017—and without regulations and sustainable fishing methods, it’s likely to continue falling. 

    This is exactly why buying only sustainably sourced seafood is important. Not only are we saving our oceans, we’re restoring their abundant resources for the next generations to come. Our thoughtful choices can make a difference.