Overfishing: Problems, Statistics, and Solutions

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  • 0:01 What Is Overfishing?
  • 0:53 Why Does Overfishing Occur?
  • 2:06 Problems of Overfishing
  • 4:38 Fishing Down the Food Web
  • 5:33 Solutions to Overfishing
  • 7:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Many of our fisheries are in decline due to overfishing, but human consumption and demand continues to rise. How do we find a balance between allowing fish stocks to recover while still feeding millions of people all over the world?

What Is Overfishing?

When you eat seafood, do you stop to think about where it came from? Many of the world's fisheries come from the ocean and are harvested by large, commercial vessels. Believe it or not, at one time, it was thought that there was an endless supply of fish for us to catch. Unfortunately, we are now realizing that not only is that not the case, but that this important food supply for millions of people all over the world is rapidly declining.

The world's fisheries are in trouble because of something called overfishing, which is when more fish are caught than can be replaced naturally by the population. When we catch fish in sustainable amounts, we can enjoy the benefits of the fishery for a long time because the population has a chance to replace the individuals we removed through fishing. However, if we remove too many fish at once, that population may not be able to recover, and at some point might even disappear completely.

Why Does Overfishing Occur?

One reason overfishing occurs is because of those large commercial fishing vessels. They're so big and so numerous that we could essentially fish four Earth-sized planets with all of those ships! Clearly, this is more than necessary, and if all of them are out there trying to catch fish, then this becomes a problem.

The gear these vessels use to catch fish also contributes to overfishing. Much of the gear that is used catches everything it comes across instead of being more selective. A large contributor to overfishing comes in the form of bycatch, which is marine life that is unintentionally caught in the fishing gear. Non-target fish species, sea turtles, marine mammals, and even birds are all caught as bycatch in various types of fishing gear.

We can't put all the blame on fishing vessels though, since they are only trying to meet a growing demand for seafood. Since 1973, global fish consumption has doubled, and those who fish for a living are only trying to keep up with an ever-increasing human population that depends on seafood as a healthy protein source.

Problems of Overfishing

It's estimated that at least 80% of the world's monitored fisheries are either fully or overexploited. This means that the fishery is being fished above a sustainable level. And, as you can probably imagine, this has some serious implications for both ocean ecosystems as well as humans.

A fishery may be so overfished that it collapses and is not able to rebound in the future, even if we stop fishing it for a while. Have you heard of Atlantic cod? The story goes that these fish were once so abundant that you could cross the ocean just by walking across their backs. However, because the fishery was fished so hard for so long it nearly collapsed in the mid-1990s. The fishing pressure was then monitored and greatly reduced (by about 60%), but reports even as recently as 2012 indicate that the stock is not recovering the way it was hoped it would.

This is just one example, but it clearly illustrates how overfishing can affect fish species being harvested at an unsustainable rate. Unfortunately, a decline in just one species can have a ripple effect. You may not think cod are very important, but just like everything else, they fill a very specific role in their ecosystem. They both eat and are eaten by other organisms, helping to keep everything in balance in that system.

Overfishing can also cause problems because some fishing techniques are physically destructive. For example, bottom trawls are nets pulled along the seafloor behind a boat, and they are like giant bulldozers dragging across the bottom. They pick up and knock over just about everything in their path and are considered one of the most destructive types of fishing gear. Dynamite fishing is another destructive technique and is just what it sounds like - the use of explosives to blast fish from the water. As you can imagine, the explosion not only destroys the physical environment, but also kills any other organisms that happen to be in the water where the explosion occurred.

As already mentioned, seafood is an important source of food for millions of people on Earth. As fisheries continue to decline and collapse, seafood becomes a limited commodity, meaning that fewer people will have access to this beneficial food. Fishing also creates jobs and supports people's livelihoods, and when fish stocks disappear, this can directly affect thousands of people. Remember the cod from before? Almost 40,000 people lost their livelihoods with the decline of just this one fishery.

Fishing Down the Food Web

Have you heard the phrase 'fishing down the food web?' This refers to the process of successively targeting fish on lower trophic levels as the ones on the higher levels are depleted. Basically, as we overfish stocks of larger, predatory fish, we have to progressively target smaller and smaller fish because that's what's left.

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