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Overfishing: Why It Happens and How To Stop It

by 4Ocean Team August 01, 2018

Overfishing: Why It Happens and How To Stop It


Overfishing can be defined many ways, but it can be summed up in one statement: taking more fish than is environmentally sustainable. The destructive process of overfishing has been documented as far back as 1,000 years ago, when Europeans exploited local freshwater fish populations and started relying more on marine species. Today, as much as 80% of the world’s fisheries are overfished or collapsing. 


Why overfishing happens 


The global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than needed

Simply put, there are too many boats on the water catching too many fish. Astonishingly, of the approximately 4 million fishing vessels worldwide, just 1% of that fleet currently has the power to take 60% of the fish caught globally. That really puts into perspective how destructive all 4 million vessels could be at once.


Bycatch from fisheries catches unwanted marine life, reducing their populations

It’s estimated that up to 40% of the world’s catch is bycatch, which is usually discarded. Many marine animals such as dolphins, whales, sharks, and turtles often become victims of bycatch from fisheries, since they get accidentally caught in nets.

Reporting bycatch is mandatory, but many bycatch landings (the amount caught) go unreported. This makes it even harder to regulate fish populations, since bycatch is sometimes unpredictable and proves to be destructive to both fisheries and marine habitats.


Poor management of fisheries hurts the most vulnerable fish stocks 

IUU fishing (illegal, unreported, unregulated) occurs in most fisheries, with up to 30% of landings being classified as IUU in some fisheries. Poor management can result from a number of causes, from government corruption to piracy and economic instability.

Fishing laws become very difficult to define, especially in the open ocean. Nations cannot claim sovereignty over non-territorial waters, so RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organizations) are oftentimes the only regulatory force that can stop IUU fishing.


Commercial fisheries, especially tuna, are a big money-maker

Despite bluefin tuna species being endangered and overexploited, fishermen still continue to catch them, and we still continue to eat them.

According to the IUCN, Southern Bluefin Tuna are critically endangered, Pacific Bluefin Tuna are vulnerable, and Atlantic Bluefin Tuna are endangered. 

A single bluefin tuna can sell for over one million USD, making it a lucrative prize catch. Only when these and other important species disappear will we realize that we cannot eat money. 


The meat industry is largely responsible for the excessive amounts of fish caught worldwide

With a population of 7.6 billion people on earth growing, so is our demand for meat. A recent study has shown that up to 90% of the global fish catch is food-grade, meaning it can be used as fillers in animal feed. Therefore, cows, chickens, pigs, and even our house pets are being fed overwhelming amounts of fish.


How we can stop overfishing 


Choose to eat sustainably-caught seafood 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch program that contains updated information about which seafood are best to eat and avoid. It allows consumers to stay knowledgeable about what they’re eating. You can also look for labels from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

The blue MSC label means you’re choosing wild-caught seafood that can be traced back to a sustainable source. The aqua-green ASC label means you’re choosing seafood from a fish farm that uses responsible, sustainable aquaculture practices.


Ask questions about the menu when you go out to eat or at your local food market

Presenting questions such as “where does this seafood come from?” or “how was this seafood harvested?” will show others that you care. Sometimes, restaurants and stores are caught off-guard and may not know the answer to these specific questions, but knowing that you are interested will inherently make them more aware. 

Additionally, not all seafood is advertised properly. Recent studies show that about 1/3 of all fish sold in restaurants and supermarkets are falsely labeled! Asking questions will not only allow consumers to eat sustainably, but to also identify false advertisements.


For those that are willing to go the extra mile, become vegetarian! 

The meat industry not only reaps a large portion of global fish landings for animal feed, but it’s harmful to the environment as well. Eating meat drastically increases your carbon footprint. Even reducing your meat intake can help! For example, going meatless once a week for a year would remove the emissions equivalent of 320 miles from a typical car.


Reduce consumer demand for seafood by simply not eating it 

Since 1/3 of the world’s population relies on seafood as their main source of protein, this option is not suitable for everyone. However, there are many people that probably eat more than is necessary.

Especially for vulnerable fisheries such as orange roughy, tuna, and marlin, not buying it will reduce its demand. Reducing demand will inherently reduce how many are caught. It’s all an interconnected cycle that can be changed by you!


Vote for legislation that promotes ocean sustainability 

Make your voice heard! Talk to your legislators about sustainable fishing and let them know that you care. Many bills are often signed without any public attention, so make sure you stay up-to-date about new laws being made and older ones being reconsidered. Change can only happen for the people that show up to the ballot!


What you can do right now  


The Magnuson-Stevens Act, a bipartisan bill that governs the management and conservation of commercial and recreational fishing activities in U.S. federal waters, is currently being re-evaluated by the American Congress.

Reauthorization has already passed in the house as this is the piece of legislation that protects U.S. fisheries. Make sure your representatives know that you support these strong protections and ask them to pass H.R. 200.

To learn more about overfishing and help protect critical species and habitats from the effects overfishing, head over to our cause page and purchase our Limited Edition Overfishing Bracelet.

4Ocean Team
4Ocean Team


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