Smart fishing



Posted on 20 April 2011  | 
Northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) in tuna ranching company's (Ecolo Fish) cages, being fattened for the sushi market, Mediterranean Sea, Spain.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWFEnlarge
Because irresponsible fishing has steered us towards catastrophe…

“There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

Not as true as it once was. All over the world, fisheries are on the point of collapse. Not because we’re eating too much fish – but because the way we’ve caught them over the last few decades has been wasteful and short-sighted.

We need to fish responsibly so that we can continue to fish, maintaining jobs, communities and food security. 

We need to fish smarter.

What’s at stake?

Once, it seemed as though our oceans could provide us with a never-ending supply of food. But illegal, unregulated and wasteful fishing has pushed them to the limit.

Overfishing has left many species, such as bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod and orange roughy, at dangerously low levels. Scientists recommend safe catch limits, but these are often ignored during the political negotiations that decide how much fish can be caught. Indiscriminate fishing practices mean fishers catch billions of fish and other creatures they don’t even want. This “bycatch” is often thrown back to sea dead or dying.

Some species have completely collapsed.  When the world famous Newfoundland cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, around 40,0000 people lost their jobs. Many other fisheries throughout the world are now also overfished or on the verge of collapse, leaving fishermen and communities that relied on them for income and food in poverty.

Changing the way we fish couldn’t be more urgent.

The story so far

We’ve done a lot to make fishing more sustainable – but there’s still a long way to go…

Our Smart Gear competition challenges the industry to design fishing equipment that’s less destructive. A new net design developed for this competition uses the reaction of fish caught in a net to allow juvenile cod to escape, while trapping haddock, the target fish. One United States fishery now mandates the use of this net design to reduce bycatch of juvenile cod.

Another innovation is the  circle hook, which reduces bycatch of critically endangered sea turtles. This hook that is more circular than normal J-shaped ones is being championed by WWF as its use dramatically reduces bycatch of marine turtles.

We’ve worked with our partners to promote these hooks to fishing communities. In Latin America, for example, over 600 vessels now use them. In 2009, the president of the Philippines committed the country’s tuna fishing fleet to using circle hooks. This will save around 1,500 turtles each year.

The Marine Stewardship Council, which we established with Unilever in 1997, certifies fisheries that are able to prove they fish sustainably. Over 100 fisheries are now MSC certified. Almost half the world’s whitefish catch comes from fisheries that are either MSC certified or in the certification process.

We’re also campaigning for a big reduction on Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing, at least until stocks – currently on the brink of commercial extinction – recover.

For other tuna fisheries, we helped set up the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, which brings together 70% of the world’s canned tuna market to look for ways to make tuna fishing sustainable.

Did you know?

IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) fishing costs an estimated US$10-23 billion a year. IUU fishing is one of the biggest threats to fisheries’ sustainability.

Facts and stats

  • 85% – proportion of stocks that are “fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion”, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
  • 3 billion – people worldwide who depend on fish for at least 15% of their animal protein
  • 540 million – people who depend directly or indirectly on fishing for their livelihoods. That’s 8% of the world’s population
  • 40% – proportion of all the world’s fish caught that’s discarded or wasted, or comes from unmanaged fisheries

What next?

We’re engaged on many fronts to make fishing smarter:

  • Changing policies: The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy sets quotas for how much fish European fishermen can catch – but it’s deeply flawed. Because of unsustainable, unworkable regulations, some fishing fleets end up discarding up to 60% of their catch – a colossal waste. Next year the policy is being reviewed – and we want to transform it. We’re campaigning for policies and practices that make sure fisheries are managed sustainably – in Europe and around the world.
  • Better management: Fish of the “high seas” – the oceans beyond national jurisdictions – are managed by regional fisheries management organizations. They face huge challenges, and we’re working with them to find effective solutions. For example, measures that recognize the rights of fishers within the region can mean those fishers also take responsibility for the long-term health of the resources they benefit from. We’ve also built coalitions with fish processors and retailers to press fisheries management organizations to improve their practices.
  • Sustainable sourcing: We all know where our meat comes from, but it’s not so easy with our fish. How can we make sure our fish is sustainable if we don’t even know its source? As part of our drive to solve this problem of “traceability”, we’re working with Asian and European processors and retailers to investigate where their fish comes from. That will help make sure they source their fish from well-managed stocks, and avoid illegal and unmanaged products. The next step is to develop traceability systems so you’ll know where the fish on your plate came from.

What you can do

  • As a consumer, you’re one of the most effective and influential marine conservationists!
  • Buying MSC-certified fish is a simple way you can help fish stocks to recover. You can also carry a WWF Seafood Guide for your area when going to the market or restaurants. Ask questions about where seafood comes from, and request sustainable products.
  • Find out more about our Smart Fishing Initiative



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Northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) in tuna ranching company's (Ecolo Fish) cages, being fattened for the sushi market, Mediterranean Sea, Spain.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF Enlarge
Fishing for spring spawning herring (Clupea harengus), Moere coastline, Norway.
© Wild Wonders of Europe /Magnus Lundgren / WWF Enlarge
Circle hook next to a tape measure. The use of circle-shaped hooks instead of commonly used J-shaped hooks can significantly reduce the bycatch of turtles in longline fisheries.
© WWF-US / Jill Hatzai Enlarge

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