Valuable fish stocks, as well as a whole host of other marine life, are severely threatened by overfishing. The global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support. In other words, people are taking far more fish out of the ocean than can be replaced by those remaining.
As a result of overfishing:
53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion*
Most of the top ten marine fisheries, accounting for about 30% of all capture fisheries production, are fully exploited or overexploited**
Several important commercial fish populations have declined to the point where their survival is threatened
Many fishers are well aware of the need to safeguard fish populations and the marine environment. However, the greed and waste of some large commercial fleets combined with modern developments in fishing technology have had an enormous effect on fishing worldwide.
It's not just the fish we eat that are affected. Each year, billions of unwanted fish and other animals - like dolphins, marine turtles, seabirds, sharks, and corals - die due to inefficient, illegal, and destructive fishing practices.
Overfishing is happening due to a variety of reasons. This includes:
Pirate fishers that don’t respect fishing laws or agreements
Massive bycatch of juvenile fish and other marine species
Subsidies that keep too many boats on the water
Unfair Fisheries Partnership Agreements that allow foreign fleets to overfish in the waters of developing countries
As coastal and pelagic (open ocean) fisheries around the world have collapsed, fishing effort has shifted to the deep sea and previously unexploited fish species. Here, overfishing can quickly deplete local fish populations - even within a single season.
Some newly fished populations, such as monkfish, Patagonian toothfish, blue ling, and orange roughy, have already collapsed in some areas. There is insufficient data on other populations to determine what level of fishing is sustainable.
At present most deep-water species are likely to be over-exploited - and as many as 40% of the world’s fishing grounds are now in waters deeper than 200m.
The impacts of declining fish catches are being painfully felt by many coastal fishing communities around the world.
Newfoundland in Canada is an early example. For centuries the cod stocks of the Grand Banks seemed inexhaustible. But in 1992 the cod fishery collapsed - and some 40,000 people lost their jobs overnight, including 10,000 fishermen.
Nearly 20 years later, the cod have still not recovered. Science also indicates that the ecosystem has substantially changed, meaning that the cod may never make a comeback.
Fishing for orange roughy (also known as deep-sea perch) is a relatively new phenomenon - but one that has already led to severe decline of this long-lived deep-sea species.
Some populations have been fished to commercial extinction in as little as four years.
Orange roughy congregate around seamounts- underwater mountains often found on the High Seas. WWF and many others are calling for urgent and strong measures, including fishing bans, to be adopted and enforced at the United Nations level in order to protect these areas from fishing activities.
From purchasing sustainable seafood, to helping us raise greater awareness, there's so much we can do to help. Together, anything is possible!
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* FAO (2010) State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) - SOFIA 2010. FAO Fisheries Department
** Worm, B. et al (2006) Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science, 314: 787