Facts About Overfishing and Solutions to Overfishing

Modern fishing technology threatens global fish populations, which poses a serious risk to humankind, which is dependent on these species for survival.

Ponder about solutions to overfishing problems:

  • Is there any way to take a census of global fish stocks?
  • Will commercial fishing interests regulate themselves in their own self-interest?
  • Will countries like the United States and China be able to agree on measures to limit fishing, an activity vital to both economies and food supplies?
  • Fears of overfishing have been present for at least 50 years; why is it reasonable to think that action will be taken now?

Fish are in limited supply. This is hard to detect since people on the surface cannot look at schools of fish in the way that pioneers, for example, could witness the decline of buffalo herds on the Great Plains. Statistics from commercial fishing companies show that their take of fish has declined, in some cases, by up to 95 percent. Effective international regulations are needed to prevent an ecological disaster in the oceans that is comparable to issues like global warming and deforestation.

Fish are not land animals. It’s hard, ordinarily, to see them in their native habitat from a boat on the surface of the ocean. This makes it difficult to estimate the population size. During the nineteenth century Europeans moving onto the Great Plains of North America found great sport in shooting buffalo. The shaggy beasts were present in vast numbers.

There is an unsettling similarity between the population decline of buffalo and fish. Just as buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction, so too is there evidence that the world supply of fish may be in increasingly short supply. Just as “overhunting” threatened the buffalo-which have not even begun to recover the numbers that once lived in North America-so too does “overfishing” now threaten fish of many species.

Fish is the main source of protein and livelihood for at least 200 million people worldwide, many of whom live in underdeveloped countries. Fish are also the source of food for many species of birds. Smaller fish feed larger ones. For these reasons, the disappearance of fish poses serious environmental risks.

We know that some fish are threatened with virtual extinction because ocean waters that once held vast numbers of fish-as measured by the amount of fish caught-no longer yield large catches. As early as 2002, the United Nations reported that the commercial catches of cod, hake, haddock and flounder in the North Atlantic had dropped by 95 percent from earlier levels. The Food and Agriculture Organization, an international body affiliated with the UN, has estimated that over 70 percent of the world’s fish species are either depleted or “fully-exploited.”

The main culprit in overfishing is technology. Today huge ships, outfitted with whole factories for the processing and freezing of fish, cruise the sea. Smaller satellite craft drag enormous nets through the water, catching everything in their wake. If the target is, say, codfish, anything else caught up in these nets will simply be thrown out as waste. As the population of fish declines, nets must have ever-smaller mesh, which means that younger fish are captured, along with more unwanted species.

Although commercial fishing companies object to the idea of international restrictions, it is their own dilemma-fewer and fewer fish caught, ever-smaller mesh-that proves the point: fish are like any other creatures on earth. They cannot be killed in gigantic numbers without consequence.

Although the problem of overfishing is well recognized, efforts to correct this serious environmental problem before it is too late have run up against a key reality of current ocean policy: they don’t belong to anyone in particular. Efforts by single countries to protect against overfishing have run up against strong opposition, not only by fishermen, but by other countries.

Along with global warming and wide scale depletion of forests, the world faces another ecological disaster in overfishing. It can only be resolved through international bodies like the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, acting on behalf of the planet and on behalf of all humankind. Whether such agreements are feasible, and whether countries are willing to help enforce such regulations, remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the problem is real and that it is imminent.