One of the world’s largest ecological problems manages to be rarely discussed in mainstream culture. Overfishing is largely a product of consumer eating habits, which people remain unwilling to change. Climate change, greenhouse gases, pollution and endangered species seem to be in the limelight far more often. One reason for this may be overfishing’s relative lack of glamor or cuteness in comparison to the other issues, but there is also a common misconception that there is an inexhaustible supply of fish in the ocean.
As reported by the World Wildlife Fund, “Eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them.” Ever since industrial fishing started in the 1950s, edible fish populations all over the world have declined at an astonishing rate. Among these are the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is classified as endangered, but still served in restaurants, found on the open market and fished past its quota. Eventually, if these practices don’t change, bluefin tuna and similar species will be extinct.
So what’s wrong with killing off entire species of fish? Extinctions can affect the environment in which it lived. In many cases, when the number of bigger fish (like bluefin tuna) dramatically decrease, smaller fish and crustaceans—the prey of the bigger fish—have a population boom. For instance, in Maine and the east coast of Canada, where cod has all but disappeared, the lobster population has exploded. The cod fisherman have now have no supply, and the boom in lobster expands its market, setting it up to be overfished in turn, and repeating the cycle. The fishing markets and the ecosystem are in this way put at serious risk.
Overfishing has many other negative side effects. Coral reefs are constantly being destroyed by trawling, a method of fishing which involves dragging a large net across the ocean floor. Many other fish, dolphins and sea turtles—many of which are endangered—are caught in the nets, die and then are thrown overboard because the fishermen can’t get any profit for them. With the death of sea turtles comes the increase of jellyfish populations, because sea turtles are jellyfish predators. This is starting to make beaches and other areas that were perfectly safe dangerous because of the huge number of jellyfishes which wash up on shore.
How can we create a world where we can fish what we need, but preserve the fishing stocks for future generations? The ocean is hard to regulate, as there are only so many security boats that can patrol. It is impossible to stop all the pirate fishing, and it’s even harder to pass legislation to get countries to fish within their quota. Countries like Italy and Spain, among many others, lie about how many fish have been caught that year. Furthermore, even when scientists have proposed a certain quota, it usually is bumped up to keep fishermen happy.
Marine Policy, a leading ocean policy journal, is attempting to fix the problem right now. The existence of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), highly regulated areas of coast or ocean dedicated to rebuilding diverse and populated ocean environments, are starting to be enforced. However, they only constitute 1.6 percent of the world’s oceans, according to the WWF. The group also reports that 90 percent of the MPAs are open to fishing in some way or another. The truly strict ocean rebuilding effort is being done in no-take zones, which prohibit any fishing or gathering of any species in that area for any reason. This allows overfished populations, such as sea turtles, to begin to grow their population back to a sustainable level.
No-take zones are also hard to put in place, because they destroy fishing jobs. Though fishermen have been told that the fish populations will go extinct, usually the incentive of money outweighs concern for the future, and the overfishing continues. In order for MPAs and no-take zones to make a real impact, fishermen and consumers need to understand as well as be aware of the problem so that a solution becomes possible.