Overfishing is the practice of catching more fish faster than they can replenish their population. The population remains in a constant state of decline until it is entirely decimated. Often paired with overfishing is another term, bycatch. This refers to the fish that are caught up in nets meant for a specific breed. For example, dolphins, sea turtles, and other non-target fish are often hauled up in nets meant for pollock of anchoveta. Overfishing also includes “trawling”. This refers to the practice of scraping the ocean floor, scooping up everything in reach within the chosen area.
Unfortunately, in most countries, there is little to no regulation to control this practice. Most areas, especially in international waters, have no oversight whatsoever. Ignorance of the issue, and its effects, are the main reasons that overfishing has gotten so out of control. Also contributing to the ease with which fishermen are able to neglect any attempts at regulations is the fact that only 1.5% of oceans are protected areas, and even then, these places are still available for fishermen.
Today, researches estimate that 85% of the world’s fish resources are beyond their sustainable capacity.
As stated above, bycatch is the practice of catching, either accidentally or through neglect, non-target marine life in large nets. At this moment, there are thousands of miles of nets set up in the oceans around the world. These nets do not distinguish between the fish they are meant for and those they aren’t. This means when fishermen pull in the nets, other creatures are often tangled up within them. These animals are usually either tossed back into the ocean, sometimes still wrapped up in bits of net, or killed on the ship and thrown back into the water.
Not only does bycatch harm populations of marine life, but it also impacts the environments in which it occurs. Plant and animal life, much of which depends on the other to survive, can become devastated when the food chain is disrupted. If a predator is removed from its ecosystem, its intended prey no longer has anything to curtail its growth.
What are the Effects of Overfishing?
There are several significant effects of overfishing that must be noted in order to fully understand the problem and its complexities.
1. Environmental Damage
When areas are overfished, essential predators and prey are removed from the food chain. This means that creature above and below them are also impacted. Sharks are one of the most commonly cited examples suffering from the practice of overfishing. When sharks are overfished then their prey, such as rays, increases in number. This carries over into the next levels of the food chain as more rays mean fewer shellfish and other smaller fish species (Canada).
2. Algae Growth
A lesser-known effect of overfishing is the fact that without sustained fish populations algae grows out of control, impacting coral reefs, fish populations, and more.
3. Coral Reef Health
When larger marine animals, such as sharks and dolphins, are removed from the oceans, smaller fish can flourish. This often means that coral reefs suffer.
4. Financial Loss
On the human side of the equation, large-scale fishing operations that significantly deplete the amount of fish available end up harming smaller scale, community fishing industries.
Nowadays, it is a commonly known fact that the loss of one life in an environment can have a cascade effect on creatures above and below it in the food chain, including human beings. Supporting and understanding the intricate interconnected nature of various environments is crucial to maintaining them. Human actions, whether accidental or purposeful, will have an impact on every life they come into contact with. This includes overfishing, pollution, and the consumption of other resources that can’t be replenished fast enough. The oceans make up 70% of the earth’s surface and are crucial for the ecological stability of the planet. Not just in the oceans themselves, but also on land.
Solutions to Overfishing
While problems like bycatch and the overall problem of overfishing sea like there are no clear solutions, there are possibilities. Regarding bycatch, there are modifications that can be made to nets and fishing gear so that fewer, or no, non-target species are caught up in them. Additionally, there are ways to engineer the nets so that if, for example, a dolphin swims into a net it’s able to get free, but the other target fish aren’t. Some of these modifications are quite easy and cheap to implement. It is a matter of introducing them to the broader industry (WWF).
Moving forward, the lack of regulations in international and national waters has to be addressed. This means implementing a widely educating the world’s population about the effects of overfishing on the present and the future. Larger governments who have had some success curtailing overfishing, such as in Canada, must share what they’ve learned with smaller, developing countries and be willing to invest in their future and the world’s.
Another fairly simple way to change the ways that fish are caught all over the world is the creation of more protected areas in which fishing is prohibited. This would allow those environments to bounce back from the damage they’ve sustained.
The simplest solution, shutting down the industry, is also the hardest. in the 1990s the Canadian government shut down the cod fisheries off of Newfoundland, some of the largest in the world. It had almost entirely collapsed at that time, with declines of more than 99%. Other fish stocks were also in decline, around 75% or more. Canada put a moratorium on cod fishing in place in order to allow the fish to breed and replenish their numbers. While this solution worked, it also means that people, especially along the coast, suffered economic devastation. Unemployment was widespread and coast communities fell apart.
This is just one example, but it proves that implementing changes sooner rather than later is crucial to the survival of ocean ecosystems and the economy. At the same time, the ocean around Newfoundland suffered from the changes in the food chain. Shrimp and snow crab numbers increased exponentially (Environmental Science).