How Human Food Systems Affect Animal Ecosystems: The Fishing Industry

Dayna Rothenbucher

The fishing industry is an ever growing problem when it comes to marine animal populations and ecosystems. Many bodies of water have become monopolized by commercial fisheries that deplete animal populations, their habitats, and their food sources without allowing proper regeneration times. We have been studying the effects that humans have on the environment for years, and it has been determined that much of our impact has fallen onto the oceans and their inhabitants. There must be a good give and take between human and animal needs in order for both populations to sustain themselves and coexist successfully. The global human population is nearing 8 billion, and growing every day. This also means that there are 8 billion mouths to feed, creating incentive and placing stress on the fishing industry and other food industries to keep up with demand. Thus, these industries have kicked into overdrive to compensate for demand as well as profit. The fishing industry will be the main topic of discussion. 

There are many factors that impact ocean ecosystems, the first being overfishing. Technically speaking, overfishing is when humans fish faster than the population can regenerate, inhibiting fish populations. This issue will in turn impact humans, because if we damage a fish population beyond repair, then it will no longer be accessible to the public. Overfishing is a worsening problem as the demand for fish grows. Factors like an ever growing human population, differing cultures, pescatarians and more contribute to the rise in demand. 

A separate yet related problem to overfishing is the fishing of sharks. One issue in particular is the shark fin industry, which utilizes a technique referred to as finning. In some places around the world, particularly in Asia, sharks are sought after only for their fins. This involves the gruesome process of catching them, removing their fins, often while they are still alive, and then throwing them back into the ocean. It is a harmful and wasteful fishing technique. Shark fins are most popular for dishes like shark fin soup, which is in high demand. The more exotic the shark, the more the fin is worth, which leads to fishermen purposely singling out rare or endangered sharks, depleting an already struggling population. 

Overfishing can also encourage by-catch, which refers to fish that have accidentally been caught in fishing gear and, in most instances, do not survive. These non-targeted species are often not discovered until it is too late and are consequently thrown back into the ocean dead or dying. There are many oceanic species that fall victim to by-catch, but usually include sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks. 

In correspondence with by-catch, trawl fishing is also a contributing factor to overfishing. Trawling is a method where a large net touches down and drags across the sea floor to scoop up all kinds of fish. This is problematic for a couple reasons. For one, it promotes more instances of by-catch, as these trawls will catch anything and everything in their path. Secondly, as it is dragged across the sea floor, it disrupts the sand and any coral reefs that may be within range, disturbing ecosystems.

All of these factors lead to one big dilemma; not allowing for populations to regenerate. By depleting oceanic populations at an alarming rate, the recovery time for these animals is inhibited. Sometimes only mature, breeding fish are selected, sometimes only young fish are selected, or sometimes it involves just scooping up every single fish in sight. There are sources that say if we do not change our fishing practices soon then the ocean will be completely depleted of fish by 2048, ending our access to seafood. 

Luckily, there are a few solutions to this problem. First, it would be in our best interest to establish more protected areas for marine life. This would entail taking legal action if protected areas are invaded, and likely result in fines and other consequences. To take it a step further, we could also establish protection for certain marine animals that are specifically targeted, such as whale sharks. This way, we could ensure that the remaining fish populations are kept safe. In addition, the use of trawling should be banned completely. It is incredibly harmful to animals and ecosystems alike, and often results in a lot of waste. Lastly, worldwide catch shares should be implemented. Catch shares involve dedicating a share of fish to fisheries or individual fishermen in order to curb overfishing. It has been proven to allow for populations to regenerate while also continuing to be profitable enough for fisheries.

All of these solutions are geared toward the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, there is not much action that the public can partake in besides limiting the amount of fish we consume, as well as making sure that the fish is sustainably sourced. In addition, education is key. People educating themselves and others about the detrimental effects of the fishing industry can go a long way!

In summary, the fishing industry has gotten out of hand and has caused many issues, such as overfishing, by-catch, trawling, and lack of regeneration. Due to this lack of restraint, we are facing mass oceanic extinction in just a few decades. Through the use of establishing protections, banning unsustainable practices, implementing catch shares, and public education, the goal is to lessen the impacts of this issue before it is too late. 

Sources: Conservation Genetics, Our World in Data, Revolution, The World Counts, World Wildlife