The ocean is facing a major crisis as fish populations are diminishing rapidly due to overfishing. The term “overfishing” means that fish are captured at a rate that exceeds the fish reproduction rate resulting in diminished populations. This can lead to degraded ecosystems and even species extinction. The Food and Agriculture Organization states that “roughly one-third of assessed fish populations are overfished and over half are fully-fished.” Once a species loses a large amount of its population, the next species is targeted. Losing a large amount of a species also affects the food web and ecosystem those fish inhabit, and can cause a ripple effect affecting both aquatic plants and animals. One major reason this is happening is commercial fishing.
Current human eating habits demand a lot of fish, and companies try to find the easiest ways to catch as many as they can. Overfishing is exacerbated by a lack of fishing regulations. Large nets and lines are used to catch hundreds to thousands of fish at a time, but this can also lead to other issues, like bycatch, when marine life that was not being targeted are caught as well. It is estimated that 63 billion pounds of fish are discarded every year through bycatch – this is equivalent to 14,000 elephants per day. Most methods of commercial fishing used today are non-selective and fishers end up catching anything in their path, which is why so many pounds of marine life are being wasted.
The three main methods used are long line, trawling, and gillnets. Long lining practices use many hooks attached to one main line at different intervals and can extend up to 50 miles. It is possible to catch up to hundreds or thousands of fish at a time. This technique is mainly used to catch swordfish, tuna, and halibut. However, turtles and marine mammals also bite these hooks as well and can lead to their deaths.
Trawling is an even more destructive fishing technique where large mesh nets are dragged near the bottom of the sea to catch bottom dwelling sea life like shrimp. These nets catch everything and capture large amounts of nontargeted species. These species either die in the nets or are discarded later since they aren’t desired. As well as bycatch, the nets can also destroy coral reefs, which are full of their own ecosystems, when they are being dragged across the ocean floor. Approximately half of discarded fish and marine life is due to trawling.
Gillnets are either anchored, which are set gillnets, or are drifting, which are drift gillnets. These nets create a “wall” in the ocean that catches the gills on fish after they swim through the net and try to back out of it. Gillnets can be up to two miles long; the extreme size of gillnets also results in bycatch of many species. Further, the nets get lost and can accidentally catch species while tumbling through the ocean. Sharks, turtles, and even seabirds are also victims to these nets.
Even though current fishing techniques like long lining, trawling, and gillnets have caused considerable damage, there still is hope. New technology has helped create more sustainable fishing practices. When it comes to long lining, circular hooks are being used instead of the typical J-shaped ones which reduces the amount of turtles swallowing them or being hurt by them by around 90%. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are being used in trawling nets to allow turtles to escape while still being able to catch the desired fish, which minimizes bycatch. In many countries, gillnets have been banned entirely since they have the highest amount of bycatch. Trawling has also been banned along most of the United States coastlines.
The work shouldn’t stop there. Each of us individually are able to aid in ending overfishing and discarding marine life. One main option would be to remove seafood from your diet. This helps since you are not financially supporting the companies who allow these fishing techniques to continue. As Bruce the Shark states in Disney-Pixar’s Finding Nemo, “fish are friends, not food.” If cutting seafood out of your diet isn’t for you, then research where your fish are sourced. Find companies that practice sustainable fishing techniques, or find species that are not being overfished. Try to find fish that are caught locally in the United States. In addition to looking closer at your diet, support companies that use sustainable practices and petition to have more laws in place to stop overfishing and bycatching.