“The cause is simply to save humanity from humanity. The solution is to learn to live within the biosphere instead of dominating it.” – Paul Watson (Captain, Ocean Activist – founder of Sea Shepherd)

Overfishing and fishing slavery in south east asia
Each light is a fishing boat. Every night, every signle day.

The saying goes: “there’s plenty more fish in the sea.” Well, this saying is outdated! There’s actually not much left. Not so long ago, we thought that the ocean could replenish whatever we take from it. After all, the oceans are huge! Now we know that that is not the case. For fishing to be sustainable, we need to allow enough time for new ones to be born so the population can be maintained. The reverse is happening. We have taken more than the ocean ‘produces’, and we’re taking fish faster than they can reproduce. It’s called overfishing.

Overfishing has wiped out 90% of the ocean’s large top-predators, like sharks, tunas, cod, and groupers. And we need the big fish in the ocean because they eat the weaker ones. They prevent the ‘jenga’ from collapsing. The big fish that are still out there weigh 50% or less than they did 50 years ago. The average weight of a swordfish caught today is 45 Kilos. In the 60’s this was 130 kilos (1). Of all fish species, 52% is fully exploited, 17% is overexploited, and 7% is depleted. Common seafood choices such as tuna, shrimp, and salmon are among the worst affected. (2) I don’t want to withhold the good news from you: a whopping 1% of species are recovering from depletion!

The problem is not just the fish we’re taking; the problem is also how we’re taking it. We have advanced and crazy destructive technologies these days to find and catch any size of fish. Modern fishing techniques destroy habitats, damage ocean floors, and wipe out species. Most devastating are the fishing trawlers, which literally scrape the sea floor taking everything along with it. It’s like wanting to pick a flower by bulldozing the whole garden! How can the next flower flourish? Another fishing method that does more harm than good is ‘longlining.’ This method involves throwing out a long line with dozens of hooks. The fisherman aims for tuna, but in the process dolphins, sharks and even seabirds are also caught. This is called ‘bycatch.’

At some fisheries, for every kilo of fish that can be sold at the market, ten more kilos are thrown back, dead or half-alive, as bycatch! This is sorted out offshore so the fleet can be out at sea longer, go further, and catch more of what the market demands. It is estimated that global bycatch is 40% of the world’s total fish catch, with fisheries throwing back more than 28 million tons of non-targeted fish every year. 28 million tons (3). That’s comparable to the content of 28000 Olympic swimming pools full of dead fish that don’t qualify for our appetite. It makes bycatch on of the largest threats to maintaining healthy fish populations.

Despite the scooping, seafood consumption is rising because of diet shifts and population increase. Bluefin tuna, swordfish, and shark are still on restaurant menus. And since it’s called ‘fish of the day’, we think it’s fresh, local, healthy and acceptable. Food advice around the world recommends eating fish because of the omega health benefits. Fish are even squeezed to create fish oil pills. The Dutch ‘Voedselcentrum’ (Food Advisory institution) recommends people to consume one portion of fish per week (4). That means 17 million dead fish each week for a country that’s not dependent on fish for survival. What only a few know is that the healthy omegas originate in sea algae and weeds, of which almost all are edible.

People currently most affected are the ones that need fish as a food source the most. In the developing world, especially on the islands, fish is vital as a food source. There is simply not enough available land to produce for agriculture. Yet only fewer and fewer fisherman can obtain a living from fishing. With fewer fish in the ocean, there is less to catch for the local fisherman, less to see for divers, and less business for dive tour operators. When the ocean ecosystem collapses, humans go too. It might sound like a distant reality, but it’s not! If the current rate of exploitation is maintained, the ocean will be empty in 2048! (5)

Check globalfishingwatch.com for a live map of fishing vessels (only those trackable on the AIS!), to see for yourself the insane number of commercial fishing boats out there. Taking them is still possible because fishery management is practically non-existent at sea. It’s hard to measure, but there are numbers out that between 30 % and 70% of fish is caught illegally!

Fisherman are getting desperate to sustain a living, catching more and younger fish than they are supposed to, or fishing in prohibited areas.

Caption: Local fishing in Turkey. The local fishing method here on the Turkish turquoise coast. The fishermen set out a net in a sort of S-shape in the bay. They let it settle and then close it and drag it on their boats with a winch. Ten years ago, they could catch 50kg of fish with this. Today, they are lucky if they can catch 5kg! That’s nothing. They can’t live from it anymore. Now, the fishermen have diversified their livelihood and opened a lovely guesthouse in this beautiful bay. It’s wonderful for them and positive for the ocean! They can still eat fish now and then but are no longer dependent on it. They’re happy, and it hopefully gives the fish some time to rejuvenate.

What about farmed fish? Aquaculture, or fish farming, is a fishing method that is overtaking wild-caught fish. A solution? It’s like chicken farms. It might be more productive and quicker in volume but with it comes disease, antibiotics and pollution. Fish farms destroy surrounding habitats and mangrove forests in the process. Farmed fish are fed all sorts of fish and lots of it (but also meat!), which puts pressure on wild fish stocks. Fish like salmon, tuna, grouper are carnivores and need to be fed fish to be healthy. Farming fish in a closed space where waste is controlled, and there is little chance for fish to escape, seems better, but other challenges exist in managing the water quality for the health of the fish and the surrounding environment.

While governments debate fish quotas and ‘sustainable’ practices, and chefs debate which fish they can still “sustainably” cook, fish are continually taken without considering how much is left. Globally, we need to reduce our fishing efforts and fish consumption. Commercial fishing practices should all be banned. As long as we keep demanding, businessmen keep finding a way to supply. Action must be taken at global, national, local and individual levels. 

“The most important thing we take from the ocean is our existence.” – Sylvia Earle

  1. One World, One Ocean, One Mission. Anderson, T. L. 1, Canada : MacEwan University, 2013, Earth Common Journal, Vol. 3.
  2. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). General situation of world fish stocks. [Online] http://www.fao.org/newsroom/common/ecg/1000505/en/stocks.pdf.
  3. Kaledjian, A., Brogan, G., Lowell, B., Warrenchuk, J., Enticknap, B., Shester, G., … Cano- Stucco, D. Wasted catch: Unsolved problems in U.S. fisheries. s.l. : OCEANA, 2014.
  4. Voedingscentrum. Voedingscentrum. Vis. [Online] 2017. http://www.voedingscentrum.nl/encyclopedie/vis.aspx.
  5. Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services. Worm, Boris, et al. 5800, 2006, Science, Vol. 314, pp. 787-790.

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