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Author Aishah Mustapha
Aishah Mustapha
Updated on Apr 9th, 2024
Fact checked by Deborah Leigh

Overfishing: Impacts, Causes, and How You Can Help

The ocean covers over 70% of the earth’s surface. Its waters provide food for over 3 billion and employment for around 300 million people, generate economic benefits in the trillions of dollars, and are an important part of the carbon cycle. A healthy ocean is crucial for both the earth’s ecosystems and the global economy.

But decades of poorly regulated fishing activities have depleted global fish stocks and driven some species to the brink of extinction. To make matters worse, climate change is warming our oceans’ waters as they absorb much of the excess heat in the atmosphere. Consequently, critical habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves are deteriorating, which affects the survival of marine life.

In this article, I will outline the impact of overfishing, why it keeps happening, the solutions governments and industry players could take, how you can help as a consumer, and whether the efforts made so far are working.

Terminology

Fishery: A place where wild aquatic species are caught, or where farmed aquatic species are reared, for commercial or recreational purposes. 

Aquaculture: The practice of breeding, growing, and harvesting aquatic animals and plants, or farming on water. It can be hosted in a natural body of water such as a river or the ocean, or in man-made ponds or rivers. An aquaculture is a type of fishery.

Fish stock: A collection of one or several aquatic species in a fishery.

Overfished: A fish stock is considered overfished when the breeding population is below the number needed to replace, through reproduction, the fish that have been harvested or captured.

Overfishing: Overfishing occurs when fish are caught faster than they can replenish themselves naturally. If overfishing continues without intervention, the fish population will collapse. 

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): A zone of water under national jurisdiction up to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from a country’s coastline, or a marine boundary agreed by a country and its neighboring states. In an EEZ, the controlling state has the right to explore and exploit resources, and also bears the responsibility for conserving and managing resources.

International waters: Also called the high seas, these are waters that are beyond the EEZ of any country.

Source: UN FAO 

The Impact of Overfishing

According to data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the number of overfished stocks in 2019 had more than tripled over the previous 45 years. The percentage of stocks fished at a biologically unsustainable level was at 10% in 1974, increasing to 35.5% by 2019. The Southeast Pacific Ocean, among 16 important fishing grounds identified by the FAO, registered the highest ratio of stocks fished at unsustainable levels at 66.7%. 

The impact of overfishing, if left unchecked, will be catastrophic and extend beyond the oceans. As overfishing degrades aquatic habitats, fishing and tourism industries are already being affected. Worse, societies could lose critical sources of food, essential medicinal compounds, and ultimately the ability to thrive. 

The Environmental Impact of Overfishing

Overfishing has a deep impact on marine ecosystems as well as life on land. In this section, I dive into the repercussions of dwindling fish stocks, from extinction threats to biodiversity losses, and how this ultimately makes the ocean more vulnerable to climate change.

1. Loss of Biodiversity

Marine biodiversity refers to the variety of ocean life as well as the role all of that life plays in the ocean’s ecosystem. From the tiniest of microorganisms to the biggest of whales, marine life is in a delicate balance between predator and prey, and disrupting this balance can have catastrophic consequences throughout the food chain. 

Phytoplankton (microscopic, photosynthesizing organisms including bacteria and microalgae) form the foundation of the aquatic food chain and are an important food source for many species. They also produce about 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. 

As you move up the food chain, there are intricate relationships between species that can be damaged by overfishing. For example, many of the species we catch for food eat zooplankton—tiny aquatic animals that feed on phytoplankton. When we remove too many animals that feed on zooplankton from the food chain, their population can boom.

This swell in zooplankton can lead to a phenomenon known as a trophic cascade — the increased number of zooplankton eat too much of the phytoplankton population. When this happens, larger animals that also feed on phytoplankton, all the way up to the largest animals including baleen whales and whale sharks, can be negatively affected.

2. More Species Become Endangered

Overfishing has directly affected the populations of many marine species, to the point that some are endangered or even at risk of becoming extinct. For example, over two-thirds of sturgeon and paddlefish species are now critically endangered, based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Both species are harvested for their eggs — sold as caviar — and meat. 

At the same time, over a third of sharks, rays, and chimeras were under extinction threat in 2021, compared to just a quarter of the population in 2014. These animals are caught for food and resale, and are also frequently caught accidentally in trawl nets, long lines, gillnets, and similar gear.

Vaquita, a species of porpoise native to the northern Gulf of California, is the world’s rarest mammal with fewer than 20 individuals left in the wild. They aren’t intentionally caught, but the greatest threat to their existence are the gillnets used in illegal fishing operations in which they get trapped and drowned.

These are just a few of the many examples of marine species that are threatened or endangered by fishing activities. As the populations of these animals are reduced to these extremes, the effect on their environment is tangible. Among other impacts, it disrupts the food chain, harms coral reefs, and can diminish people’s ability to feed themselves and their families.

3. Other Marine Life Is Caught Unintentionally

Animals that are unintentionally caught (bycatch) often cannot be sold, eaten, or used for other purposes. They either die or are injured to the point that they can’t reproduce. Common bycatches are sharks, sting rays, turtles, and marine mammals such as seals, dugongs, and whales. Bycatches that are thrown back into the ocean are called discards. 

Globally, discards make up roughly 10.8% of the haul of marine and estuary fisheries, totaling roughly 9.1 million tonnes. The bottom trawling method — dragging nets across the seabed — does the most damage, with 2.4 million tonnes of discards. It’s not just commercial nets and gill nets that are killing animals, but also ghost gear — abandoned or lost fishing gear and tools — that entraps, maims, or even drowns aquatic animals.

4. Algae Overgrowth Stifles Marine Life

Overfishing removes herbivorous fish that feed on algae, helping to create conditions for a type of overgrowth called an algal bloom. The algae in these blooms can grow so dense that sunlight can only reach their topmost layers, and the flow of water through the mat is reduced. This is called stratification, and it has major implications for marine life.

Like plants, algae use the sun’s light to photosynthesize, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the environment and separates the compound into its constituent elements: carbon and oxygen. Inside a cell, the free carbon combines with other elements, including hydrogen, to make glucose and sucrose for energy, as well as the cellulose that make up cell walls. The oxygen from this cycle is released into the environment and becomes the air we breathe.

However, when these algal blooms are too dense for sunlight to fully penetrate, photosynthesis only happens in the topmost layers. Algae in the lower layers die and quickly begin to be decomposed by bacteria. 

Decomposition is a respiratory process — the bacteria use oxygen from the environment to create energy inside their cells. In these large algal blooms, the decomposition process can consume so much oxygen that the area becomes uninhabitable for marine life. 

Animals that can’t escape an algal bloom’s dead zone, either because they aren’t mobile enough or because they become trapped in a bay that the algae drifts into, can suffer inhibited growth, lower reproductive rates, and even death.

Overfishing is a contributing factor, but not the only cause of these algal blooms. Nitrogenous fertilizers and other chemicals from untreated wastewater that find their way through rivers and into the ocean serve as a major food source for algae, increasing its production.

5. Coral Reefs Sicken and Die

Reefs are important to the economies of many coastal communities, and are also essential to the ecosystem. They cover only 0.2% of the seabed but support at least 25% of marine species. 

While climate change is the biggest global threat to coral reef ecosystems, overfishing and destructive fishing are the biggest local threats, affecting up to 55% of the world’s reefs. This is followed by local coastal developments (25%), watershed-based pollution (25%), marine-based pollution, and damages from shipping near the reefs (10%). 

Overfishing reduces the number of reef fishes, disrupting the reef’s synergy. Destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling, as well as cyanide and blast fishing, also damage reefs, as do ghost gear.

The world lost around 14% of its corals between 2009 and 2018, due in part to overfishing. Another major cause was coral bleaching — a phenomenon in which stressed coral expel the algae that give the coral color, leaving them completely white. Coral bleaching is strongly associated with rising water temperatures, pollution, and coastal developments. 

6. Overfishing Worsens Global Warming

Fishing also contributes to global warming. As human activity disrupts the food chain, it also disrupts the carbon cycle. A trophic cascade that leads to an overabundance of grazing animals like zooplankton can cause a dearth of photosynthesizing plants and algae, which can impact relative levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

The way we fish also has an impact on global warming. The ocean is the world’s largest carbon sink, and the interplay between carbon on the surface layers and sediments is a key factor in the concentration levels of carbon in both the ocean waters and the atmosphere.

The waste from animals that live near the surface, as well as the bodies of animals that have died, eventually find their way to the ocean’s floor, which can remain undisturbed for long periods of time. This effectively traps carbon on the sea floor.

However, when large, weighted nets are dragged through the sea bed’s sediment, as happens with bottom trawling, carbon that has been stored for centuries is stirred up. A 2019 study estimated that the bottom trawling method releases 1 gigatonne of carbon each year, which is more than is created by air travel. 

Furthermore, fuel-burning fishing fleets are also releasing carbon into the atmosphere. A study found that the global carbon dioxide emissions from fuel-combustion engines in marine fisheries reached 207 million tonnes in 2016, nearly 4 times the amount recorded in 1950.

Ocean waters also absorb roughly 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. As it absorbs carbon, the water becomes more acidic. Water that is too acidic can dissolve or slow the growth of animal shells and coral, and affect the larval stage of many marine lifecycles, among other challenges.

The Social and Economic Impact of Overfishing

The effects of overfishing don’t stop at the environment. They also impact communities that rely on fishing for food, the livelihoods of people working in fishing industries, the revenue of fishing companies, and even the global economy. Fishing subsidies, instead of helping fix the issue, further widen the inequality between high- and low-income countries.

1. Threats to Global Food Security

For people in many developing countries, fish is an essential part of their diet. It’s often inexpensive, easily accessible, and nutritious. The FAO found that 3.3 billion people rely on seafood for as much as 20% of their dietary protein.

Data from FAO also showed that seafood made up 17% of animal protein for people in low-income countries, 23% for those in lower-to-middle-income countries, and 17% in upper-middle-income countries. This compares to 13% in high-income countries. The reliance is more pronounced in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and several small-island developing states (SIDS) such as the Maldives, reaching over 50% of total animal protein intake.

Overfishing has already disrupted entire ecosystems. The FAO estimates that one-third of the world’s fisheries are currently overfished. This disproportionately affects the food security of many of the world’s poorest people, who have their local fish stocks destroyed by large fleets of foreign vessels.

2. Loss of Livelihood for Small-Scale Producers

Small-scale producers and artisanal fishermen can’t compete with industrial-sized producers with bigger boats and more resources when a fish stock plummets due to overfishing. These small producers spend more time catching fish while getting smaller hauls and making less money. Worse, those who rely on fishing for their daily subsistence may suffer from malnutrition and be driven to poverty.

Local fishermen can also be forced to move into water where their smaller vessels aren’t safe. This further raises their costs, increases their risk, and decreases the chance of providing for their families.

The worst outcome is when an entire fish population collapses, as was the case of the Atlantic cod in Newfoundland, Canada, in the early 1990s. The Canadian government eventually placed a moratorium on fishing for cod in 1992, which affected the livelihoods of over 30,000 people. Three decades later, the fishery is still recovering, as the cod population has yet to return to its previous level. 

3. Gap between Wealthy and Poor Countries Grows Bigger

Wealthy countries such as the United States and China can hand out generous subsidies to companies in the fishing industry. This enables fishing producers to fish in international waters or fishing grounds near other countries. When these companies fish frequently near the waters of impoverished countries, it threatens the livelihoods of communities and further increases the economic disparity between rich and poor countries. 

Poor countries aren’t able to offer the same subsidies to give their people and fishing companies the same financial benefits. Instead, they’re negatively impacted by foreign, subsidized trawlers that profit from local resources in the short term and damage local fish stocks in the long term.

According to research published in Marine Policy, over 40% of the subsidies that enable fishing in waters near poor nations originate from wealthy nations. 

Other research found that some of the biggest net subsidy sinks are poor developing countries such as Somalia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. A net subsidy sink is the difference between the amount of harmful subsidies that the country provides and the amount of harmful subsidies that support fishing within the country’s EEZ. 

According to a study by OCEANA, subsidies account for as much as 40% of the value of a catch. This ultimately lowers the price of fish in a retail store and artificially inflates the value many consumers place on fish as a source of protein. This helps create a cycle in which consumer demand drives producers to increase their supply, which frequently happens through the use of increasingly unsustainable fishing practices and at the expense of poorer countries.

4. Unemployment and Dwindling Revenues

Overfishing threatens the socioeconomic stability of hundreds of millions of people who depend on the oceans and freshwater. Nearly 60 million people work in fisheries and aquacultures. This doesn’t include employees in the full supply chain of the fishing industry, which includes ports, processing plants, distribution hubs, and wholesalers. The World Bank estimated that the industry’s potential loss in revenue, due to overfishing, is as much as $83 billion annually.

Moreover, parts of the tourism industry also rely on an abundant ocean. Rough estimates put coral reef tourism’s global value at about $36 billion a year. The Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest coral reef system — supports over 60,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion toward Australia’s economy. 

Why Is Overfishing Happening? 

Overfishing has many causes, including surging consumer demand, harmful fishing subsidies, illegal and unregulated fishing activities, corruption, and human greed. In this section, I will expand on the factors that brought us to today’s reality.

1. Demand for Seafood Drives Unsustainable Aquaculture Practices

Due to rising demand, half of the seafood for consumption comes from aquacultures. In 2020, total global production was 178 million tonnes, giving a total first-sale value of US$406 billion. 51% of production came from wild captures and 49% from aquacultures. Total output of global aquacultures grew 609% between 1990 and 2020, giving an average annual growth rate of 6.7% over 3 decades.

The biggest producers are in Asia, supporting an overwhelming 91.61% of global aquaculture production, with China making up 62.77% of aquatic animal and algae production. In terms of global wild capture production, China is also the biggest producer (15%), followed by Indonesia (8%), Peru (7%), Russia (6%), and the USA (5%).

However, mismanaged aquacultures, a lack of regulation, and unsustainable practices can contribute to overfishing. Some of the major concerns in aquacultures are an overflow of fish feed, fish escaping, and chemical pollution from the use of antibiotics and pesticides. These problems flow into the surrounding waters, affecting the survival of other aquatic life and altering marine biodiversity.

2. Harmful Government Subsidies Contribute to Overfishing

Generous government subsidies are fueling the overfishing crisis. In 2018, global fishing subsidies totaled $35.4 billion, of which the majority ($22.2 billion) was for expanding fishing capacity. These subsidies are considered harmful and exacerbate the overfishing crisis.

China was the biggest contributor with 21% of subsidies, followed by the EU (11%), the USA (10%), South Korea (9%), and Japan (8%). For China and Japan, over 70% of their subsidy programs were for capacity enhancement. Meanwhile, over 80% of the total global subsidies went to large-scale operators, while only 19% went to small-scale producers and artisanal or subsistence fishers.

These capacity-enhancing subsidies allow companies to fish in distant waters, stay longer at sea, and haul in more fish with minimal checks and balances. One study suggests that 54% of fishing activities would be unprofitable without government subsidies.

This also distorts the natural supply and demand in the market. Keeping prices lower than the actual cost of supply fuels consumer demand and adds to the overcapacity problem. There are 2.5 times more fishing fleets than the oceans can sustainably support, many of them supported with subsidies.

3. Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) Fishing Is Widespread

IUU fishing can occur in a country’s EEZ or in international waters where no country has legal jurisdiction. Without active and regular oversight, fishing operators could:

  • Fish illegally or in a manner that disregards the fishing ground’s regulations (illegal fishing)

  • Fish in unregistered vessels, or in vessels that aren’t regulated by the country of origin (unregulated fishing)

  • Misrepresent or fail to report their activities and haul to authorities (unreported fishing)

Although it’s difficult to ascertain the true scale of IUU fishing, a WWF analysis puts the figure at between 13% and 31% of global catch, worth between $10 and $23 billion annually

Based on the IUU Fishing Index, which scores all coastal states, China scored the worst in terms of the country’s vulnerability, prevalence, and response to IUU fishing. The best-scoring country was Estonia. Asia was the worst-performing region while Europe was the best.

IUU fishing operations contribute to overfishing because they disregard local catch limits designed to protect vulnerable fish populations. IUU fishing has a human cost, too. There’s a growing body of evidence of human trafficking, human rights abuse, and modern slavery cases on vessels from countries including China, Indonesia, and Thailand. Victims are often tricked or sold to work on fishing boats for a pittance, and subjected to horrendous conditions and abuse.

4. Culture of Profit Chasing and Corruption

Harmful government subsidies, coupled with advances in technology, allow fishing companies to catch more fish. This inflation of supply in the market lowers prices, creating an unsustainable cycle in which fishing producers then invest in better vessels, technology, and gear to catch more fish and counter thinning profit margins. This continues to keep prices low and fuels more consumer demand.

At the same time, cases of corrupt practices have been seen across the value chain, including document and license forgery, bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion, and customs frauds. In Brazil, authorities managed to dismantle extensive bribery practices for mullet fishing licenses in 2015. These illegal licenses were indirectly responsible for environmental damages of around $320 million

Meanwhile, Namibia has been rocked by one of the biggest corruption trials in the fishing industry — aptly named the “Fishrot” scandal — involving the country’s high-ranking officials and one of the largest fishing companies in Iceland, Samherji.

How Industry Players Can Help Reduce Overfishing 

The solution to overfishing requires the action and cooperation of multiple parties in the fishing industry including governmental bodies, regulators, fishing companies, port authorities, and retailers. In this section, I’ll discuss various solutions and strategies that have shown promising results in rebuilding fish stocks and making fisheries more sustainable for the long term.

1. Place Temporary, Local Bans on Fishing

A temporary ban to protect fisheries is one of the core solutions to overfishing. One example is the moratorium in parts of the Central Arctic Ocean. In 2017, 9 countries and the EU agreed to stop fishing for 16 years across 2.8 million square kilometers of international waters. 

At present, sea ice and uncertain hauls prevent commercial fishing from being done here. But climate change is melting ice sheets, making the sea more accessible. This deal was struck to prevent commercial fishing until the area’s ecology can be better understood.

International treaties are often difficult to achieve, especially in fishing grounds that are of high economic value and supply a significant portion of our seafood. Regional cooperation is another solution to fight overfishing. For example, Norway and Russia have a catch limit agreement, first established in 1975, for cod fishing in the Barents Sea. 

Additionally, individual countries could impose their own fishing bans to protect local fish stocks. The US has the Magnuson-Stevensons Act, with policies that protect areas with juvenile fish that need to grow to maturity. Meanwhile, China has imposed a fishing ban during summer, covering the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and parts of the South China Sea, since 1999.

2. Control IUU Fishing through Stronger Enforcement and MCS

Countries need better monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) and enforcement measures to combat IUU fishing. Key initiatives include:

  • Comprehensive monitoring and measurement of bycatches, fishing hauls, and fish stocks

  • Improved control in terms of licensing, catch quotas, and fishing activity limits

  • Inspections of vessels at ports and having onboard observers on fishing vessels at sea

  • Surveillance of fleet movement by patrol, radar, or satellite

  • Creation and active maintenance of a registrar for fishing fleets

Strong enforcement can help deter IUU activities. In a study involving West African countries, the total losses due to IUU fishing reached $2.3 billion a year, but only $13.8 million were recovered through MCS initiatives. However, the severity of IUU fishing was seen to decline as fines were increased.

3. Reduce or Remove Harmful Subsidies

Harmful subsidies that directly or indirectly incentivize overfishing should be removed. One study from the Pew Charitable Trusts suggested that ending all harmful subsidies would produce a 12.5% increase in global fish stock by 2050. 

Fortunately, there has been progress on this front. In June 2022, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reached a historic agreement to ban destructive fishing subsidies. However, this multilateral agreement is not yet in effect, as it needs at least two-thirds of WTO members to ratify it. At the end of 2023, 29 countries had accepted the agreement, including the US, China, Japan, and Peru.

Instead of granting capacity-enhancing subsidies, governments should provide more beneficial subsidies. Beneficial subsidies promote sustainable fishing practices, intensify conservation efforts, support better fishery management and governance, and educate and improve the livelihoods of small-scale and subsistence fishers.

4. Expand Marine Protected Areas

A marine protected area (MPA) is a designated area where human activities are regulated, and efforts are in place to restore and conserve biodiversity. Roughly 8% of the oceans are MPAs. National waters make up 39% of the seas, with 18.7% of them designated as MPAs. Comparatively, only 1.44% of international waters are protected.

Research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology found that designating an area as an MPA helped lift fish stocks by nearly 400%. This makes MPAs one of the most effective tools to counter overfishing. 

However, care must be taken to protect the right areas. Governmental bodies can refer to the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) standard, which was established by 13 conservation organizations including the WWF and IUCN. The KBA is an initiative that helps identify the most biodiverse sites on earth that are crucial to protect.

5. Drastically Reduce the Amount of Bycatch

The FAO has guidelines for reducing unintended hauls of marine mammals. These include limiting or banning fishing in waters that are popular breeding grounds and known migratory routes, using acoustic devices to warn marine mammals away, and recommendations on how to safely release a bycatch back into the water.

By lowering gillnets (vertical hanging nets) by 2 meters from the surface, a study found it could reduce bycatches of whales, dolphins, and porpoises by 78.5%. Similarly, raising bottom trawling nets would protect aquatic life on the seabed. Trawl nets targeting shrimps and smaller fishes should be modified to include an escape hatch to allow bigger marine animals to escape if they are caught. 

In addition to changing fishing techniques, having independent observers onboard would also help reduce bycatch hauls.

6. Implement Rights-Based Management in Fisheries

Rights-based management (RBM) determines exclusive access in a fishery. It also regulates who gets access to the fishery, the access duration, and catch limits. RBM can be applied to any type or size of fisheries, from those that are small and coastal to large popular fishing grounds.

One success story of RBM is the lobster fishing cooperative system in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The fishery grants exclusive fishing rights to its cooperative members, along with establishing other regulations including fishing seasons and catch limits. In 2004, the fishery was one of the first in a developing country to be granted a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, a standard that measures a fishery’s management and sustainability.

However, RBM could be exploited to a few parties’ advantage, leading to a monopoly of catching rights. It would also create a higher barrier of entry for new and smaller fishing producers, as well as artisanal and subsistence fishers.

7. Switch to Sustainable Fishing Practices

Sustainable fishing practices keep fish populations at a sustainable level and maintain or generate jobs for people, while also minimizing the environmental footprint and conserving marine biodiversity.

The US is considered a leader in sustainable fishing, with the implementation of a science-based catch limit in 2006 and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fisheries in federal waters. 

However, the biggest fishing producers are in Asia. China has made considerable improvements in the past few years, including reducing fleet numbers since 2016. Under the 5-Year National Fisheries Development Plan in 2021, several sustainability goals were identified, including conservation efforts, improving aquacultures so they are more sustainable, and continuing to reduce the number of motorized fishing vessels.

8. Manage Aquacultures More Sustainably

Aquacultures come with their own host of issues when mismanaged that add to the problems of overfishing. Anchovies and sardines are heavily used as fish meals in aquacultures. Using these wild-caught fishes worsens the overfishing crisis. Instead, there are alternative feeds such as plant-based protein products including soy, corn, rice, and algae.

For aquacultures housed in the ocean or freshwater, waste such as fish feces, fertilizers, and antibiotics may find their way into the surrounding water. Depending on the nature of the spillage, this may make the water unlivable, lead to algal blooms, or cause similar problems that harm the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Solutions include minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, recycling waste, or treating and disposing of waste in an environmentally friendly manner. 

Care should also be taken to prevent fish from escaping. Fish that escape their pens can impact the local ecosystem by competing for food and breeding with native species. Storms, as well as weathered nets and poorly maintained pens, could trigger a massive escape. Aquaculture management needs to include comprehensive storm response plans and regular upkeep of the nets and pens used.

10 Practical Steps You Can Take to Help Reduce Overfishing

Governments and the fishing industry aren’t the only parties responsible for the overfishing dilemma. Consumers also play a part in the global seafood demand. I have outlined several steps you can take to limit your personal footprint.

1. Buy Certified Sustainable Seafood

Shop for seafood that has been fished sustainably or comes from sustainable aquacultures. Look for sustainable certificates from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Friends of the Sea, RFM, Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP).

If you can’t find any information, just ask your local shop about the origin of the fish. Try searching for the brand or company listed on the packaging, and check whether they have any sustainable seafood or conservation programs.

You can also check your supermarket’s sustainability policies. In recent years, retailers including Walmart, Costco, and ALDI have increased their commitments to stock sustainable seafood. When in doubt, always buy local over imported products for a better environmental footprint.

2. Stop or Limit Eating Overfished Seafood

Avoid seafood that’s more likely to be overfished such as tuna, grouper, and sharks, or come from unsustainable farms such as salmon and abalone. If you can’t stop completely due to personal, cultural, or financial reasons, eating less of it would slow down the demand growth. To find out which fish to avoid or limit, check out the sustainable seafood guide by Monterey Bay, catered to the US, and other guides for the UK, EU, and parts of Asia.

As an alternative, try eating smaller, less popular fishes — sometimes called trash fishes. These are smaller edible fishes that get caught in nets along with bigger, more popular fishes. Some of the options to try are mullet, silver bass, and pomfret. Small fishes also tend to breed faster and in larger numbers, allowing the population to recover more quickly than big predatory fishes.

3. Vary Your Sources of Omega-3

Fatty fish, such as salmon, have long been touted as a great source of Omega-3, a fatty acid essential to bodily functions. However, salmon farming, which accounts for a third of global marine and coastal aquaculture production, damages the environment when run with unsustainable practices.

Instead of relying on salmon for your Omega-3’s, try less popular seafood such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerels. Your body also needs a different type of fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plants such as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, soybeans, and edamame.

4. Dine at Restaurants Serving Sustainable Seafood

Choose to eat at establishments that serve sustainable seafood products. You can find lists from sources such as Friends of The Sea and Seafood Watch. For those in the UK, there is a list of MSC-certified fish and chips restaurants. A quick search on Google or Microsoft Copilot should help you build a list of establishments to frequent. There are also sustainable seafood suppliers that provide a list of the restaurants they provide to.

If you can’t find a restaurant that’s listed as offering sustainable seafood, look for restaurants with environmentally friendly policies, which may include sourcing sustainable seafood. One example is the Green Restaurant certification, available in 47 US states and Canada, which grades restaurants on various environmental criteria. 

You can also check out the Zero Footprint Business, an international non-profit that helps fund farmers using regenerative practices. When you buy meals or products from their member businesses, you’re investing in a more sustainable approach to farming and agriculture.

5. Reduce Seafood Waste

A UN report suggests that 17% of total global food production is wasted annually. It’s a significant amount considering 1 in 8 people — or 12.5% of the population — deals with hunger and malnutrition. The average person wastes 74 kg of food per year, a trend seen across lower, middle, and high income countries.

Start by planning your meals (if you haven’t already), buying and cooking only what you need, and using the freezer to reduce your waste of food and ingredients. The Japanese have a practical philosophy — called “hara hachi bu” — in which they stop eating when they’re 80% full. For people who are otherwise healthy, adopting a calorie-restricted diet like this may be a simple way to help improve your overall health and extend your lifespan.

6. Choose Fish Pets or Fish Responsibly

If you like to keep fish as pets, ensure the species you are interested in is not at risk of being overfished. The IUCN Red List is the go-to resource for information on this. Some pet stores will share how their animals were fished or reared, so if you don’t have that information, asking is a good idea.

A freshwater tank is easier and more affordable to maintain than a saltwater tank. Common freshwater species such as guppy, goldfish, and angelfish are easily sourced, and none are currently endangered. 

For fishing enthusiasts, adopt the catch and release practice that helps protect native species and their habitat. You’ll need to use proper tools to minimize injury to the fish such as barbless hooks and appropriate bait, and you’ll also need to release them quickly after catching them.

7. Live in a Climate-Friendly Way 

Protect the earth’s waters by adopting a climate-friendly lifestyle. If you’re spending time at the beach or near inland waters, dispose of any plastic, food waste, or trash responsibly. A floating pile of rubbish could easily suffocate animals or be mistaken for food. Use reusable bags to limit your plastic use.

Choose environmentally friendly cleaning products, fertilizers, and chemicals. Depending on which country you live in, the wastewater system will usually treat your water before disposal, but a percentage of the chemicals still get into the oceans. Microplastics, found in everything from household items to the food we eat, also find their way to the open seas.

For diving and snorkeling hobbyists, choose destinations with ongoing conservation efforts and active regulations in place, and be mindful of what you do when you’re there, leaving nothing behind.

8. Volunteer Your Time and Skills

If you have some spare time, you could do a beach, lake, or river cleanup. There are local and international organizations hosting regular cleanup events, such as the Ocean Conservancy, that are worth looking into. However, you don’t have to join an organization to do this; just round up your family and friends and start cleaning up.

You could also volunteer in an MPA or a marine life rescue and rehabilitation center. Some roles may require familiarity with marine biology, but there are general volunteer roles in advocacy, fundraising, and general maintenance.

For those with marine and conservation experience, you could lend a hand in projects around the world to conserve and rejuvenate our waters. Organizations such as the SeaShepherd and Oceanic Society have regular projects and trips for enthusiastic environmentalists.

9. Get Vocal

Sometimes, your strongest weapon is your voice. Find a cause you believe in and start raising awareness and advocating for meaningful change. There are plenty of causes to pick, from conservation efforts to banning destructive subsidies, and much more to be done to stop overfishing.

For example, many retailers and supermarkets are creating sustainability targets due to the effects of global warming, but there are plenty more that need to do their part. Pressure them to source only sustainable seafood products. Check out existing seafood policies, hold them accountable, and petition them to do better.

If you’re up for it, start your own cause when you can’t find any in your state or country. Be vocal with your local council, leaders, and politicians. Sign petitions, demonstrate peacefully, and get on the ground to educate others.

10. Educate Yourself 

As Malcolm X said, “Education is our passport to the future.” In order to make a difference, you need to understand the issue thoroughly. If this is a cause you believe in, read up more on overfishing and follow the latest news. Start by reading resources by the WWF and Seafood Watch. The World Ocean Day, celebrated every 8th of June, is also a good reminder of our responsibilities to protect our oceans.

There are also documentaries to watch, books to read, and non-profit organizations to follow that are right in the thick of the fight against overfishing. These include the Blue Marine Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. And finally, if you find an organization worth investing in, you can donate regularly toward worthy projects.

Have Our Efforts Worked? 

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that the complex interconnected marine ecosystem makes it harder to quantify how much it has improved, especially as overfishing is still happening against the backdrop of climate change. However, there are small signs of recovery

The stock of most tuna species, the world’s most consumed fish, has consistently been recorded at healthy levels. In a 2023 report by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, 85% of the global tuna catch was sourced from stocks with a healthy population level and 11% was from overfished stocks. This level was found to be consistent in previous reports, with over 80% of catches sourced from healthy population levels since 2018.

Based on US fisheries data in 2022, 93% of fish stocks were not experiencing overfishing, and 81% of stocks were not overfished. This is a minor improvement over 2021 data, where 92% of stocks were not subject to overfishing, and 80% were not overfished. 

The EU is also seeing signs of improvement, with fewer overfished stocks in 2023 compared to decades prior. A report by the European Commission has found declines in the median fishing mortality rate — a measurement of fish that have died due to fishing activities. A ratio that’s at or below 1 indicates that the stock is being fished sustainably.

In 2003, the median fishing mortality rate was 1.68 in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, an important fishing ground for EU countries. This number has improved, falling to its lowest of 0.76 in 2021. The same downward trend was seen in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, with the median figure falling to 1.7 in 2020 compared to 2.06 in 2003.

Rights-based management policies in the fishing grounds of the Gulf of Mexico rejuvenated the red snapper population in 2013. The same result was seen in Belize, with increased hauls and a significant decline in IUU fishing activities.

Population levels of several marine mammals are also recovering. The population of the Western South Atlantic humpback whales, once recorded at 27,000 in 1830, was whittled down to just 450 in the 1950s. After commercial whaling was banned in 1953, the population size is back to 93% of what it was in the 1800s.

In the UK, gray seals were once the target of fishing industries in the early 1900s, which drastically reduced their numbers. Today, the UK hosts about 40% of the world’s gray seal population, numbering around 120,000 seals.

Ultimately, nature can heal.

If we ban harmful activities, focus on conservation efforts, and give it enough time, our oceans can rejuvenate and marine life will be abundant and thrive again. A World Bank study estimated that if we stopped fishing completely, it would take only 5 years for global fish stocks to recover.

Clearly, a blanket fishing ban is unrealistic. Instead, the study suggested that if we reduced overall fishing activities by 5% a year for 10 years, it would take 30 years for the global fish population to reach optimal levels again.

Change Is Achievable

The earth’s waters are an invaluable asset with vast ecological, scientific, and economic benefits. Overfishing is a serious threat with far-reaching consequences that go beyond people missing out on their seafood. It threatens our food security and livelihoods. And it impairs marine biodiversity and, consequently, the ocean’s ability to support a healthy planet.

Overfishing, while a complicated issue, is not insurmountable. Through the collective actions of governments and industry players, countries could protect more areas of the ocean, ban destructive subsidies, implement RBM in more fisheries, switch to sustainable fishing, and deter IUU fishing. Consumers could help slow down demand by making better choices and rallying for lasting change.

The key is to act quickly. The solution to overfishing is in our hands and possibly in our lifetime too. Otherwise, the environmental and economic problems we have today will snowball into a survival crisis for future generations.




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