Whether it’s tuna sashimi or lobster bisque, we love our seafood — so much so that the ocean can’t keep up. More than 85 percent of fisheries have been fished at or above their capacity. Some have already collapsed, meaning their populations have dropped to 10 percent or less of their historical levels. If current trends continue, fisheries around the world could collapse entirely by 2048, devastating marine ecosystems and human livelihoods alike.
That may sound like a date that’s far enough away to give us some time to delay taking action, but the numbers tell a different tale.
Overfishing happens when more fish are removed from the ocean than remaining fish can reproduce to replace them.
Large fish that take longer to reach sexual maturity are the most vulnerable to collapse. For example, the population of bluefin tuna — a fish prized by sushi chefs — has dropped almost 90 percent since the 1960s in the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans. Orange roughy, rockfish and cod populations are also on the brink of collapse, if they haven’t collapsed already.
When fishermen exhaust populations of tuna and other high-level predators, the industry tends to move on to species lower in the food web, like squid, sardines and shellfish. “Fishing down the food web” is extremely risky, according to a University of York study. Shellfish have already been hit hard by ocean acidification, which limits their ability to form protective shells. And since they are such important prey for fish, seabirds and marine mammals, their depletion can disrupt entire ecosystems.
Percentage by which the population drop bluefin tuna has decreased since the 1960s
Minimum amount of time required for fish populations to recover (varies by species)
How did we get here? For one thing, engineering advances have allowed us to build fishing fleets that are two to three times larger than what oceans can support, while bottom trawling, dynamite fishing, poisoning and other destructive practices have wiped out species that aren’t even intended for consumption.
27 million: Tons of discarded fish “bycatch” each year [download pdf report]
1 in 5: People worldwide who depend on fish as their primary source of protein
Current fishing practices also result in enormous unintended casualties, known as bycatch. An estimated 27 million tons of fish, or 8 to 25 percent of the annual global catch, are discarded, cast overboard either dead or dying.
The social and economic costs of overfishing are equally staggering. Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of 200 million people, especially in the developing world, and one in five depends on fish as their primary source of protein. Yet most overfishing occurs in poor countries that lack sufficient regulatory structures, allowing powerful unlicensed, or “pirate,” fleets from developed countries to exploit their waters. Many of these fleets are capable of decimating entire fisheries in a single season.
How can we turn the tide?
For starters, individuals can choose to buy sustainably fished seafood and avoid threatened species. But much of the solution also lies in policy changes. Governments should limit fishing subsidies, which could lower financial incentives to expand fleets beyond what fisheries can handle. They should also create and expand Marine Protected Areas, parts of the ocean where fishing is restricted or banned altogether. Today, less than 2 percent of oceans are MPAs.
Stricter regulation and monitoring is also needed. Pirate fishing is on the rise, and many catches go unreported. In April, University of British Columbia researchers reported that China’s foreign catch is 12 times larger than what it reports to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which records global fisheries catches.
Dwindling fish stocks are reminder that even our vast ocean has its limits. If we don’t take action soon, fish may disappear from our oceans — and plates — forever.
Why you should care
Within our lifetimes, the world’s supply of fish could collapse entirely. That’s right: no more sushi, no more pet goldfish and moreover, devastated economies and food supplies in the developing world.