Overfishing: An Overview. by Kirby Wetzel, December 16 2015, 4 Comments

What is overfishing?

Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In this case, the breeding population becomes too depleted to recover. The Environmental Defense Fund also defined overfishing as the wasteful type of commercial fishing—where a big sweep hauls in massive amounts of unwanted fish and sea life, as well as their ecosystems (algae, seaweed, and the like), takes the breed of fish they want, and the rest of the haul is then discarded.

Taking both definitions into consideration, the consequences of overfishing are serious. The results of prolonged and widespread overfishing affect the balance of sea life as well as the social and economic prosperity of the coastal communities that depend on fish for their way of life—and, for one-fifth of the population—their primary source of protein.

For hundreds of years, our seas and oceans have been considered a limitless treasure trove of food. Well, just like we have seen with other natural resources, there are limits. Prices skyrocket and there are shortages when we are not mindful of such limits. The increased fishing efforts over the last 50 years, as well as unsustainable fishing practices, have pushed many fish stocks to the point of collapse—so much so that the survival of some fish species is threatened.

Nearly all of the world's fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their limits and are in need of strict management and regulations to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations—such as Atlantic bluefin tuna—have declined to the point where their survival as a species is endangered. Also, one thing that does not occur to many people, is that target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, changes marine communities. This results in an abundance of smaller fish species, such as sardines and anchovies.

How do we fix it?

Many fishers are aware of the need to safeguard fish populations and the marine environment, but they are over a barrel. Illegal fishing and other regulatory problems still exist. In order for a balance to occur, the change must be made across the entire fishing industry. Fishery management must be reformed globally and sustainable practices must be implemented to conserve ecosystems, all while sustaining livelihoods and ensuring food security.

How can this be accomplished? With smarter management systems, also known as fishing rights. Fishing rights reserve the incentives that lead to overfishing. While this may seem like a common sense approach—that a fisherman’s interests are tied to the long-term health of the source of their career—it only works if everyone plays by the same rules and allows the fish population to replenish.

This is how it works: fishermen receive a secure share of the catch, called “catch shares,” and agree to adhere to the set limits that allow fish populations to be restored. This long-term ownership stake—in the form of a percentage of the fishery—is an asset, just like property or shares of a stock on the stock market, that a fisherman can sell or grant to his children. And when the fishery grows, the stake increases, along with profits.

Is it working?

Sure is. Fisheries in countries all over the globe are seeing fish populations come back. The next few years are critical to firmly establishing sustainable fishing throughout the world. For example, many countries -- Australia, Chile, Denmark, Namibia, Belize and the United States, have helped struggling fisheries by implementing fishing rights. Also of note, in the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper populations are three times what they were in 2007 when the fishery was reformed.

Ok. So now that I know this, what should I look for when buying fish?

Excellent question! I’m so glad you asked. When purchasing fish, look for sustainable options such as fresh wild-caught fish like salmon, albacore tuna, sardines or black cod. These are some of the most sustainable options. Or, use this guide when purchasing fish at the grocery store or eating out to determine the best option for you as well as the best option for our oceans.