CITATION: “© [jakgree] / Adobe Stock”
For centuries, people had a relatively stable and symbiotic relationship with oceans. However, deep sea fishing became prevalent in the late 16th century with the invention of the steamboat. Soon thereafter, enormous fishing vessels exponentially sped up fish collection by trawling, or submerging colossal nets and dragging them through the ocean.
In the centuries since, we’ve distanced ourselves quite dramatically from any sentiment regarding the ocean’s prosperity. In fact, we rarely consider our impact on the oceans at all. But we should ask ourselves exactly how the planet’s richest and most biodiverse ecosystem is faring in modern times.
The Strain on the Oceans
With the advent of sonar technology and deep sea vessels, as well as a growing demand for fish, overfishing in oceans is nearly inescapable. The populations of many fish species are at dangerously low levels because the rate of fishing far exceeds the rate at which the fish can reproduce. In fact, organizations like Greenpeace have compiled lists of 23 endangered fish species, including bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic halibut, king crab, and orange roughy.
The global appetite for fish has quadrupled since 1950, contributing to the fishing industry’s dangerous practices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 41% of global fish stocks are overfished and another 58% are fully fished.
These intense fishing practices affect more than the availability of the fish to satiate hungry appetites. They affect marine life at all levels of the food chain, from the bottom-feeder to the predator. For example, commercial fisheries off the coast of California have caused a decline of anchovy populations by 85%. Since anchovies are a main source of food for sea lions, more and more of California’s sea lions have washed ashore in recent years, starving.
Bycatch—the process of unintentionally removing marine life such as turtles, dolphins, sharks, and whales from the ocean while trawling—also deeply impacts ocean biodiversity. The large nets are estimated to catch and kill about 63 billion pounds of marine life each year.
Solutions to Preserving Marine Life
Preserving ocean biodiversity at a time when human impact continues to devastate our planet is crucial. Erratic and ineffectual government regulation remains a big hurdle for progress. Pirate fishing continues unabated as illegal fisheries operate outside of sustainable guidelines and frequently underreport their catches.
Governments should face more accountability for implementing more sustainable fishing practices and regulating fishing waters. Federal traceability standards like the ones employed by the U.S. government allow people to trace the origins of their seafood. The U.S. has also imposed the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which is attributed to helping replenish many of the U.S.’s depleted fishing stocks. For example, bluefin tuna can only be caught with harpoon or rod and reel in the U.S., preventing fishermen from catching more than one at a time.
International treaties like the Port State Agreement attempt to prevent and deter all illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. These treaties grant ports greater authority on regulating foreign fishing vessels by removing incentives for lax port controls and disingenuous fisherman. Treaties like these, as well as better fishing management techniques, are crucial to preventing overfishing in oceans.