The Economic and Environmental Impact of Overfishing

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Fish have been included in billions of peoples’ diets for many years and the fish industry has become a lucrative job for many. In the last sixty years, overfishing-- “catching too many fish at once, so the breeding population becomes too depleted to recover” has slowly been becoming a bigger problem globally because of the technological advancements, increasing demand for fish, and the economic incentive of fishing (EDF, 2019). Overfishing Northern Cod and sharks has illuminated the massive environmental and economic consequences as time has progressed. Competition exists among commercial fishermen because they don’t want to leave any fish behind for another fisherman to catch, impoverishing our waters. As a result, fishermen use destructive fishing techniques to maximize the amount of fish they catch. Fisherman often throw non-targeted, juvenile fish back dead, limiting species ability to reproduce (Raby, Colotelo, Blouin-Demers, & Cooke, 2011). Overfishing causes changes in biodiversity, habitat degradation, and the food web, so, there has been a decline in fish stocks or sub-populations of a particular species of fish, accordingly, all governments must offer subsidies--money granted by the government, enforce fishermen to give true statistics, establish bycatch limits, and implement fishing methods to reduce bycatch to prevent future economic and environmental disaster.

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Although increasing population has increased the demand of fish, overfishing has prevailed because of the open access to fishing, weak government subsidies, and advancing technology. The best example of overfishing is seen in Northern Cod. For hundreds of years cod was extremely abundant and a common food source for many. For centuries fishermen targeted cod at a sustainable rate because they were limited to the areas they traditionally fished. However, in the 1950’s, fishermen became equipped with radar, sonar, and electronic navigation systems, allowing them to fish larger areas and kill more fish. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Atlantic Cod nearly became extinct due to overfishing. A major factor towards the collapse was the advancements in technology within the fishing industry. In July 1992, the Canadian government prohibited fishing for Northern Cod, resulting in 40,000 jobs lost (Olsen, 2004). Despite the protection made towards the species for over a decade, the population remained very low (Olsen, 2004). While fishermen were relentlessly catching Northern Cod they were also catching Capelin, cod’s main food source. This restricted the Northern Cod’s ability to reproduce and intensified the effects of overfishing. Frequently, fish are unable to replenish because of their dependence on other marine life for food, strengthening the effects of overfishing.

Despite humans nearly pushing Northern Cod to extinction, we continue to over fish sharks, top predators of the sea. Currently, sharks are one of the most valuable and vulnerable species in our waters. For many sharks are portrayed as fearsome, menacing predators, who are threats to humans. However, on average six people are killed globally by a ‘shark attack’ each year (Midway, Wagner, & Burgess, 2019). In response, humans kill about 100 million sharks annually (Parks, 2013). Sharks are often caught for their fins, which are used to make shark fin soup, one of the world’s most cherished commodities and a delicacy in Asia (Verlecar, Snigdha, Desai, & Dhargalkar, 2007). The fins of the shark are cut off and then fishermen toss the dead carcass back into the water. Sharks take years to develop and many fishermen are reluctant to this fact, and kill any shark they come across. Many of these sharks aren’t fully matured when they are killed, which prohibits their ability to reproduce and furthers their vulnerability to overfishing. Overfishing sharks, has been associated with large-scale changes in ecosystems around the world (Burkholder, Heithaus, Fourqurean, Wirsing, & Dill, 2013). Overfishing sharks affects the food web immensely (Dunne & Meyers, 2009). For example, along the Atlantic coast in regions where sharks were overfished, fisheries crumbled (Ichinaga, 2016). Reduction in shark populations initiate trophic cascades, powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems through top-down effects. Sharks sustain the species below them in the food chain by removing ill and weak fish from the food chain. This maintains balance among species and ensures diversity and healthy oceans (Bornatowski, Navia, Braga, Abilhoa, & Corrêa, 2014).

Overfishing can indirectly lead to change in coral reef ecosystems. According to geologist, Dennis K. Hubbard, coral reefs take up 0.1% of all oceans and sustain 25% of all marine-life (Hubbard, Rogers, Lipps, Stanley, George, & Springer, 2016). Algae can potentially take over coral reefs because there is less plant grazing and not enough plant-eating fish, due to overfishing. If this happened, billions of fish would lose their natural habitat and form of shelter, creating substantial effects on many other species of fish as well because of how dependable they are on other fish for food (Graham & Nash, 2013). Furthermore, coral reefs safeguard coastal areas from erosion and flooding (Ferrario, Beck, Storlazzi, Micheli, Shepard, & Airoldi, 2014). The world’s coastlines are pivotal for sustainability in the world’s economy. Without coastlines there would be beach and park erosion, infrastructure destroyed, drinking sources ruined, decrease in property values, and more powerful and frequent storms and hurricanes (Fuentes, 2016). Damaging these areas will harm the human population and advance the already adverse effects of global warming.

Not only has overfishing decreased fish stocks and is a threat to coral reefs, but overfishing has caused a reduction in the actual size of fish (Cheung, Sarmiento, Dunne, Frölicher, Lam, Palomares, & Pauly, 2013). Larger fish are targeted; forcing smaller fish to mate with one another, resulting in smaller sized offspring. Also, greenhouse-gas emissions are warming waters and reducing oxygen levels, an essential ingredient for fish growth. Reduction in the length of fish has been measured for many marine species. From 2000 to 2050 under a high-emission scenario, assemblage-averaged maximum body weight is anticipated to decrease by 14 to 24% worldwide. (Cheung, Sarmiento, Dunne, Frölicher, Lam, Palomares, & Pauly, 2013). Consequently, there will be decreased food production in fisheries and a decrease in employment. The fish industry provides jobs worldwide, many in poor countries because of low wages of workers, which allows companies to maximize profits. The fish caught in these areas are often considered part of the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing industry, which is valued at $15.5 to $36.4 billion annually, accounting for 20 to 50 percent of the global catch (Shaver & Yozell, 2018). Although the industry employs many in poor countries, it takes out taxable revenue, weakens law-abiding fishing operations, and makes up sustainable development investments (Shaver & Yozell, 2018). Furthermore, these people will soon be unemployed because of the high rate of fishing, which would leave no fish left to catch, a cause of global concern.

The prevention of overfishing and enabling fish stock to recover can substantially improve productivity and maximize profits within the industry. Thus, we must implement ways to stabilize resources and industry. One way that humans are trying to stabilize resources in the fishing industry is aquaculture or fish farming. Over the last twenty years, aquaculture has been rapidly increasing due to it’s efficient food production (Lucas, 2015). Aquaculture provides close to 50% of the world’s supply of seafood, with a value of $125 billion (Bush, Belton, Hall, Vandergeest, Murray, Ponte, Kusumawati, 2013). However, aquaculture contaminates water and is a threat to human health (Lucas, 2015). Some rules and regulations have been implemented by nations around the world to help reduce the environmental impact of overfishing. International treaty organizations such as the Convention on Migratory Species have banned trade and possession of shark fin products in many U.S. states and territories, and established shark ‘sanctuaries’ in Palau and the Marshall Islands, Pacific island countries. International fishery managers are still viewing sharks as non-targeted species, and aren’t counting them towards fishery statistics (Clarke, Harley, Hoyle, & Rice, 2013). Sharks are targeted everyday by fisherman around the world, creating unreliable data, and failure to illuminate the tremendous impact we are causing to marine life as humans. Not only are sharks targeted for their precious fins, but for fishing tournament purposes as well. Sports fishing, or recreational fishing is fishing for pleasure and competition (Weis, 2011). Shark tournament anglers compete for large sums of money, sometimes reaching million-dollar prizes. Rules and regulations vary from tournament to tournament, with some tournaments limit catching to only edible shark species like Mako Sharks and Thresher Sharks, most tournaments however, do not. This results in many sharks being thrown away in dumpsters post competition. The reality of overfishing of sharks goes unnoticed, worsening ecosystem conditions and increasing the indirect effects generated from overfishing.

Today, no marine animal is safe; all species are exposed to the direct and indirect effects of overfishing. Fishing methods such as long-lining, gill-netting, and trawling often catch a lot of non-targeted species, which are economically unimportant but are extremely important ecologically. Long line fishing is a type of fishing where a ‘long line’ hangs hundreds or thousands of baited hooks. Gill-netting is when fishermen connect a long, vertical net to a line of regularly spaced floaters on the surface and drag it behind the vessel. Trawling involves pulling a fishing net on the bottom of the sea floor behind a vessel or vessels (Pol & Carr, 2000). All three methods catch non-targeted fish, which amounts to 20 million tons or one-fourth of the annual marine catch (Read, Drinker, & Northridge, 2006). As of now, Scotland, Greece, New Zealand, Kenya, and the Philippines are the only countries that have considered administering a ban on these catastrophic fishing methods. One of the simplest methods to decrease bycatch is to use lower impact fishing gear by altering and/or changing the type of gear used. Furthermore, fishermen can modify their fishing behavior and be more selective towards certain species by avoiding highly populated areas with varying species, fishing at diverse depths, and utilizing different baits (Roheim & Sutinen, 2006). If action isn’t taken to decrease the effects of overfishing, indirect consequences will continue to be produced.

Many argue that utilizing subsidies can control the detrimental environmental and economic impact of overfishing. However, many subsidies that exist today are actually furthering the negative effects of overfishing. Governments support the policy of being against overfishing, but are reluctant to withdraw subsidies because they’re worried about the socio-economic implications for fishing communities and effect on the entire fishing industry. As a result of improper government protection towards marine life, people exploit those rules all the time. Recently, satellite mapping technology is being used to detect illegal fishing and impose tougher regulations to preserve fish stocks (Lynch, 2017). Although this is supporting global fish stocks, we must employ effective subsidies such as separating the world's fisheries into domestic and international fisheries. The conflict for removing overfishing subsidies for some fish stocks would switch to home countries, and elsewhere this would remain with international places. Essentially, this would harmonize the incentives and strengthen the odds of removing overfishing subsidies. Recently, the Economic and Trade Branch of the United Nations Environment Programmes has organized a workshop program on fishery subsidies and sustainable fisheries management (Ruppel, 2018). The objective of this workshop was to provide a platform for countries to exchange opposing views and potentially pursue new subsidies. Action must be taken and countries that aren’t as reliant on fishing for survival must step up and expose countries that are relentlessly overfishing. Furthermore, people must use social media worldwide and illuminate the catastrophic impact overfishing has on marine-life and humans. Currently, humans are selfish towards fish and take advantage of their benefits. People aren’t aware of the indirect impact they’re causing to themselves in the long run.

Overfishing causes changes in biodiversity, habitat degradation, and the food web, so, there has been a decline in fish stocks or sub-populations of a particular species of fish, accordingly, all governments must offer subsidies--money granted by the government, enforce fishermen to give true statistics, establish bycatch limits, and implement fishing methods to reduce bycatch to prevent future economic and environmental disaster. Considering the reliance on fish in the poorest countries in the world and the effects on the ecosystem, international organizations are developing and reviewing potential solutions to create a more sustainable level of fishing. Overfishing has subsisted for many years, with improved knowledge about the detrimental economic and environmental effects of overfishing, effective government subsidies must be implemented before it is too late. 

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