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Why is overfishing a problem and how can we prevent it?

By Hollie Ryan

Tuesday 19 December 2017 Student Journalists

I was aware of the problems associated with the meat industry before starting my degree at the University of Warwick, however studying Global Sustainable Development has opened to my eyes to the many other unsustainable industries, particularly fishing. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that fishing and aquaculture account for 10-12 per cent of the world population's livelihoods, however global fish stocks have deteriorated from overfishing. Approximately 57 per cent of fish stocks are fully-exploited and thirty per cent over-exploited, depleted or recovering.  Not only this, but roughly 11-26 million tonnes of fish catches are illegal, unreported and unregulated (World Bank 2017). Overfishing depletes the adult fish population, which impedes breeding - and this is exactly why the current practice is unsustainable. 

The most well-known example of a fishing crisis leading to quick action was the Cod moratorium in the summer of 1992 in Newfoundland, Canada. Decades of overfishing due to mismanagement meant a disaster for the eco-system and led to 40,000 fishermen losing their jobs and livelihood overnight.

The problem with fishing is that there are no real limits and restrictions on fisherman and industrial fisheries. We can explain this through Garett Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons', the idea that lakes, oceans and rivers are "common" places, shared by all. All fishermen ideally want to catch as many fish as they can to gain an income, acting on personal interest. However if every fishermen acts in their personal interest, it will eventually lead to a tragedy, because the global fish stock is not infinite. We can see Hardin's theory in terms of commercial fishing where big fishery companies are exploiting the global fish stock. 

Overfishing is having a big impact on global food security, and demand for seafood is going to keep growing in line with the predicted world population of nine billion in 2050. Industrial fleets from countries un the global north such as China and Europe are increasing, and one of the big problems is the technique used in commercial fishing, known as bottom trawling. This involves trawling nets along the seabed to catch cod, haddock, plaice and sole, however it also catches a huge amount of by-product which is then thrown back into the sea – dead.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 25% of world captured fish are thrown overboard for being caught unintentionally. This means the fishing industry is incredibly inefficient and unsustainable. Multi-national businesses think short term and in their own interest to generate profit. This has led to consumers growing accustomed to access to a wide selection of fish species at cheap prices.

So what can be done to prevent overfishing?

Many people rely on fish as part of their diet, and traditions mean it is hard to stop people from reducing their intake of fish. The main issue is the practices themselves in which fish are obtained, so this the key problem that needs to be addressed. Therefore for consumers to make a difference, we should only buy sustainably certified fish, knowing that it has been sourced correctly within safe limits. When you are food shopping, look for the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) logo on products in supermarkets.

Another way we as consumers can help is by eating less of the fish which are overfished. This means replacing fish in your diet such as cod and herring, with smaller more abundant seafood such as mackerel, crab and squid. This will cut down the demand for overfished and vulnerable fish. Educating yourself on what is overfished and endangered most means you will have a clear idea of what is best to buy, and there are many useful guides online.

Individual action however is not enough alone, and it is important that we advocate for top down strategies to reduce overfishing. As fish are a common good, it is hard to limit the amount of fishing in the ocean in the ocean. However governments can better regulate fishing industries; work together on international regulations; create more marine conservation areas, and eliminate subsidies to reduce the incentive of fishing such huge quantities. Both top-down international government action and bottom up consumer changes are vital to preventing overfishing.