Sustainable fishing involves harvesting a species while maintaining a healthy population and natural balance.
Sustainable fishing ensures that fishers are meeting the needs of the present without compromising those of future generations, other species, or the marine environment.
Fish support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people – 10-12% of the world. And 3.1 billion people rely on seafood for at least 20% of their daily protein intake. In some areas, seafood can comprise as much as 70%. Global seafood consumption is at an all time high averaging 20kg per person annually. For millions of people in coastal communities, giving up fishing is not an option.
However, 90% of fish stocks are currently being fished at their maximum level or are being overfished. In the last 10 years, underfished stocks dropped from 24% to 7% of all fish species. Catches from wild fisheries peaked in 1996 and have been dropping ever since. Fishers are not fishing less, but the fish are no longer in the ocean.
As fish stocks in national waters have been depleted, industrial fishing boats have ventured further and further into other countries’ waters or the open ocean. This threatens the livelihood of coastal communities that are heavily dependent on marine resources.
For years, industrial fishing has gotten more and more efficient with greater technological advances. Unfortunately, they have not accounted for the environmental toll of this efficiency. The negative impact on marine biodiversity is already evident. Urgent and radical changes to commercial fishing are necessary to reverse current trends and restore the health of marine populations and ensure that fish and fishing are available indefinitely.
Catching fish faster than they can reproduce leads to smaller and smaller populations. This can happen in several ways:
Overfishing is happening all over the world. Approximately one-third of all commercial fish populations are already overfished with more than 50% of the rest fished at capacity. When more boats, with more efficient methods, are catching fewer fish, populations are shrinking. With global demand for fish increasing, fishing boats are getting bigger and can store more fish (as much as two 747 jumbo jets full). Huge amounts are being removed daily. Destructive fishing methods add to the problem by not only removing the fish but destroying the surrounding ecosystem.
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUU)
Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is an international threat that contributes substantially to overfishing. IUU is responsible for up to 20% of all wild marine fish caught and sold. Fishing is big business and big business often involves organized crime. IUU fishing often involves violations of international laws occurring at all levels of the production chain; from banned destructive fishing methods to the bribing of officials, from false labeling to ships flying under false country flags to avoid tracking, and more.
Another big contributor to overfishing is government subsidies. Fishing subsidies are estimated to be as high as $35 billion worldwide, of which $20 billion directly contributes to overfishing. As fishery stocks have been depleted close to shore, fishers have traveled further and further into the deep sea. This takes huge amounts of fuel and is not profitable for the boats. However, many governments provide fuel subsidies allowing industrial boats to travel great distances. These subsidies offset the costs of doing business which allows boats to indiscriminately overfish without allowing the market to naturally regulate the industry. The worldwide fishing fleet today is estimated to be 2.5x the capacity needed.
It is important to note that not all fishing subsidies are harmful. Some fund the sustainable and scientific management of fisheries and should be encouraged.
Lack of Regulations/Enforcement
Fishing regulations and enforcement in an individual country’s exclusive economic zone (within 200 nautical miles of their coast) are the responsibility of the national government. Many countries do not have quotas on fishing or scientifically-based management of fish stocks. Without proper fishery management, unsustainable fishing numbers and methods are frequently used. Similarly, many developing countries do not have the resources to enforce regulations. In some cases, commercial vessels from larger countries illegally enter these national waters and deplete seafood resources robbing local fishermen of their livelihoods.
Absence of High Seas Governance
The high seas, the 60% of the ocean that is not in any country’s territorial waters, do not have internationally recognized regulations on fishing. Nor would there be any method of enforcing such regulations. Therefore, these parts of the ocean are unregulated, and unmanaged which leads to humanity continuing to take rather than to maintain or replenish. Countries, with their own fish stocks depleted, head to the high seas and unsustainably remove fish from there. Without any oversight, the extent of the problem cannot be accurately assessed. The ocean belongs to everyone; the lack of quotas and enforced international laws is one of its greatest threats.
Lack of Transparency
The ocean covers a vast section of the planet. Fishing activities are incredibly difficult to manage without accurate information about the number of ships, where they are, and the methods they are using. Without this information, impact cannot be measured. Improved governance of the ocean and its stocks requires accurate information. Collecting this information and sharing it with policy makers, scientists, and fisheries management is essential to enforcing sustainable fishing practices.
As a consumer, you have the ability to research the source of your seafood to support only companies that are environmentally responsible. The amount of impact we can personally have on the commercial fishing industry may be minimal, but we have control over our individual choices and spending habits. And collectively, these add up.
Remember that solutions are not the same for everyone. Ending fishing altogether is not the solution, but managing it in a sustainable way is. Those in developed nations have the luxury to choose which proteins to eat. The US and the EU are the largest importers of seafood in the world; consumers there can make their voices heard. In other parts of the world, subsistence fishing is necessary to provide food for families.
Educate Yourself on the Source of Your Seafood
First and foremost, if you eat seafood, consider not only the type of seafood you choose, but also the source. What methods were used to catch it? Ask for information and expect the store or restaurant to know. Seafood guides like Seafood Watch, Ocean Wise Seafood Search and the Good Fish Guide can help. Avoid supporting fisheries that are not fishing sustainably.
Look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo. This organization independently assesses seafood for sustainable fisheries. They consider the species, the methods, the amounts, and the environmental impact before giving a certification. Look for and ask for MSC certified, sustainably sourced seafood.
Bottom trawling can be extremely detrimental to ocean environments and their residents. If you cannot determine the source of the seafood, avoid things commonly caught through trawling:
The more public pressure there is for sustainable seafood products, the sooner unsustainable fishing practices will be eliminated.
Eat Further Down the Marine Food Chain
All species are connected through a food chain. Plants get energy from the sun, animals eat plants, other animals eat those animals, and it goes on. If we eat something higher on the food chain, more energy was required to produce it than food closer to the source (the sun) making it a less efficient choice. For example, it takes 1000 pounds of seagrass to produce 100 pounds of the blue tangs who eat it. Those 100 pounds of blue tangs produce 10 pounds of grouper or jackfish which are necessary to produce 1 pound of shark or tuna. The higher we eat up the marine food chain, the larger our impact on the ocean. Aquafarmed carnivores (meat eaters) have a larger environmental impact and requirement than plant-eating species of fish. Farmed bivalves (oysters, mussels, and clams) have a neutral or even positive impact on the ocean; they filter water and can significantly improve the water quality.
The most environmentally friendly fish to eat are the small, oily ones like anchovies and sardines. They are full of vitamins and nutrients; some of the richest in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and micronutrients. By eating the whole fish, they are also an important source of calcium. And being low on the food chain, they take less marine resources to make the same amount of protein!
Eat Less Animal Protein
A third of all fish caught are used for feed for livestock. Even if you don’t eat seafood, your choices have an environmental impact on the ocean. By reducing the amount of meat and dairy, as well as seafood, you are reducing your impact on the ocean. Adding a few more vegetarian options to your weekly intact adds up. If you have other food options, use them from time to time.
Support Quotas and Regulations on Commercial Fishing
Take action and tell policy-makers to put in place laws to protect the world’s fisheries. Without proper fishery management, overfishing will continue. Self-regulation and repeatedly proven to be ineffective. Talk to your policy-makers and let them know that there is an urgent need for action in the fishing industry.
Use your voice. Contact local and national leaders. Contact world leaders and policy-makers. Use social media as a force for awareness and change. We all have much more influence that we realize. Especially when we join together.
Support Organizations Working to Promote Sustainable Fishing Practices
Some amazing organizations are working with artisanal fisheries around the world to end destructive fishing, create fishery management with quotas and sustainable practices, and encourage community-led protections and enforcement. Other organizations are working to ensure regulations are in place to protect environmentally sensitive habitats. Still other are working with national and international policy-makers to focus on enforcement of existing quotas and regulations and the creation of international governance.
There are so many groups working in this area. Find the ones that inspire you and give them your support.
Support effectively managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
Marine protected areas are effective ways to help manage fish stocks. No-take zones allow fish species to recover and actually increase the fish stock in surrounding areas. They help to rebuild biodiversity and support marine resilience by safeguarding areas of the ocean from human exploitation. Tell your legislators that you think protecting ocean wildlife and fishing sustainably are important. Support proposals for new MPAs.
The need for sustainable fishing is undisputed. Overfishing is one of the biggest threats to our ocean. Many organizations are doing great work to educate artisanal fishers in small communities and to work with governments and international organizations to create policies and enforce regulations on sustainable fishing.
Learn about what these ocean heroes are doing and what you can do to help.
Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition
Global Fishing Watch
Inland Ocean Coalition
Marine Conservation Society
Fishery Reform in Tanon Strait, Philippines
Before 2015, without regulations or enforcement, illegal and destructive fishing methods had drastically reduced fish populations and destroyed the coral reef habitat in the Tanon Strait. With the help of Rare (working with local communities) and Oceana (working on national policies). In just two years, coral cover increased by 20% and fish catches in surrounding areas doubled. The combination of local education and government policies create real change.
Sustainable Fishing Tourism, Croatia
On the Croatian island of Lastovo, when fish stocks started to decline, a local fishing couple needed to supplement their income. They decided to take tourists on their fishing boat to teach them about sustainable fishing methods. By showing people the entire journey of the fish, they are helping people to reconnect with nature. This couple is setting an example of responsible stewardship of the ocean.
Sustainably Fished Patagonian Toothfish, Falkland Islands
Rebranded as Chilean Sea Bass in the 1970’s this fish became a staple at upscale restaurants around the world. Within 20 years, the fishery had nearly collapsed. Through a collaboration of all interested parties from government to fishers to scientists, the fishery is now sustainably managed and illegal fishing is at its lowest recorded level
Transparency in Commercial Fishing, Global Fishing Watch
Global Fishing Watch aims to change how oceans are fished to make it more sustainable. To help policy makers understand what is happening in the ocean, they collect data on fishing vessels globally and make it publicly available. Transparency acts as a deterrent to illegal and unsustainable fishing practices.