Will the Ocean Ever Run Out of Fish?

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By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Jennifer Jacquet

What’s the deal with overfishing? What’s at stake? And what can we do about it? We teamed up with the good folks at TEDEd on this animated short to explain.

Punchline: Wild fish simply can’t reproduce as fast as 8 billion people can eat them. So we need better management of fishing. Our ecosystems, food security, jobs, economies, and coastal cultures all depend on it.

If you want to dig into this topic further, a transcript of the voiceover is below, with hyperlinked citations. And, for teachers, there’s a companion lesson plan available on TED.com.

Shoutouts to Dock to Dish, Greenwave, Blue Ventures, the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative, Rare’s Fish Forever program, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us Project, and many others for being part of the solution!

Fish are in trouble. The cod population off Canada’s east coast collapsed in the 1990s. Intense recreational and commercial fishing has decimated Goliath grouper populations in South Florida. And most populations of tuna have plummeted by over 50%, with the Southern Atlantic Bluefin on the verge of extinction. Those are just a couple of many examples. Overfishing is happening all over the world.

How did this happen? When some people think of fishing, they imagine relaxing in a boat and patiently reeling in the day’s catch. But modern industrial fishing — the kind that stocks our grocery shelves — looks more like warfare. In fact, the technologies they employ were developed for war. Radar, sonar, helicopters, and spotter planes are all used to guide factory ships towards dwindling schools of fish. Longlines with hundreds of hooks or huge nets round up massive amounts of fish – along with other species like seabirds, turtles, and dolphins. And fish are hauled up onto giant boats, complete with on-board flash freezing and processing facilities.

All of these technologies have enabled us to catch fish at greater depths and farther out at seathan ever before. And as the distance and depth of fishing have expanded, so has the variety of species we target. For example, the Patagonian toothfish neither sounds nor looks very appetizing, and fishermen ignored it until the late 1970s. Then it was rebranded and marketed to chefs in the US as Chilean seabass – despite the animal actually being a type of cod. Soon it was popping up in markets all over the world and is now a delicacy. Unfortunately, these deepwater fish don’t reproduce until they’re at least 10 years old, making them extremely vulnerable to overfishing when the young are caught before they’ve had a chance to spawn.

Consumer tastes and prices can also have harmful effects. For example, shark fin soup is considered such a delicacy in China and Vietnam that the fin has become the most profitable part of the shark. This leads many fishermen to fill their boats with fins – leaving millions of dead sharks behind.

The problems aren’t unique to toothfish and sharks. Almost 31% of the world’s fish populations are overfished, and another 58% are fished at the maximum sustainable level. Wild fish simply can’t reproduce as fast as 7 billion people can eat them.

Fishing also has impacts on broader ecosystems. Wild shrimp are typically caught by dragging nets the size of a football field along the ocean bottom, disrupting or destroying seafloor habitats. The catch is often as little as 5% shrimp. The rest is bycatch – unwanted animals that are thrown back dead. And coastal shrimp farming isn’t much better. Mangroves are bulldozed to make room for shrimp farms, robbing coastal communities of storm protection and natural water filtration, and depriving fish of key nursery habitats.

So what does it look like to give fish a break and let them recover? Protection can take many forms. In national waters, governments can set limits about how, when, where, and how much fishing occurs, with restrictions on certain boats and equipment. Harmful practices such as bottom trawling can be banned altogether. And we can establish marine reserves closed to all fishing, to help ecosystems restore themselves. There’s also a role for consumer awareness and boycotts to reduce wasteful practices like shark finning and push fishing industries towards more sustainable practices.

Past interventions have successfully helped depleted fish populations recover. There are many solutions. The best approach for each fishery must be considered based on science, respect for the local communities that rely on the ocean, and for fish as wild animals. And then the rules must be enforced. International collaboration is often needed too, because fish don’t care about our borders.

We need to end overfishing – ecosystems, food security, jobs, economies, and coastal cultures all depend on it.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, policy expert, and founder of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting group for ocean conservation solutions aligned with social justice. She is also a Brooklyn native, co-director of partnerships for the March for Science, and science advisor of the World Ocean Festival.

[This piece was originally posted on the National Geographic Ocean Views Blog here. It is reposted here with permission from the author.]

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