Overfishing is a form of overexploitation where fish stocks are reduced to below acceptable levels. Overfishing can occur in water bodies of any sizes, such as ponds, rivers, lakes or oceans, and can result in resource depletion, reduced biological growth rates and low biomass levels. Sustained overfishing can lead to critical depensation, where the fish population is no longer able to sustain itself. Some forms of overfishing, for example the overfishing of sharks, has led to the upset of entire marine ecosystems.
The ability of a fishery to recover from overfishing depends on whether the ecosystem's conditions are suitable for the recovery. Dramatic changes in species composition can result in an ecosystem shift, where other equilibrium energy flows involve species compositions different from those that had been present before the depletion of the original fish stock. For example, once trout have been overfished, carp might take over in a way that makes it impossible for the trout to re-establish a breeding population.
Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. Gathering as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious consequences. The results not only affect the balance of life in the oceans, but also the social and economic well-being of the coastal communities who depend on fish for their way of life.
Overfishing has greatly affected many fisheries around the world. As much as 85% of the world's fisheries may be over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation. Significant overfishing has been observed in pre-industrial times. In particular, the overfishing of the western Atlantic Ocean from the earliest days of European colonisation of the Americas has been well documented. Following World War Two, industrial fishing rapidly expanded with rapid increases in worldwide fishing catches. However, many fisheries have either collapsed or degraded to a point where increased catches are no longer possible.
It is almost as though we use our military to fight the animals in the ocean. We are gradually winning this war to exterminate them. And to see this destruction happen, for nothing really – for no reason – that is a bit frustrating. Strangely enough, these effects are all reversible, all the animals that have disappeared would reappear, all the animals that were small would grow, all the relationships that you can't see any more would re-establish themselves, and the system would re-emerge.
Examples of overfishing exist in areas such as the North Sea, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the East China Sea. In these locations, overfishing has not only proved disastrous to fish stocks but also to the fishing communities relying on the harvest. Like other extractive industries such as forestry and hunting, fisheries are susceptible to economic interaction between ownership or stewardship and sustainability, otherwise known as the tragedy of the commons.
Several countries are now effectively managing their fisheries. Examples include Iceland and New Zealand. The United States has turned many of its fisheries around from being in a highly depleted state.
According to a 2008 UN report, the world's fishing fleets are losing US$50 billion each year through depleted stocks and poor fisheries management. The report, produced jointly by the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), asserts that half the world's fishing fleet could be scrapped with no change in catch. In addition, the biomass of global fish stocks have been allowed to run down to the point where it is no longer possible to catch the amount of fish that could be caught. Increased incidence of schistosomiasis in Africa has been linked to declines of fish species that eat the snails carrying the disease-causing parasites. Massive growth of jellyfish populations threaten fish stocks, as they compete with fish for food, eat fish eggs, and poison or swarm fish, and can survive in oxygen depleted environments where fish cannot; they wreak massive havoc on commercial fisheries. Overfishing eliminates a major jellyfish competitor and predator exacerbating the jellyfish population explosion. Both climate change and a restructuring of the ecosystem have been found to be major roles in an increase in jellyfish population in the Irish Sea in the 1990s.
There are three recognized types of biological overfishing: growth overfishing, recruit overfishing and ecosystem overfishing.
Growth overfishing occurs when fish are harvested at an average size that is smaller than the size that would produce the maximum yield per recruit. A recruit is an individual that makes it to maturity, or into the limits specified by a fishery, which are usually size or age. This makes the total yield less than it would be if the fish were allowed to grow to an appropriate size. It can be countered by reducing fishing mortality to lower levels and increasing the average size of harvested fish to a size that will allow maximum yield per recruit.
Recruitment overfishing occurs when the mature adult population (spawning biomass) is depleted to a level where it no longer has the reproductive capacity to replenish itself—there are not enough adults to produce offspring. Increasing the spawning stock biomass to a target level is the approach taken by managers to restore an overfished population to sustainable levels. This is generally accomplished by placing moratoriums, quotas and minimum size limits on a fish population.
Ecosystem overfishing occurs when the balance of the ecosystem is altered by overfishing. With declines in the abundance of large predatory species, the abundance of small forage type increases causing a shift in the balance of the ecosystem towards smaller fish species.
A model proposed in 2010 for predicting acceptable levels of fishing is the Harvest Control Rule (HCR), which is a set of tools and protocols with which management has some direct control of harvest rates and strategies in relation to predicting stock status, and long-term maximum sustainable yields. Constant catch and constant fishing mortality are two types of simple harvest control rules.
Fishing capacity can also be defined using an input or output orientation.
Technical efficiency of each vessel of the fleet is assumed necessary to attain this maximum catch. The degree of capacity utilization results from the comparison of the actual level of output (input) and the capacity output (input) of a vessel or a fleet.
With present and forecast world population levels it is not possible to solve the over fishing issue; however, there are mitigation measures that can save selected fisheries and forestall the collapse of others.
In order to meet the problems of overfishing, a precautionary approach and Harvest Control Rule (HCR) management principles have been introduced in the main fisheries around the world. The Traffic Light color convention introduces sets of rules based on predefined critical values, which could be adjusted as more information is gained.
According to some observers, overfishing can be viewed as an example of the tragedy of the commons; appropriate solutions would therefore promote property rights through, for instance, privatization and fish farming. Daniel K. Benjamin, in Fisheries are Classic Example of the "Tragedy of the Commons", cites research by Grafton, Squires and Fox to support the idea that privatization can solve the overfishing problem:
Another possible solution, at least for some areas, is quotas, so fishermen can only legally take a certain amount of fish. A more radical possibility is declaring certain areas of the sea "no-go zones" and make fishing there strictly illegal, so the fish in that area have time to recover and repopulate.
Controlling consumer behavior and demand is a key in mitigating action. Worldwide, a number of initiatives emerged to provide consumers with information regarding the conservation status of the seafood available to them. The Guide to Good Fish Guides lists a number of these.
Many regulatory measures are available for controlling overfishing. These measures include fishing quotas, bag limits, licensing, closed seasons, size limits and the creation of marine reserves and other marine protected areas.
A model of the interaction between fish and fishers showed that when an area is closed to fishers, but there are no catch regulations such as individual transferable quotas, fish catches are temporarily increased but overall fish biomass is reduced, resulting in the opposite outcome from the one desired for fisheries. Thus, a displacement of the fleet from one locality to another will generally have little effect if the same quota is taken. As a result, management measures such as temporary closures or establishing a marine protected area of fishing areas are ineffective when not combined with individual fishing quotas. An inherent problem with quotas is that fish populations vary from year to year. A study has found that fish populations rise dramatically after stormy years due to more nutrients reaching the surface and therefore greater primary production. To fish sustainably, quotas need to be changed each year to account for fish population.
Individual transferable quotas (ITQs) are fishery rationalization instruments defined under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as limited access permits to harvest quantities of fish. Fisheries scientists decide the optimal amount of fish (total allowable catch) to be harvested in a certain fishery. The decision considers carrying capacity, regeneration rates and future values. Under ITQs, members of a fishery are granted rights to a percentage of the total allowable catch that can be harvested each year. These quotas can be fished, bought, sold, or leased allowing for the least cost vessels to be used. ITQs are used in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Canada, and the United States. Only three ITQ programs have been implemented in the United States due to a moratorium supported by Ted Stevens.
In 2008, a large-scale study of fisheries that used ITQs compared to ones that didn't provided strong evidence that ITQs can help to prevent collapses and restore fisheries that appear to be in decline.
Several scientists have called for an end to subsidies paid to deep sea fisheries. In international waters beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones of coastal countries, many fisheries are unregulated, and fishing fleets plunder the depths with state-of-the-art technology. In a few hours, massive nets weighing up to 15 tons, dragged along the bottom by deep-water trawlers, can destroy deep-sea corals and sponge beds that have taken centuries or millennia to grow. The trawlers can target orange roughy, grenadiers, or sharks. These fish are usually long-lived and late maturing, and their populations take decades, even centuries to recover.
Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly and economist Ussif Rashid Sumaila have examined subsidies paid to bottom trawl fleets around the world. They found that US$152 million per year are paid to deep-sea fisheries. Without these subsidies, global deep-sea fisheries would operate at a loss of $50 million a year. A great deal of the subsidies paid to deep-sea trawlers is to subsidize the large amount of fuel required to travel beyond the 200-mile limit and drag weighted nets.
"There is surely a better way for governments to spend money than by paying subsidies to a fleet that burns 1.1 billion litres of fuel annually to maintain paltry catches of old growth fish from highly vulnerable stocks, while destroying their habitat in the process" – Pauly.
"Eliminating global subsidies would render these fleets economically unviable and would relieve tremendous pressure on over-fishing and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems" – Sumaila.
Fishing techniques may be altered to minimize bycatch and reduce impacts on marine habitats. These techniques include using varied gear types depending on target species and habitat type. For example, a net with larger holes will allow undersized fish to avoid capture. A turtle excluder device (TED) allows sea turtles and other megafauna to escape from shrimp trawls. Avoiding fishing in spawning grounds may allow fish stocks to rebuild by giving adults a chance to reproduce.
Aquaculture involves the farming of fish in captivity. This approach effectively privatizes fish stocks and creates incentives for farmers to conserve their stocks. It also reduces environmental impact. However, farming carnivorous fish, such as salmon, does not always reduce pressure on wild fisheries, since carnivorous farmed fish are usually fed fishmeal and fish oil extracted from wild forage fish.
Aquaculture played a minor role in the harvesting of marine organisms until the 1970s. Growth in aquaculture increased rapidly in 1990s when the rate of wild capture plateaued. Aquaculture now provides approximately half of all harvested aquatic organisms. Aquaculture production rates continue to grow while wild harvest remains steady.
Fish farming can enclose the entire breeding cycle of the fish, with fish being bred in captivity. Some fish prove difficult to breed in captivity and can be caught in the wild as juveniles and brought into captivity to increase their weight. With scientific progress more species are being made to breed in captivity. This was the case with southern bluefin tuna, which were first bred in captivity in 2009.
Sustainable seafood is a movement that has gained momentum as more people become aware of overfishing and environmentally destructive fishing methods. Sustainable seafood is seafood from either fished or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production in the future without jeopardizing the ecosystems from which it was acquired. In general, slow-growing fish that reproduce late in life, such as orange roughy, are vulnerable to overfishing. Seafood species that grow quickly and breed young, such as anchovies and sardines, are much more resistant to overfishing. Several organizations, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and Friend of the Sea, certify seafood fisheries as sustainable.
The Marine Stewardship Council has developed an environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. Environmentally responsible fisheries management and practices are rewarded with the use of its blue product ecolabel. Consumers concerned about overfishing and its consequences are increasingly able to choose seafood products that have been independently assessed against the MSC's environmental standard. This enables consumers to play a part in reversing the decline of fish stocks. As of February 2012, over 100 fisheries around the world have been independently assessed and certified as meeting the MSC standard. Their where-to-buy page lists the currently available certified seafood. As of February 2012 over 13,000 MSC-labelled products are available in 74 countries around the world. Fish & Kids is an MSC project to teach schoolchildren about marine environmental issues, including overfishing.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, although not an official certifying body like the MSC, also provides guidance on the sustainability of certain fish species. Some seafood restaurants have begun to offer more sustainable seafood options. The Seafood Choices Alliance is an organization whose members include chefs that serve sustainable seafood at their establishments. In the US, the Sustainable Fisheries Act defines sustainable practices through national standards. Although there is no official certifying body like the MSC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has created FishWatch to help guide concerned consumers to sustainable seafood choices. See also a guide to good fish guides.
Creating awareness of overfishing and effective measures can be effective in fisheries management. Improving awareness of regulations can improve compliance. Also, creating public awareness of environmental impacts of fishing can lead to fishermen voluntarily engaging in practices such as catch and release.
The fishing industry has a strong financial incentive to oppose some measures aimed at improving the sustainability of fish stocks. Recreational fisherman also have an interest in maintaining access to fish stocks. This leads to extensive lobbying that can block or water down government policies intended to prevent overfishing.
Outside of countries' exclusive economic zones, fishing is difficult to control. Large oceangoing fishing boats are free to exploit fish stocks at will.
In waters that are the subject of territorial disputes, countries may actively encourage overfishing. A notable example is the cod wars where Britain used its navy to protect its trawlers fishing in Iceland's exclusive economic zone. Fish are highly transitory. Many species will freely move through different jurisdictions. The conservation efforts of one country can then be exploited by another.
While governments can create regulations to control people's behaviours this can be undermined by illegal fishing activity. Estimates of the size of the illegal catch range from 11 to 26 million tonnes, which represents 14-33% of the world's reported catch. Illegal fishing can take many forms. In some developing countries, large numbers of poor people are dependent on fishing. It can prove difficult to regulate this kind of overfishing, especially for weak governments. Even in regulated environments, illegal fishing may occur. While industrial fishing is often effectively controlled, smaller scale and recreational fishermen can often break regulations such as bag limits and seasonal closures. Fisherman can also easily fish illegally by doing things such as underreporting the amount of fish they caught or reporting that they caught one type of fish while actually catching another. There is also a large problem with surveillance of illegal fishing activity. In 2001, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), passed the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU). This is an agreement with the intention to stop port states from allowing boats to dock that participated in illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing. It also gives details for port states on effective measures of inspecting and reporting illegal fishing. Some illegal fishing takes place on an industrial scale with financed commercial operations.
The fishing capacity problem is not only related to the conservation of fish stocks but also to the sustainability of fishing activity. Causes of the fishing problem can be found in the property rights regime of fishing resources. Overexploitation and rent dissipation of fishermen arise in open-access fisheries as was shown in Gordon.
In open-access resources like fish stocks, in the absence of a system like individual transferable quotas, the impossibility of excluding others provokes the fishermen who want to increase catch to do so effectively by taking someone else' share, intensifying competition. This tragedy of the commons provokes a capitalization process that leads them to increase their costs until they are equal to their revenue, dissipating their rent completely.
There is always disagreement between fishermen and government scientists... Imagine an overfished area of the sea in the shape of a hockey field with nets at either end. The few fish left therein would gather around the goals because fish like structured habitats. Scientists would survey the entire field, make lots of unsuccessful hauls, and conclude that it contains few fish. The fishermen would make a beeline to the goals, catch the fish around them, and say the scientists do not know what they are talking about. The subjective impression the fishermen get is always that there's lots of fish - because they only go to places that still have them... fisheries scientists survey and compare entire areas, not only the productive fishing spots. – Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly