OVERFISHING of the WORLD's OCEANS
With all of the chaos ensuing in the world, everyone seems to be forgetting about the biggest and possibly most important part of the planet: the ocean. Taken for granted, the ocean has been a fundamental part of human history as it is vast in its resources. But it has been taken for granted for far too long.
The ocean accounts for approximately 71 percent of the earth’s surface and is estimated to hold roughly 97 percent of the earth’s water. Consequently, the ocean has a notable impact on the earth’s weather, climate, and resources for terrestrial and marine species alike. The ocean is categorized by scientists into 5 large oceans and multiple seas that range from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to the freezing temperatures of the Arctic Ocean. The deepest trenches, the highest peaks, and the coldest places on earth can be found under the surface of the ocean. The oceans also hold the world’s largest extant species ever, the Blue whale, down to some of the smallest, zooplankton. A marvel that has not even been fully explored, the ocean holds mysteries, intrigue, and the key to life itself.
What is meant by “the key to life itself,” is that the ocean is the top consumer of carbon emissions on the planet, keeping carbon emissions down and the air people breathe cleaner. Aforementioned, the ocean covers most of the surface of the earth, and on the surface of the water live phytoplankton, the base of the oceans’ food chains. These miniscule algae intake sunlight and carbon dioxide in order to reproduce and thrive. Phytoplankton are responsible for more than 50% of the oxygen humans breathe; not to mention the survival of thousands of marine species. The balance of the food chain in the earth’s oceans is crucial to the preservation of adequate phytoplankton stores, thus our oxygen supply and climate stability.
Overfishing would cause complete chaos in the ocean’s food chain. If the middleman is taken out, which is most of the fish consumed by humans such as tuna and sardines, then the larger fish and other sea creatures will run out of their food source, causing their extinction or adaptation to their new environment. These fish might then end up disrupting some other area of the ocean’s food chain. Additionally, the smaller fish will not be able to control the zooplankton population, largely krill, which will lead to zooplankton’s overpopulation, where they in turn will deplete phytoplankton stores in the ocean. This will lead to a rise in carbon emissions in the world, and accelerate the warming of the planet’s atmosphere.
Rudimentary environmentalists may think that most environmental issues concerning the oceans lie in the amount of plastic polluting the waters. While that is a major problem, it overshadows the less familiar issue of industrialized fishing and overfishing of our oceans in general. This situation is far more urgent and irreversible than the commercialized “save the turtles: ban plastic straws” campaign that gained popularity on social media a few years ago. Industrialized fishing is a multifaceted problem that is more difficult to tackle than one might think.
The ocean is a vast, seemingly endless terrain. Due to its expansive nature, it is understandably difficult to govern. According to Sea Shepherd, an international marine conservation vigilante group, “more than 20% of the fish taken out of the sea comes from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” This is because out of 71% ocean covering the earth, only about 8.13% of the ocean is under legal protection, and even then it is very difficult to do so. These waters are claimed to be protected by the world’s governments, however enforcing fishing restrictions and regulations is a nearly impossible task. Because the ocean is too broad to patrol, and so many companies are making money off of commercialized fishing, it is difficult to envision the protection of our waters in our generation.
Large industrialized fishing vessels are bringing in a surplus of fish worldwide. The U.S. alone brought in 8.4 billion pounds of fish/seafood using legal practices on documented fishing vessels in 2019. Globally, nearly 3 trillion pounds of legal seafood was brought in by commercial fisheries. This does not include the amount of fish farmed in aquaculture production, or even the illegal fishing that takes place. According to Sea Around Us, 30% of global fish catch is unreported. A popular illegal form of fishing is for various species of shark. Sharks are fished specifically for their fins in a practice called finning; the sharks are caught and their first dorsal fins are cut off, then the shark is thrown back into the ocean alive and left to drown a painful death. The only reason these fins are in demand is for shark fin soup, a rather expensive dish that keeps these illegal fishermen in business. There is absolutely no ethical explanation for this much disruption to the ocean’s ecosystems.
The bulk of fish caught by commercialized fishing not only destroys the ecosystem, but whole cultures as well. Food plays a crucial role in cultures all over the world. And for many of them, fish has been the main source of protein in their diets throughout history. Coastal indigenous peoples all over the world have had fish and their cultures intertwined since the beginning of their existence. In places like the coasts of Canada and Western coast of the continent of Africa, local fishermen have had to venture further and further out into the oceans to find any fish at all, all due to the large amounts of fish caught commercially in their areas. In turn, many of these people starve or must turn to food bought at stores where the preservatives are beginning to lead to health problems not seen before in their areas.
Another impact of commercial fishing is bycatch. Bycatch is when fishermen unintentionally capture creatures and discard them by throwing them back into the ocean. Almost like the illegal shark fishing mentioned before, these creatures’ lives are toyed with for a profit. The problem in these situations is that most times, the animals caught are sea turtles, dolphins, and even whales. Dolphins and whales are some of the most brilliant minds on the planet, as well as some of the most important contributors to ocean ecosystems and the grand food chain. These species are all on the spectrum of endangerment, and oftentimes they end up dying before getting thrown out, or die on impact with the water. Fortunately, the number of dolphins killed due to bycatch has dropped from the hundred thousands in the 60s to a few hundred in the Pacific ocean alone. Of course there is no way, currently, of knowing if these numbers are accurate.
The overfishing of the world’s oceans should be looked at from many sides: for its environmental impacts and contribution to global warming, for the destruction of indigenous culture and endangerment of people who rely on small, local fisheries, as well as the empathy people should have for living creatures. It is simple for the general population to ignore what is going on in the world today when there is no direct impact on their lives yet, but one day everyone will feel the effect overfishing has had on the planet and by that time, it will be too late. There is not much people can do individually, but reducing fish intake as well as keeping oneself informed of what is going on in the oceans is a good place to start. As the saying goes, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
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“Protected Planet – Marine Protected Areas.” Protected Planet, https://www.protectedplanet.net/en/thematic-areas/marine-protected-areas.
“NOAA – Fisheries of the United States.” NOAA. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/sustainable-fisheries/fisheries-united-states.
“UK Fish Count – Numbers of Fish Caught from the Wild Each Year.” Numbers of Fish Caught from the Wild Each Year, http://fishcount.org.uk/fish-count-estimates-2/numbers-of-fish-caught-from-the-wild-each-year.
“Scientists Find That 30% of Global Fish Catch Is Unreported.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2016/01/19/scientists-find-that-30-percent-of-global-fish-catch-is-unreported.
Danika Desai. “Why the Ocean Needs the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act.” Earthjustice. https://earthjustice.org/from-the-experts/2021-june/why-the-ocean-needs-the-the-illegal-fishing-and-forced-labor-prevention-act#:~:text=Intentional%20illegal%20shark%20fishing%20often,labor%20and%20human%20rights%20laws
Darryl Fears. “Indigenous Peoples of the World’s Coastlines Are Losing Their Fisheries – and Their Way of Life.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/02/coastal-native-people-who-need-fish-the-most-are-losing-them/.
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Rene Ebersole. “How ‘Dolphin Safe’ Is Canned Tuna, Really?” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/how-dolphin-safe-is-canned-tuna.