Overfishing is a term which describes an unsustainable fishing practice wherein more fish are caught than the ecosystem can naturally produce. Overfishing depletes natural stocks of fish and in many cases destroys their ability to ever produce again.

To help put this into perspective, in 1900, the oceans of the world contained six times more fish than they did in 2009. Now, it takes 17 times more effort to catch one ton of North Sea fish than it did then. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 80% of the world’s fish stocks are either being over-exploited or have already been depleted.

As the population of the world has grown, so has our need for more food. There has been a perception that the resources of the world are limitless or made for us to consume. This has made various corporations ignorant of the effects of destroying the world’s natural resources. Political officials override scientifically verified catch limits, budget cuts remove money needed to enforce or maintain fishery regulations, and various scientifically verified catch limits are altered to make our impact seem less negative. The reality is that the world’s resources aren’t limitless and that a change in one system can completely alter or destroy another, and no amount of gerrymandering will change this reality.

A notable situation that occurred because of overfishing was the collapse of the Northern Cod Fishery in Newfoundland, Canada. Newfoundland is the easternmost province of Canada and had 40,000 jobs for locals in the fishing industry. The lack of control over international waters allowed people from many countries to come in and over-fish the same stock together. The stock was depleted so considerably, that scientists do not believe it will ever recover.

The result for humans was that 40,000 people lost their jobs and another resource was destroyed. This pattern has occurred before in other areas of the world, and it seems that we need to learn again and again what the overarching effects are of our greed and inattention before we understand that what we’re doing can’t be undone.

Fish Populations Collapsing

If places like Newfoundland made sure to regulate the fishing quotas to not overtax the fish stocks, a renewable and reliable resource would be found. Sustainable management of fish stocks can only rebuild fish stocks in some circumstances after the damage has been done; the reality is that fish stocks need to be taken care of all the time or there is a risk of destroying the resource altogether.

A good system of enforceable catch limits is found in Alaska, but better management of fish stocks is still needed around the world. There are still widespread reports that overfishing is a problem. Part of this is because overfishing can be hard to regulate or control, but part of this is also a lack of funding or a lack of effort on the part of those in charge.

Environmental effects of overfishing are far-reaching. Whales, dolphins, and top predators begin disappearing. The fish are replaced by jellyfish and shrimp, and the ecosystem is thrown out of whack. Halibut, cod, and swordfish are only some of the fish that have been fished out since the beginning of large scale industrial fishing. The large boats used to capture the fish regularly catch bycatches of sharks, birds, and mammals that they kill and discard, and sometimes 80% of a catch is made up of bycatches.

Senseless Slaughter

The senseless slaughter of animals that aren’t even going to be used is just as bad as the massacre of the fish stocks, where high-class sonar systems allow ships to attack populations easily and entire processing and packaging plants are found within the ships to prepare on the go. Entire fish populations are wiped out this way in a very quick and efficient manner. Suddenly ecosystems are without huge numbers of members of their normal ecosystem. Taking away some of the prey and predators from an ecosystem tends to cause havoc for the system in question.

The good news is that the overfishing situation isn’t out of individual control. A single raindrop starts the flood. If you feel there needs to be a change, you must make one yourself by purchasing from sustainable fisheries (or not eating fish altogether). Supply follows demand in this case because if there is no demand, the supply will decay.

You can also talk to your local officials and see what you can persuade them to do, or take the well-being of the world’s resources into your own hands by creating a legal document and collecting signatures. Spreading awareness of sustainable fishing practices and the need to buy from sustainably run organizations is an important step towards getting more people to stop buying from over-exploiters, and therefore it is an important step towards returning a natural balance to our word.

Have you found any good fisheries, or ever worked on one yourself? Please share you experiences and leave a comment or question below.

Many thanks to Jennifer Ledoux for help in compiling the facts above.

Images via Ed Austin & Herb Jones; Lamiot