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Fish, shellfish, and other sea life are often touted as the healthiest meat around. The meat is usually lean, full of omegas, and well, to some it just takes good. Many cultures around the world currently rely on fish as a source of calories and protein. It’s estimated that the average person eats roughly 37 pounds of fish in one year. Over a 50 year period that turns into 1850 pounds of fish.

The oceans, in all their vast mystery, seem infinite, full of possibilities, and full of fish! For that reason, it’s hard to imagine that some day the oceans’ resources might dry up and the fish populations will dwindle to practically nothing. But according to scientists, that is exactly what is going to happen if we continue fishing the way we do. It is estimated that by 2050, the oceans fish populations will be down 90 percent from what they were.

The Problem

In a four year study at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, at the University of California, scientists “researched the historical records of sixty-four oceanic regions across the globe, representing 83 percent of the fish species in the world.” They projected that the world’s oceans would be largely barren of fish in less than 50 years.

So what’s causing this? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), over-fishing is to blame.

When there is sustained over-fishing, like we experience today, we “reduce the spawning biomass of a fishery below desired levels,” reducing the amount of large, long-lived predator species while increasing the amounts of the smaller, shorter-lived species. These changes have already been observed in the North Sea, Yellow Sea, North Atlantic, Gulf of Thailand, and southeastern Australia.

Not only are the target species suffering from our over-fishing, but non-target species are as well. Non-selective fishing gear often entangles fish, turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, and otherwise endangered or vulnerable species. This bycatch is usually discarded back into the water. Not only does this threaten the species that represent by-catch, but it also threatens species associated with it. An example of this can be found in the North Sea, where the discarded fish represent up to 30 percent of the fish seabirds would’ve caught for food.

Even lost nets contribute to the decline. Despite the fact that no one is around to collect them, lost nets catch fish and other marine animals, preventing them from hunting or searching for food, and eventually kill them. This is known as ghost fishing and is a significant threat to our oceans.

The problem lies in that our appetite for fish is growing and is expected to continue. This demand for fish will drive up the prices, giving incentive to fishermen to continue catching fish, despite the fact that our oceans are running dry.  

The Solution

While it’s unclear if population decline and species composition will be easily reversible, difficult to reverse, or irreversible, solutions to the issue of over-fishing are still being put on the table.

The FAO reports that more education and data provided to managers and fishermen might help them in making wiser decisions regarding fishing and its impacts. Technologies to increase harvesting selectivity would aid in reducing bycatch, while education and awareness, the prohibition on dumping damaged gear, and retrieval programs would reduce the effects of ghost fishing drastically. “Finally, the adoption and enforcement of measures to prohibit destructive fishing practices can also help to reduce the impacts of fishing on the environment,” according to the FAO.

While many cultures do rely heavily on the fishing industry as their main source of food, we in the developed world have no need to eat fish. The nutrients found in fish can be found in plant foods, making it much easier than ever to leave fish off the plate. If we are going to keep the oceans’ fish populations intact, we’ve got to stop over-exploiting them.

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Image source: Rennett Stowe/Flickr