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Overfishing occurs when fish and other marine species are caught at a rate faster than they can reproduce. We now know without a doubt that the fish in the ocean are a finite resource. Many marine scientists now believe that overfishing is the biggest threat to the ocean environment, even greater than that of other human caused disruptions like increasing pollution. The high demand for fish, along with more effective fishing techniques, has lead to many species of fish around the world being depleted, making them commercially extinct (not worth fishing). As the Ecosystem Overfishing illustration shows (Pew Oceans Commission) [ www.pewoceans.org), some of the modern fishing techniques cause additional unintentional destruction. Between 1950 and 1994, the ocean fishing industry increased the total catch by 400%. (Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation) In 1997-1998, the total global capture peaked at an estimated 93 million tons. In subsequent years, the total capture has been reduced. This reduction was in part due to climactic changes.  However, it is also believed that this is an indication that humans are now fishing more than what the ocean can produce. The growing aquaculture industry has been increasing production to help meet the growing demand of fish.  See Figure 1, courtesy of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

If global overfishing continues, wild fish populations will be further reduced, regardless of how many boats are used or what techniques are employed. Today, most of the world’s major commercially valuable fish populations are overfished , and the remainder is exploited at their maximum possible level. (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) In 1999, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 70-78% of worldwide marine fish stocks require urgent intervention to prevent population declines and to help rebuild species depleted by over fishing.  In the waters surrounding the United States, the U.S. Department of Commerce listed 959 different fish stocks in the 2001 Annual Report to Congress on the Status of U.S. Fisheries. Of these nearly 1000 species, the status of 68.3% were listed as unknown; of the remaining 31.7%, almost one third are listed as overfished.

The wild fish in our oceans are the last wild creatures that people hunt on a global scale. This overfishing not only depletes the fish that are desirable to consumers but causes serious consequences for the marine environment. The natural ocean ecosystem is disrupted; ultimately threatening many non-fished marine species as their natural food supply is removed. Sea lions, fur seals, and otters, as well as many types of bird are examples of other species that have been placed at risk as a result of overfishing. Removing excessive quantities of specific species has been shown to place the marine ecosystem as a whole at risk of collapse.

One example occurred in the Chesapeake Bay when overfishing and other environmental toxins depleted the oysters. These filterfeeders play an important role in balancing the most abundant ocean plant, microscopic algae. The Chesapeake Bay now has an estimated 1% of the former amount of oysters.  The lack of algae caused a disruption of the oxygen balance which has resulted in life-depleted areas known as dead zones (Click here for more information about dead zones). The Chesapeake Bay’s “dead zone” now stretches for hundreds of square miles during the summer.  

Overfishing impacts not only the natural balance and health of our ocean but has also resulted in great financial loss. The ability of the ocean to produce fish is of vital importance to an estimated 200 million people worldwide as they depend upon the ocean for jobs and for food. According to the United Nations, one in every five humans depends on fish as the primary source of protein. (United Nations, 2004) The fishing industry, governments, environmental scientists as well as consumers must all work together to learn how to stop destructive fishing and restore depleted fisheries. Properly managed, our oceans can continue to produce an abundant supply of fish indefinitely. Marine reserves have been one very effective potential solution to the overfishing problem, as the illustration from the PEW Oceans Commission depicts.


What can you do to help reduce Overfishing?


  • Buy your seafood from fisheries using non destructive fishing techniques. A wallet-sized, easy to use list of fish that are caught in a sustainable fashion and are not toxic or hazardous to your health, can be down loaded from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Another good source of information is the Seafood Choices Alliance.
  • Your Voice counts. Use our letter writing area to make sure your opinions and concerns are heard by government and industry leaders. Tell them that you support the creation of Marine Reserves.

Continue to read and learn about Bycatch.

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