Are We Too Good at Catching Fish?
Frozen bluefin, yellowfin, southern bluefin, and bigeye tuna (Photo © Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Stock)

Overfishing—catching fish faster than they can reproduce—is an urgent and devastating issue, and may be the single biggest threat to ocean ecosystems. Today, 85 percent of the world's fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed. The global fishing fleet is operating at 2.5 times the sustainable level—there are simply too many boats chasing a dwindling number of fish.

Large Fish are First to Go

Large fish, those that live a long time and those that are slow to reproduce are among the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, this includes some of our favorite seafoods. For instance, of the 307 shark species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 50 are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Several species of rockfish—a group of Northeast Pacific fish also known as snapper that can live to be over 100 years old—were severely depleted by years of overfishing. Despite new fishing restrictions, it will be decades before these long-lived fish begin to recover.

Fishing Down the Food Web

When one kind of fish is no longer plentiful, fishermen may move on to new species. Scientists have documented a gradual transition in fisheries landings over the last few decades from high-level predators such as tuna and cod, to species lower in the food web, like crabs, sardines and squid—a phenomenon known as "fishing down the food web." Since these species are often important prey for other fish, as well as seabirds and marine mammals, their removal impacts species throughout the ecosystem.

Finding a Solution for Fishermen

The ocean ecosystem—and the food on our tables—aren't the only things affected by overfishing. Along the way, it becomes more and more difficult for fishermen to make a living. Many fisheries have already suffered. Some—like New England cod—have already "collapsed," meaning the population is at 10 percent or less of their historic levels, a point at which recovery may be impossible. When this happens, coastal economies can be devastated.
What You Can Do

Smart Seafood Choices
Choose seafood wisely
Use our Seafood Watch pocket guides to select sustainable fish from restaurants and stores. Always ask where your seafood is from and how it was caught. In particular, choose from the green, "Best Choices" list. These items are fished in an environmentally responsible fashion. If those items aren't available, try a yellow "Good Alternative."
Download or print a pocket guide

Smart Seafood Choices
Try something new
We need to spread our consumption beyond a few popular fish. Ask for and purchase items from the "Best Choices" list and find a tasty, healthy, new favorite.
View our chart of alternatives

Learn more about Wild Seafood Issues: