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Are We Too Good at Catching Fish?

Overfishing—catching fish faster than they can reproduce—is an urgent issue and is one of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems. Today, roughly one-third of assessed fish populations are over-fished and over half are fully-fished (FAO 2016).

Large Fish Are the First to Go

Fish that are large in size, live a long time and are slow to reproduce are among the most vulnerable to overfishing. Unfortunately, this includes some of our favorite seafood. For instance, of the 465 shark species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 74 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 and effective fishing restrictions, it will be decades before these long-lived fish 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 lower-level 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 the Fishermen

The ocean’s ecosystem—and the food on our tables—isn't the only thing affected by overfishing. Fishermen find it increasingly difficult to make a living. Many fisheries have already suffered, for example the New England cod fishery has "collapsed," meaning the population is at 10 percent or less of its historic levels. It has reached a point where recovery may be impossible. When this happens, coastal economies can be devastated.

What You Can Do

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Chinook salmon

Story of Hope

Forward-Thinking Management Can Maintain Fishery Productivity

Pacific salmon in Alaska are among the most intensively managed species in the world, with excellent monitoring of fish populations and the fishery itself. Because salmon return to freshwater rivers to spawn, many populations in California and the Pacific Northwest have been severely depleted or eliminated by human activities, such as damming, deforestation, habitat loss and development. These collapses leave remaining stocks more vulnerable to fishing pressure.

The comparatively healthy river systems in Alaska, combined with precautionary fishery management, have resulted in salmon runs that are more resilient. Over the past 10 years, Alaska has landed roughly 20 times as much salmon as California, Oregon and Washington combined. The current health of Alaskan salmon populations and their habitat reflects the success of the state's management practices.

Alaskan fishery managers have taken the long view, limiting the entry of new fishermen and boats, and monitoring salmon populations to ensure they remain large enough to reproduce naturally. Salmon fisheries can only be opened after enough fish migrate up river to spawn. This also ensures that enough salmon make it up the watersheds to feed the wildlife and ecosystems upstream. Over time, catch has risen and salmon runs have remained abundant.

The Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska is home to two of the most prolific sockeye salmon runs left in the world. In the last 20 years, key population indicators have been at record levels, making it one of the most lucrative salmon fisheries in Alaska. This is due largely to sound scientific management by state and federal agencies.

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