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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By asking this simple but important question at your grocery store or restaurant, you can help shape the demand for, and ultimately supply of, fish that's been caught or farmed in environmentally sustainable ways. Consumers play an important role in shaping ocean health, so start making a difference today!