The ocean is one of the major sources of food for human beings. This is not surprising, considering that oceans cover 75% of the Earth’s surface. The Pacific Ocean, for one, is home to well-known edible fish species such as salmon, herring, snapper, sardines and tuna. Furthermore, about 250 new species of fish are described every year (Heemstra, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity and South Africa Marine & Coastal Management, 1). However, overfishing is currently regarded as the biggest threat to the ocean’s ecosystem.
Fishing at a much faster pace than nature’s ability to replenish fish has resulted in long-term economic and ecological consequences. Major fishing industries in various parts of the world have collapsed, resulting in massive unemployment (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 11). In addition, the extinction of a certain fish species would certainly spell the loss of other marine life that feed on it. Indeed, if left unchecked, overfishing could turn fish into a rare and expensive delicacy.
Before World War II, fishing was associated with cotton nets, hand lines and coastal vessels with short ranges. Fishing capacity was often determined by factors such as the individual fisherman’s eyesight, experience and fish-finding capability. Despite the rudimentary technology, most fish populations survived. The balance between the number of fish populations and people’s ability to catch fish was maintained (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 11). But after the war, military innovations were applied to fishing equipment.
Fiberglass was used to create lighter and cheaper hulls, larger and lighter nets were woven out of synthetic line and diesel engines and other electronic gear were appended to fishing boats to increase their speed and efficiency in locating productive fishing grounds. These were soon followed with advances in processing, transport and marketing of fish. As a result, the availability of fish increased in some countries (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 11). Rising human populations and affluence, especially in the United States, Japan and Western Europe, was another factor behind the boom of the fishing industry after World War II.
During this period, fish was viewed as a cheap and inexhaustible source of protein. Thus, governments and entrepreneurs invested heavily in fishing vessels and infrastructure. Warnings of environmentalists regarding the dangers of overfishing went unheeded – the ocean was supposedly too vast and too deep for its resources to be limited (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 12). At present, it appears that nature is already exacting its revenge. Many fisheries around the world now require larger fleets to be able to come up with their usual catch (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 12).
In addition, some species of fish and other marine life have already become extinct, resulting in the loss of livelihood for many fishermen. Overfishing, once largely-ignored, is now recognized as a grave threat. Fishing is no longer the local affair that it used to be. It is currently a global enterprise that not only generates billions of dollars in private income, but also serves as the economic lifeblood of several countries. According to the 1997 statistics of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), fish and shellfish landings worldwide increased from 16. 3 million metric tons in 1950 to 91. million metric tons in 1995.
Meanwhile, the United States and several other countries extended the jurisdiction of their respective fishing industries by about 200 nautical miles offshore between 1950 and 1976 (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 12). This resulted in landings having an annual average growth rate of 5%, peaking at 86. 4 million metric tons in 1989 (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 13). World landings since 1950 were composed mostly of pelagic (open ocean) species such as tuna, mackerel and sardines. In 1994, they accounted for at least 60% of the world’s total catch.
Pelagic species constitute about 59% of the catch in the Pacific Ocean. In the Indian Ocean, on the other hand, they make up at least 50% (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 13). Demersal fishes (species that live in the ocean bottom) are also an important part of the world’s fishing industry. In 1993, it accounted for about 50% of the world’s total landings – pelagic species made up only 40%. Given the enormous amount of catch from the world’s oceans between the 1950s and the 1990s, it is inevitable that the percentage of fish landings that are traded internationally rose from 20% to 33% from 1980 to 1993.
Much of this cut is from Third World countries, which earned $15 billion in 1990 from fish exports alone (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 14). Humans consume about 60% of the world’s total fish landings in the form of processed fish meal and fish oil. This is because the percentage of catch distributed fresh decreased from almost 50% to 20% from 1950 to 1982. Freezing innovations, however, increased fourfold the percentage of fish marketed frozen – from 5% to 22% (Iudicello, Weber and Wieland, 14).
Environmental experts argued that the unsustainable nature of fishing since the end of World War II proved to be conducive to the emergence of overfishing. The oceans are said to be “among the world’s greatest commons – (owned) by everyone and by no one” (Hollander, 56). Ships and sailors, for instance, are traditionally regarded as the bearers of the privilege to enjoy the “freedom of the seas” (Hollander, 56). Meanwhile, fish – a natural and mobile ocean resource – was always considered as common property that can be taken freely (Hollander, 56).
Thus, those who are engaged in commercial fishing will not think twice about overexploiting the ocean’s fish stocks, as long as their own catch is maximized. As long as the catch was plentiful, people always assumed that the fishes in the ocean were unlimited. Furthermore, fishing was an industry that has been thriving for centuries – there was therefore no apparent need to think about its sustainability. The inhabitants of the New England coast, for example, were traditionally known for living off fisheries that caught cod, flounder and haddock.
As of 2004, about 200 million people around the world are directly employed in fisheries (Hollander, 56). Poor government planning exacerbates the problem of overfishing. In First World countries, fishing is a state-subsidized industry. Tens of billions of dollars worth of state assistance has prompted those in the fishing industry to further expand their fleet rather than devise sustainable means of catching fish. In addition, economic and cultural differences among competitors in large international fisheries almost always result in the race as to who ends up with the biggest catch (Hollander, 57).
Fishers in the world’s poorest countries are also responsible for the worsening of overfishing. Coastal dwellers in the poorest developing countries often have to compete with each other for the small stocks of fish available in their locality. In order to increase their catch, some fishers use cyanide or blow up coral reefs with dynamite. As coral reefs are the habitats of fishes, dynamite fishing diminishes and eventually destroys fish stocks (Hollander, 61). Being on the edge of starvation, fishers in the poorest nations cannot be blamed if they happened to disregard long-term management.
The immediate need to catch fish for food and livelihood often traps them in the vicious cycle of resource overexploitation. But once the sea is already depleted, so is their source of food and livelihood. Thus, something must be done to about overfishing (Hollander, 62). Overfishing is not without serious economic and ecological costs. It has resulted in the near-extinction of the world’s most important fish species, including the Atlantic halibut, Atlantic bluefin tuna, Atlantic swordfish, North Sea herring, Grand Banks cod, Argentinean hake and the Australian Murray River cod.
Overfishing has likewise severely depleted the number of other forms of marine life, such as seals, dolphins, whales, sharks and sea turtles. Furthermore, catches in the overfished areas of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans have declined since attaining their peak in 1989 (Diamond, 480). In the northwest Mediterranean, a study revealed that the removal of fish increases the population of sea urchins. A rise in the sea urchin population, in turn, reduces edible fleshy algae and produces crusts of inedible, coral-like algae.
This may result in death to other marine life due to starvation. This experiment just goes to show that overfishing has indirect but very detrimental ecosystem effects (Hollander, 59). Another very negative effect of overfishing is the destruction of livelihoods that are based on fishing. It must be noted that the fishing industry is also composed of other supporting and distributing services like fish handlers and boat builders. Thus, overfishing will push countless fishing families into poverty (Environmental Cares Organization, 250).
The collapse of the cod industry in Newfoundland, Canada in 1992 led to the loss of about 40,000 jobs (Greenpeace International, n. pag. ). Because the ocean is one of the major sources of food for human beings, common sense dictates that it must be taken cared of. While there is nothing wrong with fishing, it must allow nature to fully replenish the fish that has been caught. It must not be forgotten that the loss of fish is also the loss of survival for humankind. Thus, steps must be done in order to immediately address the problem of overfishing.