Are the Oceans being Overfished? Essay
Are the Oceans being Overfished?
Imagine a couple going out to dinner at a local restaurant: to start off they order shrimp cocktail followed by a main entree of tuna steak. As they enjoy dinner, chances are they are not contemplating the source or the environmental impact of their seafood choices. As Bill Daley, a writer for the Chicago Tribune reported in 2009, “Overfishing is threatening to wipe out entire species while fish farming can wreak environmental havoc if not done right.” In fact, Daley quotes Chef Kara Brooks of the Still River Cafe in Eastford, Conn., who calls seafood menus common in most restaurants as “cooking to extinction.”
The couple above more than likely thinks of fish as an endless food supply so there will always be fish for dinner. But an article written for The New York Times reported that more than 70 percent of commercial fish stocks are now considered fully exploited, overfished or collapsed (Broad and Revkin). But are fish really as bountiful as we all think?
Although we are grappling with many urgent environmental issues, one that many people fail to recognize or think about is overfishing. In fact, the world’s demand for fish represents the misuse of our natural resources, which tips the scales considerably for other species and their related ecosystems. Perhaps one reason is that fish are considered too resilient to suffer from overfishing; early scientists and fishers could see that many species of fish lay millions of eggs.
But of all the eggs laid by just one fish, relatively few hatch, and even the few that hatch have to fight relentlessly for survival. If the baby fish make it through the first year they have a good chance of surviving. But there is a high possibility that they will end up getting caught before they reach sexual maturity so they do not have a chance to reproduce. Ultimately, the disappearance of fish not only collapses marine ecosystems but seafood industries and consumers alike.
We as the dominant species on the planet need to start taking action now to preserve the ecosystems and monitor the man made systems we have created. Making the public and the world more aware about overfishing is a giant dilemma all to its own. Schools, restaurants, and grocery store chains need to step and inform themselves about the problem and then pass the information they have gathered to the average minded customer who may have no knowledge of this problem. Just like the couple from above, we all need to educate ourselves about what the affect our appetites could be causing and where the fish we eat are coming from. Ecosystems are like a puzzle in that each organism fits together in a precise way.
If one piece is missing then the puzzle is incomplete. As a result, an ecosystem is interdependent on each species; when one disappears it could have catastrophic effects on the entire environment. In fact, a 2008 article for Christian Science Monitor reported that “overfishing has shifted entire ecosystems with often surprising, and occasionally unpleasant, results. In the tropics, seaweed often dominates where coral once reigned. Around the world, jellyfish and algae proliferate where finfish previously dominated. With big predators often gone or greatly depleted, organisms lower on the food web grow more abundant, reducing their own prey in turn” (Velasquez-Manoff).
But is overfishing the only cause of ecosystems being destroyed? Another reason fish die is because of the physical changes in the water—like temperature; changes like these can cause many fish species to die out. An example, in the beginning of 2010 a massive cold front swept through Florida causing record lows which ended up killing thousands of fish due to the drastic drop in the water temperature. In addition, Jerry Fraser author for National Fisherman, points out we flush uncountable amounts of fertilizer and other agricultural runoff into our rivers which flows into our seas.
We also build power plants by our seas and rivers which leak waste into them and pollutes the surrounding waters (Commercial Fishing Is Not Significantly Affecting the Oceans’ Biodiversity). A case in point, during the years that I lived in California there where areas around Los Angeles no one is allowed to go swimming or recommended to be around because of the amount of waste that is dumped into the coast by all the drains. So if humans are not allowed to be around for health reasons think of the effect it is having on the ecosystem in that area. As Sylvia Earle, the author of the book World is Blue, claims “half of shallow coral reefs globally are gone or in a state of serious decline since the 1950’s; in much of the Caribbean, eighty percent are dead” (13).
Scientists are in dispute how the disappearance of habitat, like coral reef, is affecting fish. Most fish spend their lives in coastal waters where there is food and protection. As Earle noted many species are being threatened by the destruction of their habitat by costal development and trawling of the ocean floors: while trawling involves pulling a large fishing net through the water behind one or more boats, towing the heavy fishing gear over the sea floor causes large scale destruction on the ocean bottom and damaging the habitats (116-117).
The impact can result in both a decline in species diversity and ecological changes towards more opportunistic organisms. Consequently, the plundering of fish in addition to elevated nutrients in the waters from pollution has caused a bloom of primitive organisms like algae and bacteria.
With reduced predation, the primitive organisms are not being eaten which are causing the reefs to look more like sewers (Velasquez-Manoff). Small boats used for joy rides, recreation fishing, and taking people out for diving are breaking off pieces of the reefs when they drop anchor. As reported on the Coral Reef Alliance website “The massive corals are the slowest growing species, adding between 5 and 25 millimeters (0.2–1 inch) per year to their length.” So just imagine taking off a chunk that is 5 feet wide it will take about 150 years for that one spot to regrow. Oil spills and sediments are also hindering the life of the delicate ecosystem. As Michael Berrill, author of The Plundered Seas, points out “About thirty percent of it comes from small spills and dumps from tanker and shipping operations.
These spills and dumps, which happen all the time and seem almost impossible to control, pollute most harbors and most of the highly trafficked waterways. Only about thirteen percent of oil pollution comes from major oil spills, but these are particularly damaging because of the sheer volume of oil over a relatively large area” (78-79). As a result, oil poisons the marine and coastal organic substrate that in turn interrupts the food chain, which their reproductive success is based. Commercial fishing enterprises may be affected permanently by the effects that oil has caused. Changes must be made either by government agencies or fishing industry themselves to help stop the disappearance of habitat, like coral reef.
The fishery collapse is a worldwide problem that affects not only the fish and their ecosystems but humans as well. As Dr. Boris Worm, a Mariner for Research Ecologist, has been widely reported that by 2048 there will be little to no fish in the earth’s water. An example of a fish that is being sought after for sporting and commercial fishing to the extent that they are almost eradicated is the tuna. Tuna is one of the world’s favorite fish to eat. As stated in an article for Time, “Tuna has been eaten for thousands of years. The Greeks sliced, salted and pickled it, and Mediterranean blue fin was a staple of the Romans soldier’s lunch box” (A Tough Catch).
If you go to the grocery store right now there are shelves full of tuna in the can and in the fish section of the meat department there is an abundance of different types of tuna to purchase. Our appetite for fish is unquenchable and we require better tasting fish like the bluefin tuna, which is served in restaurants. Charles Clover, author of the book The End of the Line, promulgates “What matter to the buyers is the taste, and the bluefin- unfortunately for it- happens to be the fish equivalent of Aberdeen Angus raised in Argentine pampas” (26). The world’s appétit for fresh seafood, bluefin tuna in particular, we need to educate themselves so that the bluefin has a chance to repopulate. As Carl Safina, author of the book Song for the Blue Ocean, points out “The bluefin tuna is clearly complete.
Some say it is nearly finished. Scientists calculate that the bluefin population off the seaboard of the United States and Canada has declined sharply since the 1970s, plummeting nearly ninety percent” (8). The demand for tuna by the United States, Japan, Europe and China has driven the bluefin almost to extinction. It has been estimated that only ten percent of the bluefin still exist. As reported in the article “A Tough Catch” printed in Time, “At the current fishing rate, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the Atlantic bluefin tuna that spawns in the Mediterranean could disappear from those waters as early as 2012” (Mahr).
The shark is another example of fish that are being hunted, also known as shark fining, to extinction. As reported by a journalist for Americas, “As the shark population’s decrease and their habitats become more threatened, mankind plays a critical role in the survival of these ancient marine creatures. (Balaguer)” A part of an extremely complex food chain, sharks are the regulators of the ocean systems food chain. They clean it up by eating the dead carcasses and keeping a cap on population growth of species by eating the sick and unfit as reported in the article for National Wildlife (Dupree).
They eat everything from tuna, seals, skates and even small fish. The disappearance of sharks from their ecosystems will cause an imbalance that will cause a major increase in the prey they use to hunt. An example of this imbalance can be found along North Carolina, which was once known for its scallop fishery but with decline of sharks there has been an influx of cownose rays. With an increase of the rays the scallop population has almost been wiped out. The rays are now working their way through the oysters and clams of that area as well.
As reported in an article for Science Daily “Maintaining the populations of top predators is critical for sustaining healthy oceanic ecosystems. Despite the vastness of the oceans, its organisms are interconnected, meaning that changes at one level have implications several steps removed. Through our work, the ocean is not so unfathomable, and we know better now why sharks matter” (Overfishing Large Sharks Impacts Entire Marine Ecosystem, Shrinks Shellfish Supply). If the sharks were to become extinct it could cause the entire ocean system to collapse.
The hunt for any kind of fish has moved beyond going and throwing a net or fishing line out hoping to catch a few. As reported by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, “Technological advancements have increased the efficiency of fishing and expanded the environments that may be fished. Such advancements relate to the design of fishing vessels and the fishing gear being utilized, as well as the variety of electronic equipment used to locate and target fish” (Fishing Technology). Going out and hoping to catch a large load isn’t just luck any more. GPS and Radar are common pieces of equipment any fishing boat help the fishermen find where the fish are located and follow. The technology we have now has made it to where the fish doesn’t even stand a chance.
There are many different methods used to catch fish: longlining, purse seining, trawling, gillnets and driftnets, just to name a few. Every method of fishing from longlining to driftnets kills unwanted animals which are called bycatch. The worst is drift netting because the nets are allowed to float freely in the sea, ocean or lake. The drift nets can range from 15 to 34 miles in length. Fish do not see this net and swim into it and get caught by their gills.
This type of fishing is very destructive because it doesn’t catch only the desired fish but anything that swims into it which causes the killing of millions of unwanted catch of sea turtles, dolphins and sharks…..etc. Another method is trawling, which is used worldwide and many protest because not only does it also catch untold amounts of unwanted bycatch but it also leaves serious damage to the sea bottom and the reefs. Trawling involves pulling a large net through the water either at mid level or dragging across the bottom which causes all fish to scramble out of their hiding places and get caught in the net.
The best image is provided in the book End of the Line in which Clover describes: a band of hunters stretch a net attached to a metal bar the spans across 2 miles of the African planes with wheels attached at the front of the bar and the remaining net dragging at high speed behind. The net would scoop up all life in its path, preys and predators alike, with only the youngest to survive because they are too small to be caught. The effect of dragging the net has completely leveled all plant and animal life in its path.
The hunters than sort through all the catch and discard about two thirds of the catch by just throwing it out for the scavengers to eat because they don’t taste good, are too small or too squished (1-2). As Clover concludes “Yet because what fishermen do is obscured by distance and the veil of water that covers the Earth, and because fish are cold blooded rather than cuddly, most people still view what happens at sea differently from what happens on land” (2).
To try to keep up the gigantic demand that the world has made for fish some have turned toward aquaculture, also known as fish farming or aquafarming which has been going on for thousands of years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines aquaculture as “the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments, including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean” (What Is Aquaculture?). But does it really help the wild stocks recover and is it good for the environment? This is where many scientists come to a disagreement. Some of the arguments voiced are that aquaculture puts strains on the wild fish because smaller wild fish, which are overfished as well, are caught and fed to the farmed fish. So we are helping one species but not the other because they are being taken out at an unorthodox rate.
Also, pesticides and veterinary drugs used on the farmed fish in an effort to treat the pests and diseases that afflict fish are contaminating the water. Another mark against fish farming is that pests and diseases that proliferate in fish farms and then spread out to afflict wild fish in that area. As quoted by Clover “In short, farmed fish have all the problems that have lead people to stampede away from intensively farmed meat and toward locally grown or organically produced livestock. For this reason the conservation of wild fish is a human health issue as well as an environmental one” (185). The positive side of aquaculture is that it can provide a living for thousands of farmers and fishermen who had seen their usual crops lose value and their catches disappear.
As reported in The Role of Supply Chains in Addressing the Global Seafood Crisis, “According to the FAO, while in the 1980’s nine percent of fish consumed by humans came from aquaculture, in 2007, it accounted for over thirty six percent of total fish production and forty five percent of the food fish supply. By 2015 supply of seafood from aquaculture will be equal to that of captured fisheries” (17). If done correctly aquaculture can help fill the overfishing gap made by human’s appetite. An excerpt from Earle’s book pointed out “in a 2000 report from the FAO, about a billion people-one in seven- rely on fish from the sea as their primary source of protein” (222).
Hopefully now, the couple that is out having dinner, while maintaining their healthy eating habits, will also make an enlightened decision about the type of seafood they will enjoy. Overfishing is an issue that has an impact that affects everything and everyone, consumers to business men and even the tiniest organism. If the world doesn’t start acting now, there may be little chance that recovery can be plausible. We have to come together and make a change in our attitude and awareness of the action consequences we are causing to our oceans. If we start educating ourselves now, we can make sound decisions about the types of fish we eat and the environmental impact our seafood choices will make.
Daley’s quote from Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans says it best: “Diversity is always desirable, whether in farming, fishing or community. If we just eat or grow the same things all the time, the variety dwindles and goes away, and we are left with three kinds of potatoes, or only a choice between tilapia and Atlantic salmon. Variety truly is the spice of life, and it’s paramount to sustaining our resources for future generations.” The question society has to start asking itself is when does our lifestyle start to justify the eradication of the fish population in our oceans?
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