The oceans of the world are teeming with life—home to more than 80% of all species on Earth—but human ignorance and a global lack of management are putting them at grave risk.
Simply defined, overfishing means removing more fish from an aquatic habitat than it can naturally produce. The number of fish in our oceans today is about one-sixth of what it was in 1900. Nearly 90% of all stocks of large predatory fish are gone—including such dinner favorites as tuna and cod.
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 52% of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, 20% are moderately exploited, 17% are overexploited, 7% are depleted and only 1% is recovering from depletion. Entire ecosystems are being lost as well as individual species.
Indicative of just how bad the situation has become, it now takes 17 times as much effort to catch a ton of North Sea fish as it did a century ago. Fishing fleets have grown, even as the resources they seek have been reduced; catches are getting smaller and smaller.
As a result, some companies, such as Canada’s Northern Cod Fishery, have been forced out of business, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs.
Dr. Daniel Pauly, Professor and Director of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, has predicted that, at current exploitation rates, within 25 years many big fish stocks, such as groupers, will be completely removed from ocean waters.
“We’ll have a sea full of little horrible things that nobody wants to eat,” Pauly says. “We might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton.”
It has been estimated that about a billion people—one out of every seven persons on the planet—currently rely on fish as their primary source of protein. Ocean fishing and related industries employ about 200 million people. Scientists have suggested solutions for overfishing, such as catch shares, but they mean nothing if action is not taken to implement them.
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