(above photo: Octopus catcher, Misali, Pemba. © Carl Safina)
Overfishing—taking fish and other sea creatures from the ocean faster than they can reproduce—has caused more change to the world’s oceans than any other single factor so far. From fish to whales, overfishing has depleted many populations of ocean animals. Some have collapsed to very low numbers. Some are no longer commercially viable.
- Scientists report that today 90% of the world’s fisheries are either over-exploited (fished at too high a level) or fully-exploited (fished to the maximum the population can sustain).
- Overfishing has depleted many of the ocean’s large top-predators, like sharks, tunas, cod, and groupers.
- Now we are fishing species further down the food chain. This is concerning because small, lower-on-the-food-chain fish are an important food source for many larger animals. If we remove too many of these small fish, it could cause the collapse of entire ocean ecosystems.
- Overfishing harms fisheries and eco-tourism businesses. With fewer fish in the sea, there is less for fishermen to catch and for divers and eco-tourists to see!
A related problem is illegal fishing. Some fishermen, desperate to make a profit, catch more than they are supposed to, fish in areas they aren’t supposed to fish, and do not report their catches. They steal fish from the ocean. Scientists estimate that at least one fifth of the world’s catch is caught illegally. Illegal fishing harms some of the ocean’s most vulnerable ocean wildlife, like sharks, bluefin tuna, and Chilean seabass, undermines efforts to rebuild depleted species, and takes profits away from honest fishermen.
What You Can Do
See the “Fisheries Management” issue to learn about what we can do to protect fish populations from overfishing and illegal fishing. And check out our Healthy Oceans Seafood Guide to find out which fish are fished sustainably. Our seafood assessments consider whether fishing is occurring at an appropriate level, given the species’ abundance, as one of its four core criteria.
- The State of the World’s Fisheries 2014, FAO Fisheries
- The Status of U.S. Fisheries, NOAA Fisheries
- How Denial and Delay Brought Disaster to New England’s Fishing Grounds, The Pew Charitable Trusts
- Near Collapse of Gulf of Maine Cod Leads to Fishing Ban, HuffPost Green
- Insanity Caused by Eating Bluefin Tuna, National Geographic Voices
- Restricted Supply, Tepid Demand: The New Recipe for Shark Fin Soup, The Safina Center Blog
- Global Shark Conservation: Good News for Some Species, Alarming Trends for Others, National Geographic Voices
- What is Illegal Fishing? A Cartoon Crash Course, The Pew Charitable Trusts (VIDEO)
- Stolen Seafood: The Impact of Pirate Fishing on Our Oceans, Oceana
- Fish to Tasty to be Legal They Could Well be Illegal, The Safina Center Blog