- In recent years, evidence has accumulated that many
fish stocks are being over-exploited by commercial
fisheries around the world.
- Of the 157 stock groups in U.S. waters where
exploitation data are available, 56 (36 percent) are
known to be over-exploited, while 70 (44 percent) are
fished at the maximum level.
- Among other examples, historically-abundant fish
species in the northeast region of the United States,
such as cod, haddock, red drum, yellowtail flounder and
halibut, have been so severely over-fished that their
current numbers are the lowest on record. Populations of
three species of snapper and one of grouper in Hawaiian
waters are between 10 and 30 percent of historic levels.
Nassau grouper and Jewish in the Caribbean, Gulf of
Mexico and the Atlantic are commercially extinct. In
Chesapeake Bay, landings of American oyster have declined
by over 90 percent from levels 100 years ago. White
abalone throughout coastal California have been fished to
commercial extinction, and their survival is now in
- The effects of over-fishing can be profound. In 1992,
the Canadian government closed the commercial groundfish
(e.g. cod, halibut) fishery off Newfoundland in response
to dramatically declining catches. The following year,
the government banned all recreational and food fishing.
The closure has resulted in the loss of 40,000 jobs, a
social welfare hill in excess of one billion dollars and
the virtual demise of entire communities.
- Although many factors affect the size of fish
populations at any time-for example, slight perturbations
in climate, and complex interactions between climate and
ocean cycles-evidence is strong that human impacts,
especially over-fishing, have played a significant role
in fish stock declines.
- According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO), virtually every commercial fish
species in every ocean or sea is "over-exploited," "fully
exploited," or "depleted." The FAO warns that 9 of the
world's 17 major fishing regions are in serious decline,
and that production from most of the world's fisheries
has reached or exceeds the levels at which fish stocks
can regenerate themselves.
- The cause of such concern is the rapid rise in the
size of global commercial fisheries. From 1950 to 1960,
the total recorded landings from commercial marine
fisheries rose from approximately 20 million tonnes to 40
million tonnes; by 1989, this had climbed still further,
to 86 million tonnes. Since reaching that peak, catches
have fallen slightly, despite continuing growth in the
size of the world's fishing fleet.
- Even as catches have dwindled, governments have
continued to subsidize the building of fishing boats.
According to a report in The Economist' magazine, their
combined fish-catching capacity is so great that major
fishing nations of the European Union could cut their
fleets by 40 percent with no reduction in catches. In the
United States, the Seattle-based North Pacific pollock
trawling fleet has the capacity to catch two to three
times the total allowable amount each year.
- Government subsidies allow commercial fishing fleets
to continue expanding and adding capacity, to the extent
that $124 billion dollars are spent annually to catch $70
billion worth of fish.
- Large-scale and indiscriminate fishing techniques
affect many species other than those targeted by fishing
operations. Harbor porpoise populations along the US east
coast are impacted by entanglement in gill nets, while
tens of thousands of albatross are estimated to die
annually after becoming caught on longlines.
Approximately 500 million spot, one billion sea trout and
7.S billion croaker are caught and discarded, dead, by
shrimp trawls every year.
- Such "by-catch" accounts for almost one-third of all
catches worldwide. Shrimp fisheries have the highest
ratio of by-catch to targeted catch; in the Gulf of
Mexico, 4 pounds of small and juvenile fish are discarded
for every pound of shrimp kept.
- The decline in fish stocks in the northern hemisphere
has resulted in an exodus of large-scale, long-range
industrialized fishing fleets from nations such as Japan
and the Member States of the European Union to the
relatively less exploited waters of the South. There, the
governments of many coastal states, anxious to earn hard
currency to pay off foreign debts, sell the rights to
fish in their waters. One net result of this has been the
demise of small-scale artisanal fishers and a drain of
resources from the poor South to the rich North.
- Only two-thirds of the landed global fish catch is
consumed directly. The rest is converted into fish-meal
(to feed hogs, chickens and pen-reared fish) and into
- Solutions to the over-exploitation of fish are many
and varied, and operate on a number of levels. They
include: ending government subsidies for unsustainable
fishing practices and technologies; reductions in the
size of the global commercial fishing fleet; restrictions
on certain types of gear; and the adoption of regional,
ecosystem-based management regimes. Equally important,
however, is the need for consumers to be aware of the
food they are eating and to become educated as to the
possible environmental effects of its capture and