The word “progress” enjoys positive connotations. It can refer to greater speed, comfort and mobility. Likewise, progress might refer to more opportunities for women and minorities, social justice for oppressed groups, or deeper scientific inquiry. Progress brings more food to the hungry. In so doing, the great strides in technology can also have not so positive side effects. Technological advancement allows humanity to plumb the seas at deeper levels and haul greater harvests of aquatic life back to shore for consumption. As the ecological balance of the once teeming oceans starts tipping, effects of overfishing go well beyond the fish.
Who Suffers Most from Overfishing?
First of all, what is overfishing? Simply, it is fishing waters so intensely that the remaining fish are not able to repopulate their ecosystems. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 85 percent of fisheries throughout the world are nearing or exceeding their capacity to meet seafood demands. Commercial fishing focuses on larger predator fish like Atlantic Bluefish Tuna and sea bass, catching so many that their natural prey – sardines and anchovies, e.g. – are now proliferating and creating greater pressure on their own food sources like plankton. These overfishing facts are cause for concern because humans must ultimately bear the consequences.
Small Island Dwellers
Small island nations like Micronesia and Tonga possess limited land mass. Primary economic activities like farming, hunting and mining contribute little to the economies of islands in the Caribbean and Oceania, for example, compared to the financial impact of fishing.
The Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out the relationship between healthy coral reefs and adequate fish populations around these islands:
“Islanders in both the Pacific and Caribbean regions rely heavily on reef fisheries and other marine resources for food security and income generation.”
Commercial overfishing diminishes the fish numbers as well as the habitats that support them.
Least Developed Countries
Yet poor continental nation-states are also adversely affected by overfishing. From Gambia to Maldives, many rural denizens are subsisting on less-than-adequate plant-based diets. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that even modest amounts of fish supplementing such diets can improve health exponentially in terms of cardiovascular protection, fetal development and metabolic function.
Unfortunately, overfishing responds more to demand from wealthy nations than poor ones. This means that depletion will leave people of the least developed countries at a nutritional disadvantage. Noteworthy is the fact that health and nutrition are two of the four factors assessing national development.
The ill effects do not, in any event, end with economically struggling countries. In fact, the hyper-intensive catching of fish puts pressure on economies in well-off nations like the United States and Canada. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the commercial fishing off the coasts brings in over $150 billion annually. This, moreover, does not account for the licenses, equipment, rentals and guide services available for recreational fishing along North American seaboards and on inland waters. Still, a dearth caused by overfishing will inhibit both commercial and recreational piscary. This will reduce the overall revenues in business taxes and local fees.
Many international treaties and multinational trade agreements have unintentionally aided and abetted overfishing. The problem is two-fold in that the treaties allow for:
- subsidizing the expansion of participating nations’ catch capacity and,
- subsidizing fishing concerns with a record for violating regulations and skirting their penalties.
The European Union (EU) has recognized this flaw in its binding diplomatic pacts. It is now seeking a remedy from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its member states. Recognizing that financial aid of this kind contributes to the decimation of fish stocks, the EU seeks to preserve this essential industry while conserving natural resources.
Acknowledging the growing worldwide appetite for seafood, commodity investors are directing their dollars into global fish stocks. U.S. News and World Report cited the growing number of firms trading in fish:
“Some of the strongest North American seafood companies are Canada-based Clearwater Seafood and High Liner Foods, both which trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange; as well as Texas-headquartered Omega Protein Corp. (ticker: OME) and Norway’s Marine Harvest (MHG)…”
These firms invest in fishing rights, infrastructure and processing. Needless to say, the return on investment is likely to diminish as stocks continue to shrink due to overfishing.
Processing companies sit at the junction between demand and sustainability. The very high revenues that processors now earn are jeopardized by overfishing. The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that the most abundant income is coming from the most pressured species, all of them in the tuna family. When the tuna populations are exhausted, the processing industry will be forced to find a way to replace those incoming funds. They can either seek new species or raise the cost to retailers (who, in turn, will transfer that burden to customers).
Like processors, those who do the actual fishing are between the rock of demand and the hard place of supply. While subject to catch quotas by governments and international regulators, commercial fishermen may still be overfishing – quite innocently – because the restrictions do not accurately assess the need for larger, untouched stocks. For the remnant fish to thrive, their numbers must be greater than what the quotas allow. Consequently, trawlers and other fishing operations may end up fighting over future aquatic scarcity.
Like the European Union, governments across the world are coming to grips with the economic and biological problems inherent in overfishing. The soaring demand for protein in developing and newly developed economies places enormous stress on oceanic biodiversity and reproductive vigor among fish species (inland lakes and rivers are similarly pressured). International consensus may need to err on the side of ecology to preserve not only the fish, but human societies, as well. As is demonstrated here, worldwide commercial fishing will put itself out of business if trends continue unabated.