by Tanya Rai
Fish around the world are being caught at a faster rate than stocks can be replenished. Every year, we in Singapore eat 120,000 tonnes of seafood! However, 3 out of 4 of the most popular fish species eaten in Singapore are caught unsustainably. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ⅓ of the world’s fisheries are experiencing overfishing, driving fish populations to new lows. But how bad is overfishing? What kinds of harms does it inflict on our ecosystem?
Overfishing has catastrophic effects on aquatic ecosystems. When fish are caught so quickly, the remaining population fails to reproduce in time and restore fish numbers, hence reducing fish populations. It also indirectly reduces the size of the fish remaining. This is because at first, only larger fish were caught, so the smaller ones could at least still survive to reproduce. However, this also means that as more of the larger fish are depleted, fishermen switch to catching smaller fish. This process is called “fishing down the food web”. If smaller fish are beginning to be increasingly caught (and they are usually the youngest) there will be no actual population growth because they are caught before reaching reproductive maturity. This makes it even harder to restore fish stocks. Large predator fish like tuna and swordfish have decreased in numbers by 90% due to these practices. This has been ongoing since the 1960s. In Lake Simcoe, fishing down the web has been observed. However, this practice has been refuted by more recent data. Hence, the problem is even bigger than we thought, ALL trophic levels of the food web are affected, not just those at the top. In addition, it also affects the maturation speed of fish. Since those fish are caught which have matured the fastest, the remaining fish do not mature as fast. When they reproduce, their offspring will not be able to mature quickly too. This has been observed in fisheries in the North Sea.
Overfishing also affects food webs, which is the cause of the loss of many important marine species, such as turtles and corals. But, fish is food for us too. Billions rely on it for protein. If we continue to exploit fish stocks at the same rate, we risk cutting short the supply of fish for future generations, and if at the same rate, fish stocks could become completely depleted by 2048. The millions who are dependent on fishing for an income will be severely affected as well.
Many such ecologically detrimental practices have exacerbated the issue of overfishing.
There are many reasons. One primary reason is “bycatch”; when fishing for a species, other species may end up being caught too. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, for every pound of shrimp caught, six pounds of other species are caught as bycatch. These species become injured or die as a result, which will slow the rebuilding of overfished stocks. Every year, 300,000 small whales and dolphins, 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles, and 300,000 seabirds are accidentally killed. The problem is exacerbated by illegal fishing which is estimated to be worth around $34.6 billion a year. For instance, in India, where local fishermen are permitted to use foreign fishing vessels. This loophole is exploited by covetous foreign fishing firms who arrive in India with fake paperwork.
Unnecessary and excessive subsidies are another reason for overfishing. With the intent of increasing the availability of protein-containing food and supporting local farmers, subsidies encourage fishers to spend more by altering production costs. There are 2.5x more fishing vessels than needed. Due to financial support, inefficient and unsustainable fishers are able to continue fishing.
So, what can be done to help? Here’s what governments can do:
- Impose quotas to restrict the number of fish hauled. It is important for them to regularly monitor such activity, which often do go unnoticed.
- Carry out restocking which entails breeding fish in captivity and then releasing them back into their natural habitats.
- Fishing nets can be regulated to have a certain minimum size for their gaps so that small fish can escape and survive to reproduce. The size can also be made specific to the particular species that is being targeted to prevent other species from being caught.
- Subsidies can be provided for fish farming instead of fishing itself, but the fish farms have to be properly managed to be effective and beneficial. If not, a number of other problems arise. Antibiotics and other chemicals if used can enter lakes and rivers. Excess fish waste causes increased decomposition and multiplication by decomposers reducing oxygen concentrations for other aquatic life. If all the fish are too clustered together, there can be an increased spread of diseases in fish.
Currently, Singapore is thinking about carrying out aquaculture to help cope with overfishing and maintain the supply of fish. There are 123 fish farms in Singapore.
But, what can we do? Along with research about overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices, it is vital to be aware of where the fish you purchase comes from. The most unsustainably caught species include:
- Atlantic Salmon
- Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
- Orange Roughy
- Sharks (all species)
- Atlantic Halibut
Unsustainable fisheries around the world include those in India, Gambia and Vietnam. A study in these three countries by Netherlands-based Changing Markets (CM) Foundation has noted that fish stocks are collapsing in these countries, and bycatch is prevalent there. Unfortunately, in these countries, the main constituents of bycatch are young or from already damaged fish stocks. In India, states have laws to protect fish stocks but they have not been implemented. There are many boats that are using nets with smaller gaps than what is mentioned in the regulations. In Vietnam, fish stocks have depleted to such an extent that boats are fishing in foreign waters, which is not allowed. A major source of itoyori fish balls, a prominent food in Singapore, is Vietnam. However, due to overfishing, the supply of itoyori has declined by approximately 40%, increasing prices. To lower costs, manufacturers may be adding more starch and water to the fish balls, making them relatively unhealthier. In Gambia, food security is on a decline. Between 2013 and 2014, populations of Bonga fish decreased by 40% in Gambia. Those who operate the fishing process are frequently involved in scandals. Many European supermarkets such as Tesco and Aldi are selling non sustainably caught fish.
To reduce overfishing, we should be aware of fish that are not caught sustainably, such as fish that come from the above-mentioned sources or included in the list of five species above, and we should not buy them. In addition, the blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label is only applied to fisheries that are in accord with their set of requirement. The requirements consist of 28 performance indicators which take into account the fish stock, the environmental impact and the management. The next time you purchase fish, remember to look for the label!
We can also donate to WWF since they have some influence in the global market for fish. They provide financial aid to those fishers who fish sustainably, attempt to put a stop to illegal fishing, remove unnecessary subsidies and they make and enlarge marine areas that are protected. To protect fish for our future generations, we must act now. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Greenpeace International are other NGOs that are trying to combat overfishing.
Effective action is extremely imperative now, otherwise we will find ourselves in a world where there is no fish on our plates. What will you do to save the fish today?
About the Author
Tanya is 16 and is studying at SJI International school. Passionate about resolving various environmental and social issues, she wants to do her part. In her free time she practices dance, guitar or coding.
Atlantic salmon: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/atlantic-salmon-protected
Atlantic bluefin tuna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_bluefin_tuna#/media/File:Bluefin-big.jpg
Orange Roughy image: https://www.seafoodsource.com/seafood-handbook/finfish/orange-roughy
Atlantic halibut: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippoglossus_hippoglossus2.jpg