How Can We Prevent Overfishing?

Imagine that the sun is rising on beautiful day in our not-so-distant future. A myriad of colors are glimmering on the soft ripples of the ocean. Although the day seems near perfect, the sea is suffering. Several fish species have gone extinct and most fishermen are out of work. Economies that once depended on seafood are collapsing, or already collapsed, and many people are wishing they had acted before it became too late.

Overfishing is an environmental problem that we face today, and if steps are not taken to correct this problem, species such as tuna and swordfish will become extinct. Deep-sea fishing accounts for most of the world's seafood resource. Today's fishing methods are so efficient that many ships catch almost every fish in one single area at one time. Trawl bags are used to catch fish that live near the bottom of the ocean, drift nets catch middle-dwelling fishes, and purse seines catch fish such as tuna, which swim near the surface (Berg & Hager, 2006-2007).

Overfishing has already begun to affect our economy. When 230 United States fisheries were assessed, over fifty fish species were marked as overfished. The state of many more species are as yet unknown. In New England in the early 1990s, thousands of jobs were lost when a cod fishery went under. Many more thousands of jobs were lost just because of the dying salmon population in the Pacific Northwest (Environmental Defense Fund, 2007).

Some of the techniques that are used in marine fishing are incredibly harmful to other species and to the environment: "bottom gears-such as dredges and trawls-as well as midwater gillnets, inflict the highest level of damage to habitat and marine vertebrates and invertebrates (Science Daily, 2003)." Corals and other bottom dwelling creatures are at a high risk of being damaged by this kind of fishing gear. Overfishing is not the only issue here. Environmental damage is taking its toll, and so are the genetic effects on fish species.

Certain government subsidies encourage and aid these incredibly efficient ways of harvesting fish, which only makes this problem worse. There are no limits on the harvest taken from international waters, which also exacerbates the issue. Fish that are targeted by fishing fleets are not the only species that suffer from overfishing. Bycatch, the accidental harvesting of creatures such as whales, sea turtles, birds and dolphins, is seriously endangering these species.

Jeremy Jackson, a scientist from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, believes that the best idea is to mark off "no fishing" zones for a period of time so that the endangered fish species can replenish their numbers (Declining Fish Stock VLR, 2007). Although this plan would certainly aid the fish, it may not have a good effect on the economies of many countries. A commercial fisherman named Pete Dupuis points out that many people would be out of jobs. He also reminds us that commercial fishing helps support our economy and that such a move would have serious repercussions.

In order to totally understand the issue of overfishing, one must examine all aspects of the problem. Scientists and fishery managers have worked to answer an important question: why does it take so long for fish populations to replenish themselves?

In order to answer this question, scientists looked at what particular fish are being targeted more often than others. Fisheries seek out larger fish and bigger catches. What effect does this have on the environment? Scientists have dubbed this problem the Darwinian Debt (Science Daily, 2006). Researchers from Stony Brook University conducted a controlled experiment where they harvested captive Atlantic Silverside, a marine fish. They found that the largest and oldest fish were most important to the survival of the species.

When the largest, strongest fish are removed from a population, the smaller fish breed together. Genetics encourages the creation of more small fishes. In other words, the Darwinian Debt refers to a genetic process; the fish that remain in a given population become smaller and smaller as they breed, which also encourages other negative genetic factors, such as smaller and fewer eggs with a lower likelihood for survival. The genetic effect also damages foraging skills and other traits, causing the survival rate to go down. Fisheries are removing the largest fish from their ocean habitats, which has a major effect on the future of the species.

We must find a way to balance what types and sizes of fish are harvested, and we must also do it in a way that is environmentally sound. Although there are extreme solutions-such as Jeremy Jackson's idea of setting up no-fishing zones-we must find a way to balance our solution with the economy. Setting up no-fishing zones may cost many fishermen their jobs. This negative outcome would be almost guaranteed, especially since so many jobs have already been lost by the collapse of various fisheries due to overfishing.

The solution would seem to be to limit the number of larger fish that are caught. If larger, older fish are the fish that help support the populations due to their genetics, then these fish should be targeted for conservation efforts. This would require a more specialized form of harvesting. It may take more time and be less efficient than the techniques that are now in use, but it would be beneficial in encouraging fish species to replenish their numbers.

Of course, this would not be the only part of the plan. The second part would be to develop "catch shares." Steven Gaines, a scientist, conducted a study by evaluating 11,000 fisheries records and how they are managed (Environmental Defense Fund, 2009). Gaines came to the conclusion that the best way to get rid of the overfishing problem is to change the way the market operates.

In the video mentioned earlier, Pete Dupuis insists that creating no-fishing zones would not actually solve the problem; it would only "stall" it a little. He says that it would be like "fixing a leak in your sink by having a plumber cut off the water to the entire street. The leak is fixed, but there's no water." Steven Gaines appears to have the solution to this problem. Rather than "fix the leak" by cutting off access to the resource, it makes more sense to target the "sink." In other words, it would be more beneficial to both humans and fish if we were to start solving this problem by changing the way the market works.

A successful catch share program is better for the environment because it reduces fishing techniques that are damaging or wasteful. Both safety and profits are improved. In order to repair the damage that we have inflicted on the ocean environment, I believe that two things must occur:

Number one: A plan to protect larger and older fish from various species should be instituted. This plan also involves the designing of new, more efficient and less damaging fishing gear. If too many large fish are caught, they should be protected and thrown back. They should be handled carefully so as not to be damaged.

Number two: Catch shares and incentive-based programs should be instituted at every fishery. This allows fishermen to concentrate on careful fishing, rather than the fast-paced, overly efficient and environmentally damaging techniques they are currently using, techniques that are the result of competition with other fisheries.

First of all, it is up to the scientists to get the government to pass some kind of a bill that limits the number of larger fish that can be harvested. Some forms of captivity have protected whales and dolphins in the past. A number of larger and older fish should be captured by scientists and kept in an enclosed offshore area, much like the cages used in aquaculture. The scientists would use open-ocean circulation to reduce waste. Raising more fish from the eldest and strongest of the species would help replenish numbers that would be more likely to flourish in the wild, and keeping them very close to their own habitats would raise their likelihood of survival.

Thousands of catch share programs have already been set up all over the world. The goal is to encourage every fishery accept a catch share incentive program. The government should get involved by assigning various task forces to the issue, involving both scientists and economists. The scientists and economists should work together to talk to fishery managers and explain to them why operating with catch shares is better for everyone.

The most difficult part of the task will be changing things in developing countries. But, the more fisheries that change their habits, the better. America is the biggest consumer of seafood in the world, followed by Japan and China (Environmental Defense Fund, 2007). Once the government and scientists get the majority of these fisheries to switch to a catch share program, others will be more likely to follow when they see the positive benefits of the change.

Because catch share programs involve being more environmentally conscious, fishing practices would no longer be as wasteful, which would also help fish species in that it would be easier for fishermen to limit the number of large fish caught.

This plan would most certainly be successful, but the difficulty lies in ensuring that fishermen would stick to the rules. It is tempting to catch all the large fish at one time, because most people would assume that this would raise their profits. Once a sustainability plan is enforced, there will be some people who will go against the plan. There will be some people who illegally harvest all of the larger fish, and there will be others still who simply won't care enough, or won't understand the true benefits of protecting fish species. It would be difficult to enforce the rules in international waters. Currently, there are no limits on the numbers of fish caught in those areas. Limits must be instituted.

Despite those who will be against it because they wish to immediately harvest larger fish, I believe that the community as a whole will agree with these ideas. Catch shares are an economic must. Not only will they help the environment, but they will also help fishermen, and they will make more money than fisheries operating on standard techniques.

This plan will likely take more than a year to put into motion, but I believe that the benefits are worth it. Catch share programs make sense. Competition only invites sloppiness. And according to what scientists have discovered, the Darwinian Debt can only be reversed by protecting the eldest and strongest of fish species so that their genetics can be passed on to their offspring. Without the strongest fish, species cannot reproduce as quickly and the genetics passed on through smaller, weaker fish will only reduce the likelihood of survival.

Without the fish market, our economy would suffer severely. In order to protect our future, and ourselves we must also protect the futures of fish species, as well as the ocean habitat. Without fish, and without the ocean, the human species may dwindle in numbers as well.

Various fisheries compete for their catch. Gaines proposes that we change the market by instituting an incentive program. Catch shares would mean that everyone would be promised a certain amount of the harvest. We would share the crop and work together. In fisheries where a "long term incentive" and catch shares were instituted, fisheries were managed better. Catch shares had a domino affect on every way that the fisheries operated, and the fisheries that continue to use catch shares are more successful than others (Environmental Defense Fund, 2009).


Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2006, January 12). 'Darwinian Debt' May Explain Why Fish Stocks Don't Recover. Science Daily. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from /releases/2006/01/060112040047.htm

Ecological Society Of America (2003, December 18). Comparing Ecological Impacts Of Fishing Gears. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from /releases/2003/12/031217072911.htm

Environmental Defense Fund. (2009). New Study: Catch Shares Transform Ailing Fisheries. Retrieved May 23, 2009, from

Berg, L. & Hager, M. (2007-2009). Visualizing Environmental Science, Second Edition. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Environmental Defense Fund (2007). Fisheries in Decline. Retrieved May 23, 2009, from

Declining Fish Stock VLR. (2007). University of Phoenix. Retrieved May 19, 2009, from

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