Collapsing Fisheries – Have We Reached the End of the Line?


Fish is important to humans not only as a source of food, but also as an emblem of cultural identity. In 2013, global fish consumption was at a record high of 37 pounds per person per year. Reports suggest that people eat four times as much fish today as they did in 1950. Given that the human population has roughly doubled since then, this represents an almost eight-fold increase in fish consumption worldwide. This does not take into account the vast quantities of fish that are harvested to service the aquaculture and agricultural industries. If the world’s wild fish resources are to survive, such practices are no longer sustainable.


A new study suggested that overfishing could lead to a catastrophic loss of marine species and global fisheries cease to exist by 2050.


Source: SeaWeb


The numbers are disconcerting. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Office (FAO), approximately 85% of global fish stocks are currently overexploited, depleted or in recovery from exploitation. Fewer than 100 cod over the age of 13 years have been reported in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. As a result, biologists fear that ecosystems are losing fish before they even reach reproductive maturity. It follows that seabirds, whales and other animals that depend on these fish for food are also in decline.


The evidence is right in front of us: we see it in the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery and in that of the South American whitefish fisheries, as well as in the dramatic decline of the Pacific salmon population. Overfishing, poor fishing practices and poor regulations are most certainly a large part of the problem; and yet, improved regulation and practices have had no marked effect on the health of fish populations.


While fish populations are being depleted, so are their habitats. In the Mediterranean and North seas, there are large areas of underwater desert or “dead” areas. These are the end result of poorly regulated harvesting methods – or more specifically – bottom trawling by heavily subsidized industrial-scale fleets. It has been reported that similar fleets are bottom trawling in tropical oceans; approximately one quarter of the European Union catches its fish outside European waters, which has a direct effect on areas such as the West African seas.


Causes of Fishery Collapse


Fishing with modern technology has been called the most destructive activity on earth. Trawlers can gather hundreds of thousands of kilos of fish in a day, a practice that is clearly not sustainable. According to the FAO, West African fisheries are overexploited and coastal fisheries have declined 50% in the past 30 years. The fish population in the tropics is expected to decline a further 40% by 2050, leaving the people who depend on it as a key source of protein with little or no food – or food security.


Subsidizing fishing fleets to catch diminishing stocks is an unsustainable policy to keep jobs within the fishing industry. However, it has become standard practice for countries that are seeing a decline in the fishing industry. For example, in Spain, one in three fish caught is paid for by subsidy; the same can be said about the East Coast of America and Japan. It is a short-term solution with long-term repercussions. Artisanal fishing catches half the world’s fish, yet it provides 90% of the sector’s jobs – evidence that subsidizing is an outdated concept.

Fishing with modern technology has been called the most destructive activity on earth.



Fisheries experts have suggested that individual governments set quotas based on stock levels in their local waters as well as on input from local stakeholders – namely, the fishermen. Ensuring that the local fishermen have a hand in the regulation of the fish they harvest gives them a vested interest in restoring and maintaining stocks. Taking this approach could remove the competition to harvest the greatest volume possible whether by fisherman or fleet. This method has been successful in several countries, including Iceland, New Zealand and the US. Managing fisheries in this way may help slow or reverse current trends.


Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a management tool under serious consideration. Like protected areas on land MPAs provide safe havens for local stocks which are likely to populate adjacent “take” zones. This method will call for close monitoring and spot-checks to ensure regulations are adhered to.


Aquaculture is on the rise all over the globe. Today more than half of the fish sold commercially comes from aquaculture. Countries such as China produce approximately 80% of their fish using farming methods. Aquaculture is seen by some as a way to ease pressure on wild stocks while providing a necessary food source. However, farmed stock requires fishmeal as its primary source of food, which in turn puts pressure on the fish stocks being exploited for fish meal. Clearly, aquaculture eases pressure on some stocks while putting extra pressure on others.


Ocean Seeding


We cannot hope to ever fully reverse the decline in marine ecosystems and fish populations, but we can establish restoration targets. A relatively new technology that is being developed to help rebuild and restore fish populations – and by default, marine ecosystems – is ocean seeding or ocean fertilization.


Performed in situ and on a small scale, in carefully chosen and controlled environments, ocean seeding can be a valuable tool for governments looking for a progressive solution to the growing problem of overfished oceans and shores. It has been shown that seeding the ocean with precisely calibrated amounts of iron can help restore phytoplankton levels, which in turn can stimulate and support growth in fish populations.


Oceaneos represents a true centre of excellence in the field of ocean seeding technology. Driven by the common goal of restoring ocean life on our planet, our people have the experience and expertise to deliver seamless ocean fertilization initiatives. From initial analysis to mapping and data visualization, our solutions ensure that every ocean seeding project undertaken is delivered in a controlled and responsible way – and under the guidelines of the UN.

Jack Mackerel – A Case Study


The jack mackerel fishery is located off the coasts of Chile and Peru. Jack mackerel is rich in protein and is a staple for many populations throughout the world, including Africa. It is also used as feed in the aquaculture and swine industries. In addition, it is an important fish for the South American nations of Chile and Peru, both industrially and culturally. However, jack mackerel stocks have not responded well to changing ocean conditions and industrial fishing practices.
fishAccording to data from the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, stocks have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons in the 1990s to less than a tenth of that today. In 2006, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization was formed to protect fish, particularly jack mackerel. Over four years, 14 countries negotiated and developed an agreement aimed at building a sustainable fishery. To date, however, only six countries have ratified the agreement.




The case of the jack mackerel serves as just one example of how serious the problems of overfishing and changing ocean conditions have become.

If we don’t save jack mackerel today, we won’t be able to do it later.