The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Skunked: Collapsing fisheries pose a dire threat to the planet

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Chilean purse seineA purse seine on a Chilean fishing vessel captures tons of mackerel. NOAA

We need to navigate to where fish sticks in your mind

You can read Coty Perry’s full report on overfishing at

When you hear about sustainability, one thing that often flies under the finder is the topic of overfishing. Many will say that overfishing is a natural response to the need for more fish, but it runs much deeper than that.

The goal of this article is not to shame any specific industry, country or company. The goal is to shine light on an issue I believe is highly under-reported by mainstream media.

The news likes to cover issues that generate attention and are easy to understand. Plastic bags, global warming and electric cars are issues we’ve been hearing about for years. We understand them and we’re familiar with them so it’s easy to pick a side.

Overfishing is a complex and confusing topic for some. I hope this report shines some light on the issue and helps spread awareness.

What is overfishing?

The commercial fishing industry brings in as much as $144 billion per year. The industry has been growing for decades due to the fact that more people are eating fish today than ever before. This number increases every year.

Not to mention that a portion of the world's population relies on fish as their major source of protein because that’s what they can most easily access.

Overfishing is a response to this. The increased demand for fish means we’ve needed to adapt. These adaptations lead to an increase in the amount of fish we’re catching. Today, we’re catching fish faster than they can reproduce.

Out of 460 fish stocks across the globe, 323 of them are deemed “overfished.” This results in nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish population at near to completely depleted levels.

In a perhaps somewhat exaggerated but scary prediction, some experts believe we will run out of seafood entirely by the year 2048. With a growing world population, this is not the direction we want to go. The need for seafood will only increase as the population continues to grow and more people become aware of healthier food choices.

What causes overfishing?

The big question: Why? Why can’t we come up with a solution to the problem and why has overfishing been a problem for so long? This isn’t a new issue but it’s one that continues to progressively get worse as the need for fish increases.

There are some clear driving factors behind overfishing:

Lack of regulation

Regulations are tough to enforce and the countries responsible for the worst overfishing are the ones with the least regulation. Even countries like the United States and Canada are responsible for overfishing and they have some of the most strict regulations. Enforcing these regulations is a problem.

Unreported fishing

Regulations only go so far and a lot of fishing flies under the radar. In many cases, this is the only way fisheries in developing nations can turn a profit. It’s understandable why they do it but it proves that there is an overarching systemic problem that needs to be addressed.


The biggest driving factor behind overfishing is subsidies. Governments are pumping money into the commercial fishing industry and they’re the powers in place to ensure overfishing doesn’t happen. This creates a major conflict of interest and the smaller fisheries and oceanside communities cannot compete with their prices or volume.

Why is it a problem?

It’s pretty clear why overfishing is a problem. It creates a trickle-down effect that has an overall negative impact on the environment as a whole. It’s not just about fish stock, there are a lot of other details and consequences to understand.

Destruction of communities

While commercial fishing creates a lot of jobs, it also destroys them. There are a number of small communities and island nations across the globe that rely on fishing as their primary means of commerce and even food. When megaship operations come through and suck up all the resources, it leaves very little for the families that have been relying on their waters to survive for hundreds of years. Not to mention the fact that these ships create damaging ripple effects that make it even more difficult for the local fishermen to catch anything.

Increased algae

Algae is generally a good thing but it’s not when fish are depleted. The lack of fish in many of the waters that used to have them results in a surplus of algae bloom which actually kills fish by depleting their oxygen levels and making it more difficult for them to breathe. The algae can get into their gills and suffocate them.

Ghost fishing

It’s believed that as many as 25,000 nets float through the Northeast Atlantic alone. This is why nearly 4,600 sea turtles die each year in the United States as a result of fishing nets and hooks. Ghost fishing occurs when commercial fishing boats leave things behind or simply throw them overboard because they don’t need them anymore. Keep in mind that these nets are not your typical fishing net that you’d take to the lake. These are monstrous mile-long trawling nets that destroy the ocean floor and when left behind become a death trap for everything in sight.


Along with ghost fishing is bycatch. This occurs when animals are caught as a result of poor fisheries management and bad practice. Since these trawling nets are so long, they naturally scoop up other types of fish and marine animals that are not intended for the net. Turtles, dolphins, sharks, and other creatures are accidentally caught in these nets. In fact, bycatch kills as many as 300,000 dolphins worldwide each year.


What about all the fish that are caught in these nets, where do they go? Much of the time the odds of them surviving are next to none so they’re simply disposed of if they’re caught. Also, certain catch quotas are provided to ships as well. This means that they’re only allowed to catch a certain number of fish before they need to call it quits. So, what do they do? They continue fishing until they catch something larger, and throw away the smaller fish so they can make more money when they head back to shore.

The biggest offenders

I’ve mentioned a few countries throughout this article and while the focus may be on Western nations, it’s usually underdeveloped areas of the Pacific that are the worst offenders. To give you an idea of how long this has been an issue, in 2013, Pew Charitable Trusts published a shame list documenting the six worst overfishing offenders.

These are called the Pacific Six and they include:

  • Japan
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • South Korea
  • Taipei
  • United States

These six countries are responsible for around 80 percent of the overfishing in the world, especially when it comes to popular species like bluefin tuna.

Final thoughts

Where do we go from here? What do we do with this information? The key to making a change and formulating a resurgence is through awareness and that’s why I report on these issues. I want people to understand that the buck doesn’t stop at the issues you hear about everyday. There are serious threats to our environment, food supply, and supply chain. Overfishing is a big problem and one that doesn’t get enough attention. Spread the word.

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