Are 5 Studies Proof Enough? Overfishing Is not 'Over'

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.
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Want to be able to enjoy eating fish in 25 years? Science suggests you cut back now. (Photo: Steven Shi/Reuters)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist who announced that overfishing was “over” in the U.S.

To Dr. Steve Murawski’s credit, he was referencing new statistics that show several tough laws dictating how many fish can be taken from specific sections of the sea have actually worked in U.S. waters. At least in the short-term.

Yet global overfishing remains one of the biggest problems facing our one ocean.

Every week seemingly, new statistics suggest we should all be concerned about taking the last fish from the sea. Here are five alarming studies:

1.    A new U.N. report—The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010—concludes that global consumption of fish has reached an all-time high. One-third of the world’s fisheries are overfished, depleted or in need of recovery. It reports that the average person globally consumes 38 pounds of fish a year. Considering that much of the world’s poorest population, in parts of Africa, India and China, eat very little fish, the statistics suggest that the rest of us account for a disproportionate serving of fish-consumption.

2.    When I was growing up, fish was what we called Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Today, we want sushi restaurants on every block, and restaurant menus and supermarket refrigerators stuffed with exotic species. The World Health Organization says that in the past 50 years, we've doubled our take of fish to around 90 million tons a year.

3.    The World Wildlife Fund sticks by its forecast that 90 percent of all the oceans’ big fish are already gone and, unless we change our ways drastically by 2048, stocks of all the fish we currently feed off will be gone.

4.    Seafood remains one of the world's healthiest forms of protein. As varying species are diminished in the wild, replacing them with farmed fish sounds like a good thing. In the U.S. today, 40 percent of the fish we eat comes from farms. Of course, risks are attached to industrialized fish farming, similar to problems on big beef lots and in poultry warehouses: Disease spreads easily, overuse of steroids and other hormones, serious impacts on wild stocks if home-grown varieties escape. The biggest concern? If we aren’t careful, one day soon all of our fish will come from farms, or science labs.

5.    The U.N. estimates that about 35 million people are directly employed in fishing. This extrapolates to about 120 million including fishermen's households, and 500 million—or about 8 percent of global population—taking into account indirect businesses, such as packaging, freezing and transport. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports significant numbers of those jobs—as many as 20 million—will be lost as wild fish disappear in the next few decades. The economic toll? At least a third of the $80 billion a year generated by the global fishing industry.


jon_bowermasterA six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.


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