“The Rainforests of the World’s Oceans.” Bursting with life, they are home to large amounts of marine biodiversity, including many species of fish, sea turtles, sharks, and starfish. Reefs serve as a source of food and economy for millions around the world, help to protect coastlines from the damaging effects of storms and erosion, and provide habitat and serve as nurseries for many economically important fish species¹.
For most of humanity’s history, the ocean has been filled with seemingly endless bounty. In many cultures, seafood is a primary source of protein, and many of the important health benefits of eating fish are now well known, such as a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids. However, as the human population on Earth has grown, so has our demand for seafood and other marine resources. As we have continued to make our fish catching technology ever more efficient, this has resulted in even greater pressures upon the world’s oceans to meet our demand for seafood².
High global seafood demand, unsustainable fishing practices, and a lack of sufficient habitat protections, regulations, and enforcement have now brought most fish stocks in the world’s ocean to levels that are near or beyond capacity for replacement. More than 85% of our global ocean fish stocks have been pushed beyond this point, including several economically important fish populations that are now threatened, such as the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna².
The impacts of overfishing
As with other ecosystem types, healthy coral reef ecosystems exist in a state of balance, and consist of a complex web of life. All lifeforms in these systems are ultimately dependent upon all of the other creatures in these ecosystems, with each one playing an important and unique role. If there are too few individuals of one species, but too many of another, this can potentially bring the entire ecosystem out of balance and lead to multiple negative physical and ecological effects.
An example of this imbalance has occurred when there has been overfishing of Groupers in the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem³. Groupers consume Damselfish, and without enough Groupers to help keep the Damselfish population under control, the Damselfish can become too numerous and create destruction in the reef by creating pockets in the reef to “farm” algae, which is their own food source. Without sufficient predation by the Groupers, too many Damselfish can lead to an overabundance of algae, which can eventually kill coral.
Overfishing can lead to the removal of entire species or groups of species, impacting multiple levels within coral reef ecosystems. Overfishing can lead to large amounts of bycatch and the mortality of non-target species⁴. There can be negative physical impacts to the reefs from overfishing as well, such as damage to the reef itself by fishing gear, certain fishing methods, and when fishing boat anchors are used.
Given that fishing is a major source of sustenance and economy worldwide, particularly for many coastal communities, depleted fish stocks can mean a loss of livelihood and an important source of nutrition.
As we have seen, overfishing is problematic and is associated with multiple negative impacts, both ecologically and economically. These negative impacts on coral reefs are made even worse by other stressors to coral ecosystems, such as coral diseases, pollution, and the threat of global climate change, where warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification are leading to coral bleaching and death⁴,⁵.
Efforts to curb overfishing on coral reefs
Despite dwindling fish stocks in coral reef ecosystems worldwide, efforts are currently underway to mitigate this trend and to embrace sustainable fishing.
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are taking actions to improve wild marine population levels through the establishment of sustainable fisheries, strengthening fishing regulations and compliance, improving fisheries management plans, the establishment of “no fishing zones,” and the promotion of sustainable aquaculture systems to relieve pressure from wild stocks⁵.
Marine Protected Areas are now being created and managed to protect coral ecosystems that serve as refuges and allow species population levels to recover and reproduce⁴,⁵. These protected areas have been found to increase fish stocks in surrounding fishing areas and to provide a refuge for species such as endangered sea turtles and dugongs.
Organizations are helping to create alternative livelihoods to fishing in coastal communities, such as the development of ecotourism industries that economically support local communities and protect the local marine environment⁵.
Decreases in bycatch incidents can be achieved through the provision of circle hooks that work more effectively to catch target species, and the use of exclusion devices in nets that allow larger animals such as sea turtles to escape. Efforts are ongoing in many coral reef communities to establish stronger policies and regulations on bycatch so that alternative, more ecologically-friendly fishing gear becomes the standard of practice⁵.
Conservation organizations are also supporting and training local communities to manage their own marine resources and to collect data and monitor marine populations⁵.
You can help too!
You can help efforts to conserve coral reef ecosystems by choosing to purchase seafood only from those sources that have been sustainably harvested.