Seafood is a vital and healthy source of protein for millions of people around the world. The global destruction of fish stocks is a pressing issue that has significant implications for both marine ecosystems and human populations reliant on fisheries for food and livelihoods.
Unfortunately, numerous factors contribute to the global decline of fish populations, but destructive fishing practices are still one of the crucial aspects.
What are destructive fishing practices?
Destructive fishing practices refer to methods and techniques that cause extensive harm to marine habitats, non-targeted species, and overall ecosystem health. These practices often result in the depletion of fish stocks, disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems, and contribute to biodiversity loss.
One of the most notable examples of fish stock destruction is the case of the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. The collapse of the cod fishery in this region is considered one of the most severe and well-documented instances of overfishing and mismanagement leading to the depletion of a once-abundant fish species.
Historical example of the power of destructive fishing practices
The historic cod fishery in the northwest Atlantic was one of the largest and most lucrative in the world. However, over several decades of intense fishing pressure and inadequate management, the cod population underwent a dramatic decline. This decline was particularly prominent in the early 1990s, leading to a complete collapse of the fishery.
Several factors contributed to the collapse of the cod stocks:
Overfishing: The fishery was characterized by excessive and unsustainable fishing practices, including the use of large trawlers and longline fishing. The fishing effort far exceeded the cod population’s ability to reproduce and replenish itself, leading to a severe decline in stock size.
Lack of effective management: The management of the fishery was insufficient and failed to respond adequately to the signs of overfishing. Fishing quotas were set too high, and regulations were not effectively enforced, allowing the overexploitation to continue unchecked.
Ecological impacts: The decline of cod stocks had cascading effects on the marine ecosystem. As the population diminished, it disrupted the predator-prey dynamics, affecting other fish species, seabirds, and marine mammals that depended on cod as a food source.
The collapse of the cod fishery had devastating consequences, both environmentally and economically. It resulted in significant job losses, the decline of fishing-dependent communities, and a loss of cultural identity tied to the cod fishery. The impact on ecosystems was also substantial, as the cod's role as a top predator and its grazing behavior influenced the structure and dynamics of the marine food web.
Efforts to rebuild the cod population and restore the fishery have been ongoing, including the implementation of stricter fishing regulations, improved stock assessments, and the establishment of marine protected areas.
However, the recovery has been slow and challenging. This only highlights the importance of proactive and sustainable fisheries management to prevent such catastrophic collapses in the future.
What is the most destructive method of fishing?
The most harmful fishing practice is bottom trawling. It is often considered highly detrimental to marine ecosystems and has significant negative impacts on fish stocks and habitats.
Bottom trawling involves dragging a large net, called a trawl, along the seafloor to catch fish and other marine organisms that dwell near the bottom. The net is typically weighed down with heavy materials to ensure it stays in contact with the seafloor. As the net is towed, it indiscriminately captures both targeted and non-targeted species in its path.
Bottom trawling is considered highly destructive because it leads to:
Habitat destruction: Bottom trawling involves physically dragging the net across the seafloor, resulting in the removal and destruction of seafloor habitats, including coral reefs, seamounts, and fragile benthic ecosystems. Such a level of disturbance has long-lasting effects, impacting the overall biodiversity and ecological balance of marine environments.
Bycatch: The net indiscriminately scoops up a wide range of marine life, including juvenile fish, vulnerable species, and non-commercial species. Many organisms are caught by accident and then thrown back into the ocean, but often these organisms are injured or already dead by that point. This bycatch can sometimes reach 80 to 90 percent of the total volume of what is caught.
Overfishing: The efficiency and scale of bottom trawling leads to overfishing. As the net is dragged across large areas, it can quickly deplete fish stocks, especially for slow-growing, long-lived species that have limited reproductive capacity.
Ecosystem impacts: Bottom trawling disrupts the natural structure and functioning of marine ecosystems. It can damage important habitat-forming species like corals and sponges, disturb sediment layers, and alter the composition of benthic communities. These impacts can have far-reaching consequences for other organisms that rely on healthy habitats for survival and reproduction.
Efforts have been made to address the destructive nature of bottom trawling through measures such as implementing area closures, promoting sustainable fishing practices, and developing technologies to minimize the impact on habitats.
Examples of the most destructive fishing practices today
Understanding the detrimental impacts of destructive fishing practices is crucial for developing effective conservation strategies and sustainable fisheries management. By promoting responsible fishing methods, implementing conservation measures, and supporting ecosystem-based approaches, we can work towards mitigating the destruction of global fish stocks and safeguarding the health and productivity of our oceans.
Most of our global fisheries are now at risk due to overfishing. The rate of global oceanic fishing today is 2 to 3 times more than ocean replacement rates indicating an unsustainable level of fishing activity. More than half of global fisheries are fully exploited, meaning they are fished at or close to their maximum sustainable levels. Additionally, 34 percent of global fisheries are overexploited or depleted.
Overfishing occurs when the rate of fishing exceeds the natural ability of fish populations to reproduce and replenish themselves. This imbalance jeopardizes the livelihoods and food security of communities dependent on fisheries, disrupts marine ecosystems and food webs, and undermines the long-term viability of the fishing industry.
#2 Poisons and explosives
The traditional use of poisons to kill or stun fish is relatively common. While traditional methods involving plant-based extracts have been employed in the past, the use of cyanide and other chemicals is more prevalent today. This practice poses a severe threat as these poisons can indiscriminately kill or stun not only the targeted fish but also all organisms living within marine ecosystems.
Cyanide fishing, in particular, involves squirting cyanide into the water near coral reefs to stun fish, making them easier to capture. Cyanide is highly toxic and can have lethal effects on marine life, including fish, corals, and other organisms. It not only kills or harms the targeted fish but also disrupts the delicate balance and intricate interactions within the marine ecosystem.
The use of such poisons can result in the destruction of coral reefs, which are among the most biodiverse and ecologically important habitats on Earth. Coral reefs serve as nurseries, feeding grounds, and shelter for numerous marine species. When these ecosystems are compromised by the use of poisons, it can lead to the loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation, and long-term ecosystem imbalance.
The use of explosives in fishing has also been used for centuries, but it is now being employed at an increased rate. Explosives can create large craters on the seafloor and kill target fish as well as many non-targeted organisms as well .
Muroami is a fishing technique that is used in the coral reef ecosystems of Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, where large heavy devices (such as large stones on ropes or blocks of cement suspended by cranes) are pounded onto coral reefs.
The method also causes damage to coral reefs due to the physical impact of the net and the disturbance caused by the activity.
It involves the use of encircling nets, called “muroami nets,” to corral and capture large numbers of fish. The term “muroami” is derived from two words: “muro,” meaning to mow or sweep, and “ami,” meaning nets.
In the muroami technique, a net is deployed in a semicircle or horseshoe shape, often stretching several hundred meters. The net is then vigorously shaken or pounded with wooden poles, creating a chaotic disturbance underwater. This activity causes the fish to panic and swim towards the net, where they become entangled and trapped.
While the original intent of muroami fishing was to increase catch efficiency, it has severe ecological consequences. This method is highly destructive as it results in the indiscriminate capture of fish, including both targeted and non-targeted species. The vigorous shaking and pounding of the net not only frighten and trap the desired fish but also ensnare juvenile fish, non-commercial species, and other marine organisms.
#4 Large-scale pelagic driftnets
Large-scale pelagic driftnets, also known as “walls of death” or “curtains of death,” are fishing nets that are suspended vertically in the water column to catch pelagic (open-ocean) species such as tuna, swordfish, and sharks. These nets can extend for several kilometers and are left in place for extended periods, allowing fish to swim into them and become entangled.
Large-scale driftnets are notorious for their high rates of bycatch. Marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, and non-commercial fish are among the unintended victims that become entangled in these nets.
As they drift in the water, they can come into contact with sensitive ecosystems, including coral reefs and seamounts. The physical contact with these habitats can lead to direct damage, such as the breakage of corals or the disruption of seafloor communities.
Many countries have prohibited their use due to their destructive nature and detrimental impact on marine ecosystems. International agreements, such as the United Nations General Assembly moratorium, have called for a global ban on large-scale driftnets.
#5 Ghost fishing
Ghost fishing refers to the phenomenon where abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear continues to trap and catch marine organisms, even when no longer actively controlled or monitored by fishermen. These abandoned nets continually catch marine life like fish, shellfish, and even large marine mammals that suffocate when they cannot go the water’s surface for air.
With increased oceanic fishing activity globally and the use of synthetic fish nets that last for a long time, there is an increased rate of ghost fishing occurrences throughout the world’s oceans today.
One of the key characteristics of ghost fishing is its persistence and continual catch. Ghost gear can remain in the water for long periods, continuing to capture marine life. Fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, and birds are among the entangled or trapped organisms. These animals can suffer injuries, suffocate, or die due to starvation or predation while caught in the ghost gear.
The ecological impacts of ghost fishing are far-reaching. The continual capture of fish through ghost fishing can lead to the removal of keystone species, affecting the balance and functioning of the ecosystem.
Ghost gear also causes physical damage to marine habitats. Nets and other gear can become entangled and smother coral or other sessile organisms, break or damage fragile habitats, and disturb the structure and integrity of the ecosystem. Coral reefs, seafloor ecosystems, and kelp forests are particularly vulnerable to such habitat destruction.
In addition to its impact on marine life and habitats, ghost fishing contributes to the problem of marine debris and plastic pollution in our oceans. Abandoned or lost fishing gear constitutes a significant portion of marine litter, posing risks navigation, and marine industries.
Further reading: Deadly Ghost Fishing
How to stop destructive fishing: Here are a few solutions
The following are some of the primary ways that we can reduce destructive fishing methods worldwide:
- Exploitive and destructive fishing methods should be banned and bans should be enforced.
- The livelihoods of the poor who rely on destructive fishing methods should be improved and affordable sustainable fishing methods should be provided .
- Fragile marine areas should be protected in order to allow fish stocks to recover and protect marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. Closed seasons should be implemented in order to protect sensitive species and juveniles.
- Local community stewardship over marine resources should be encouraged. Implementing local community rights of use to control marine resources will help to facilitate the use of sustainable fishing practices and the punishing of those who do not use them within local community structures .
- The certification of sustainable fisheries, such as through the Marine Stewardship Council, should be encouraged. Consumers must be educated about the negative environmental impacts of destructive fishing to enable informed choices.
What you can do to help to stop destructive fishing practices
Here are several other ways in which you can contribute to promoting sustainability in fishing:
Educate yourself: Learn about sustainable fishing practices, fisheries management, and the state of fish stocks in your region. Stay informed about sustainable seafood choices, fishing regulations, and certifications.
Choose sustainable seafood: Make informed choices when purchasing seafood. You can help to reduce the pressures on wild fish stocks and to encourage good fishing practices around the world by purchasing only seafood that has been certified as sustainably sourced, such as those seafood products that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or through the World Wildlife Fund.
Support local and responsible fishers: Buy seafood from local, small-scale, and responsible fishers who adhere to sustainable fishing practices. This supports the local economy and encourages responsible fishing practices within your community.
Avoid overfished species: Stay away from species that are overfished or threatened. These species may be listed on regional or international conservation organizations’ websites. Some examples are: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna due to its high market value, particularly for sushi and sashimi. The European eel, Atlantic Cod, Chilean Sea Bass and Mediterranean Swordfish.
Reduce waste: Minimize food waste by planning meals, storing seafood properly, and consuming what you buy. By reducing waste, you help reduce the overall demand for seafood, which can alleviate pressure on fish stocks.
Spread awareness: Share your knowledge and passion for sustainable fishing practices with others. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues about the importance of sustainable seafood choices, the consequences of overfishing, and the need for responsible fishing practices.
Get Involved in conservation organizations: Support and engage with non-profit organizations and initiatives focused on marine conservation and sustainable fishing. Volunteer your time or participate in awareness campaigns and community activities. Donating to organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund will support their work that focuses on sustainable fisheries and conserving the marine environment.
Practice responsible recreational fishing: If you enjoy recreational fishing, follow local fishing regulations and guidelines. Practice catch-and-release methods properly to ensure the survival of released fish. Respect size and bag limits to conserve fish populations.
Be mindful of your fishing gear: If you are a recreational or sport fisher, ensure you use sustainable fishing gear and dispose of any waste or discarded gear responsibly. Avoid using gear that can cause unnecessary harm to marine life or damage habitats.