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The worlds appetite for fish

Overfishing is a serious issue that our oceans face. Out of a total of 397 fish stocks in the EU, 85% of these are below healthy levels. In fact, 17% are in a severely depleted condition and are threatened by collapse. Despite this overexploitation of our seas, the EU is still the world’s primary importer of fish. Today, each person eats on average 19.2 kg of fish a year, that’s almost twice as much as what we ate 50 years ago. Our oceans simply cannot withstand this level of exploitation.

An example of a species being overfished to the brink would be the popular cod. In the 1990s, the Grand Banks fisheries collapsed, placing a moratorium on fishing Atlantic cod in eastern Canada. These fish stocks have still not replenished. Other cod populations within the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans face these same threats, with liberal quotas and IUU fishing preventing any chance of recovery. This is just one example of the decimation industrial overfishing can have on the marine ecosystem, proving our oceans are not a bottomless pit that can be continuously exploited without concern.

Fishing down the food web

These destructive fishing habits have large consequences for marine ecosystems. Over the past 50-100 years, humans have wiped out 90% of the ocean’s apex predators, including sharks, Bluefin tuna, swordfish, marlin and king mackerel. The depletion of these large species can cause entire shifts in ocean ecosystems, changing the marine community completely. The top predators that are remaining are forced to feed on progressively smaller fish as a result of humans fishing down the food chain and targeting larger, more commercially valuable species first. This puts the whole ecosystem under stress and at risk of collapse.

Fishing down the food web (from Pauly et al.,1998. Fishing down marine food webs.)

Fishing quotas and catch limits

Fishing quotas have been introduced by the EU to prevent overfishing. However, time and time again they have been set above the recommended scientific advice. In 2018, the Fisheries Council set 44% of limits higher than published scientific advice. Furthermore, as of 2016, at least 41% of stocks were fished at too high a level. EU fisheries ministers have been holding closed-door negotiations, driven by short term thinking to maximize profits and have been securing more fish for their own country than the ocean can produce.

Bycatch

Every year tens of millions of fish in European waters are wasted as bycatch. Some fishing methods are extremely destructive and and highly wasteful, destroying key nursery and feeding areas, catching large numbers of juvenile fish before they’ve had time to breed and discarding "low-value" or unwanted fish back into the ocean dead or dying. According to some estimates, global bycatch may make up to 40 percent of the world's catch, a total of 63 billion pounds per year.

"Anything can be bycatch: the dolphins that are encircled to bring you canned tuna, the sea turtles caught to bring you shrimp, the flounder thrown overboard to put seared scallops on the menu, the endangered whales migrating thousands of miles only to become entangled for the sake of lobster bisque, and the millions of pounds of halibut or cod that are wasted when fishermen have already reached their quota." (Oceana report "Wasted catch", 2014)
Sperm whale entangled in a fishing net (Alberto Romero/Marine PhotoBank)

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