Despite worldwide attempts to ameliorate the harm, decades of sea harvesting have upset the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. Ocean overfishing—the harvesting of animals from the sea at rates too high for species to reproduce themselves—has long been a source of concern for scientists. Yet, over the past two decades, world leaders have been unable to repair the harm that has been done.
When did widespread overfishing of the seas begin, according to marine scientists? And they have a fairly decent sense of when anything will go wrong if it isn’t handled. Here’s a look at the most pressing concerns surrounding overfishing, from its consequences on biodiversity to mitigation attempts’ limited efficacy.
Why overfishing occurs
The first overfishing happened in the early 1800s when people in search of blubber for lamp oil destroyed the whale population off the coast of Cape Cod near Stellwagen Bank. By the mid-nineteenth century, several species used in the United States, such as Atlantic cod, herring, and California sardines, had been depleted to the point of extinction. The food chain was severely disrupted by this discrete, localized depletion, which only got more unstable in the late twentieth century.
Countries all around the globe tried to improve their fishing capacity in the mid-twentieth century to assure the availability and affordability of protein-rich diets. Favorable regulations, loans, and subsidies hastened the emergence of large industrial fishing enterprises, which have fast displaced indigenous fishermen as the world’s primary supply of seafood.
These enormous, profit-driven commercial fleets were ruthless, searching the world’s waters and inventing ever-more sophisticated ways and techniques for discovering, harvesting, and processing their prey. Consumers quickly became accustomed to having a large assortment of fish at reasonable costs.
However, by 1989, when roughly 90 million tonnes (metric tons) of fish were removed from the sea, the business had reached its peak, and output have subsequently fallen or remained stagnant. Because of a paucity of fish, fisheries for the most sought-after species, such as orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and bluefin tuna, have collapsed. A scientific research published in 2003 claimed that industrial fishing has decreased the population of huge ocean fish to barely 10% of its pre-industrial level.
How overfishing affects biodiversity
With large-fish stocks collapsing, commercial fleets began looking for feasible catches deeper in the ocean and further down the food chain. This so-called “fishing down” has set off a chain reaction that is disturbing the sea’s biologic system’s ancient and fragile equilibrium.
Overfishing, for example, is highly harmful to coral reefs. Plant-eating fish keep these ecosystems in check by eating algae, which keeps the coral clean and healthy so it may thrive. Too many herbivores caught in the net, whether purposefully or as bycatch, can weaken reefs and make them more vulnerable to harsh weather and climate change. The delicate corals that make up the reef foundations can also be physically destroyed by fishing equipment and detritus.
Other marine species may be harmed as a result of overfishing. Trawling, which involves boats towing large nets behind them in the ocean, catches more than simply shrimp and bluefin tuna—it catches anything in its path. As a result of bycatch, sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds, sharks, and other creatures have all threatened extinction.
Overfishing prevention efforts
Many experts believe that most fish populations might be recovered with more active fisheries management and stricter enforcement of catch rules, such as the imposition of harvest quotas. Increased usage of aquaculture (seafood production) might also be beneficial. And there is a reason for optimism in many areas.
In its 2020 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which sets worldwide standards for fisheries management, noted that the percentage of stocks that are sustainably generating the most food possible has increased somewhat, which is the aim of fisheries management.
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