Declining global fish stocks is largely a problem of too many hooks in the water, reports the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

Overfishing threatens to cause populations of all fish currently fished for consumption to collapse by 2048. Thus far, the solutions to overfishing, ranging from consumer awareness to fish farming, have been profoundly unhelpful in keeping the world’s fish from disappearing from our seas altogether in the near future.

In 1992, the abrupt collapse of Atlantic cod stocks in the seas surrounding Newfoundland, on Canada’s east coast, brought the topic of overfishing to a forefront. Cod had been the foundation of Newfoundland’s economy for centuries, and the basis for its original settlement. However, in the years between 1970 and 1990, cod landings dropped from 800,000 tonnes to 50,000. The decline has been likened to the decimation of North American bison in the 19th century.

The Newfoundland government placed a moratorium on cod fishing in a last-ditch effort to preserve this natural resource, however this provoked uproar from fishermen whose families and futures depended upon cod. The species never recovered and are expected to become extinct by the year 2020. It seems the moratorium was simply too little too late.

Since the early 90s, overfishing has come to light as a major problem in each of the planet’s oceans. Fish stocks are being reduced far below sustainable levels, or the number required to maintain a steady population. The bluefin tuna, a migratory fish that is often the prize item on gourmet sushi menus, is exemplary of this destructive process. Bluefin tuna has declined by nearly 90% since the 1970s, and the WWF expect the species to completely disappear within a matter of years.

The fate of all endangered fish rests upon the success of a number of international efforts to make fishing practices more sustainable. Solutions range from the basic removal of destructive methods to the creation of alternative sources of fish.

The greenest possible solution to overfishing could be the creation of a network of sea parks. These preserved and patrolled no-fishing zones would stretch around the world and allow endangered species and ecosystems to recover. The cost of creating such a network would be about $12-14 billion per year, but there is little precedent for these ultra-green sea parks: currently 1% of the sea is conserved, while 17% of the earth’s land is protected by national parks.

The cost of a global network of sea parks is about equal to the amount spent each year in government fisheries subsidies around the world. Were governments to cut back on fishing subsidies, 38 million jobs could potentially be lost. Nevertheless, these jobs won’t last long if current fishing practices continue unchecked; conservationists estimate that at the rate of current fishing practice, commercial fish could disappear from the world’s seas entirely by 2048. The transfer of subsidy money to sustainable fishery practices would preserve the long-term wellbeing of those who rely on the sea.

Unsustainable, profit-oriented solutions to overfishing, however, remain the norm. Increased demand, coupled with shrinking natural stocks, has led to a rapid growth in fish farming. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that farmed fish now make up about half of the fish consumed by humans. Some practices, particularly open net-cage fish farms, have shown to pose health dangers: farmed fish often contain overly high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated compounds used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. Farmed salmon contains 16 times the PCB found in wild salmon, and has been shown to have harmful effects on human health. The US Environmental Protection Agency has conducted conclusive studies that PCBs lead to cancer in animals and are highly probable human carcinogens.

Fish farming, or aquaculture, is also criticized as environmentally harmful by groups like PETA and the WWF, and has prompted the creation of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR). These organizations see aquaculture as an ineffective, or even regressive, approach to solving the fish shortage. High-grade, in-demand fish like salmon are carnivores and therefore depend upon a feed of wild anchovies. However, five kilograms of anchovy only amount to 1 kilogram of salmon, and thus salmon farms end up removing more wild fish from the sea than they produce.

Other tactics include efforts to educate consumers about smarter shopping choices. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has developed an international standard for sustainable fisheries. Environmentally responsible practices are rewarded with the MSC blue eco-label. But consumer awareness has been criticized as a notoriously unreliable tactic for generating environmental change. Conservationists like Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line, frequently bemoan bluefin consumers for their indifferent attitude towards the fish. Were Siberian tiger or panda to appear on a menu, he points out, public outcry would be overwhelming. Tuna, however, is less glamorous or cuddly, and public activism remains half-hearted when it comes to purchasing choices.

However, there may still be hope for consumer awareness of declining fish stocks. In 2009, Science published a groundbreaking study that linked overfishing to climate change. A team of Canadian scientists found that fish faeces contain calcium carbonate, a substance that absorbs carbon dioxide in the water. The results were a milestone in understanding how nature works to reduce CO2 levels that can raise sea temperatures and harm marine life. This discovery could serve as the impetus scientists need to bring fishing practices to the forefront of the political arena.

The world’s fishermen remove approximately 77 billion kilograms of wildlife from the sea each year: that is roughly three times the weight of every man, woman and child in the United States. There are no new grounds to exploit, and in a dwindling ocean, commercial fishermen are merely fighting over the scraps that remain in the midst of collapse. The call to find sustainable solutions to overfishing continues to grow stronger, as it is becoming clear that healthy fish populations are essential for human food security and a stable, functioning environment.

Informed consumers can easily enjoy seafood without harming the ocean’s ecosystems. National Geographic.com offers a Seafood Decision Guide to determine how shopping choices affect the ocean. Visitors can click on their desired dinner and see the corresponding sustainability ranking, toxicity level, Omega-3 content, and position on the food chain. As for dining out in St Andrews, the Seafood Restaurant on the Scores makes every effort to avoid playing a part in the ocean’s destruction. The Restaurant sources sustainably caught fish and echoes the desire of ocean conservationists: “surely the seas and oceans belong to everyone, and we have a responsibility to ensure their health for future generations.”

Anna Ryan

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