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Sustainable Fisheries

Inadequate conservation and management practices

The ocean seems invulnerable because it is vast and under-explored; however, it is increasingly important to know that its resources are finite, and depletion of these resources beyond sustainable levels is irreversible. Overfishing not only causes depletion in individual fish stocks, but also disruption to entire ecosystems and food webs in the ocean. Management of these ecosystems as a whole is needed to ensure the sustainability of commercial fish stocks. The management of ecosystems as opposed to managing only target species entails:


The European Union has established a European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that seeks to prevent overfishing by better management of fisheries and by communicating with other national governments and markets to ensure sustainability.

Another solution is the establishment of no-take zones and marine reserves, areas where fishing is prohibited, to help replenish commercial fish stocks to secure long-term sustainability.

Two hundred mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were established in the 1970's to protect fishing resources in developing countries. Foreign vessels negotiate to obtain access to waters within the EEZs. Unfortunately, while this aids developing countries and their fishing communities, the alternative for foreign fleets is to fish the high sea, depleting those resources, or to fish illegally. Access Agreements to the EEZs have alleviated this problem by negotiating a lump sum to allow foreign boats fish their waters. Nevertheless, access agreements continue to contribute to overfishing and to threatening the food security of developing countries. More equitable and sustainable negotiations are needed.

Dolphins as bycatch

Sustainable fishing has been addressed in the U.S. by the Sustainable Fisheries Act. In 1996, the National Marine Fisheries Service updated and amended the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Habitat loss as a result of harmful fishing practices, which have decreased many fish populations

Reducing or eliminating destructive fishing practices is essential to sustainable fishing. Bottom trawling destroys habitats, indiscriminate fishing practices such as drift nets, long-lining, and cyanide fishing are destructive to habitats and non-targeted species, lost or discarded fishing gear is also destructive to underwater habitats.

Deep-sea trawling is particularly harmful to ecosystems because it strips the entire environment of all living things including deep ocean corals. Continued stripping of deep-sea areas may cause species to become extinct before they have a chance to be identified by science.

Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is also often destructive to the marine environment and the species that rely on it.

The use of cyanide is a popular method of capturing live reef fish for the seafood and aquarium markets. Cyanide fishers squirt cyanide into coral reefs where fish seek refuge, which stuns them, making them easy to catch. Cyanide poisons reefs and kills other reef organisms. Less than half the fish caught with cyanide survive long enough to be sold to aquariums or restaurants. It is widely used in Southeast Asia and is spreading to other parts of the world where market demand for live reef fish has created incentives for local fishers. Live fish are much more profitable and are sold to the aquarium trade and to luxury fish markets in Asia.


A moratorium on deep-sea trawling is needed to stop this destructive practice. The damage done to deep sea corals and undiscovered species is immeasurable.

National governments and the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization have developed an International Plan of Action on IUU Fishing, but better monitoring and enforcement is needed.

Viable alternatives are needed and/or laws enacted to stop the destructive practice of cyanide fishing. Consumers can help greatly by choosing to only purchase aquarium fish from retailers that do not purchase fish caught by cyanide. This benefits the consumer as well, given that the vast majority of reef fish caught using this method die within a few weeks.

Government subsidies

Governments provide subsidies to fisheries to enable them to increase the catching capacity of their fleets in the form of new vessels and improvements to existing boats, fuel subsidies, tax benefits, and job support. Japan is the largest subsidizer of its fishing industry, providing the equivalent of US$2-3 billion annually. These subsidies are intended to support the fishing industry in these countries; however they do more harm than good with the increased capacity causing the overexploiting of commercial fish stocks and increasing the amount of waste due to bycatch.


Redirecting these funds to be used for improving fishery management would greatly help reduce fishing pressure on already depleted stocks, and would support the industry by preserving the resource for the future. In the European Union, subsidies to support new or to improve existing boats are decreasing and changes in social measures such as retraining fishermen for alternative employment are increasing.

Organizations such as WWF are working with the World Trade Organization to end subsidies by governments that support poor fishing practices.

Sustainable Aquaculture?

It is possible... see Taming the Blue Frontier for starters, though coastal pollution is an issue that must be addressed:

Recreational Fishing

Recreational shark fishing is a popular pastime whose proponents have often sounded the alarm on declining catches and lobbied for protective measures. However, recreational fisheries can contribute significantly to shark mortality.

Data from the US National Marine Fisheries Service for 2004 showed that over 12 million sharks, skates and rays were caught by anglers in US waters, of which 359,000 were retained. In fact, estimated recreational catches of large coastal sharks were higher than commercial landings in 15 of 21 years between 1981 and 2001. Off California, shortfin mako and leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) are the primary targets, with the recreational catch of leopard sharks six times the commercial catch.

Parts of the US East Coast may well host more recreational fishing for large sharks than anywhere else in the world. One annual shark fishing tournament in Massachusetts awards extra points for catching 250 lb (113 kg) or more mako, thresher or porbeagle sharks. Porbeagle sharks are classified as Endangered by the IUCN in the Northwest Atlantic following serious declines. In 2005, 2,500 different sharks were caught at this tournament in just two days. - The End of the Line?


If you don't have to eat it to survive, why kill it? Save it so it can reproduce and so you can catch it again later, for yourself and your children.... And the bigger the fish or shark, the better breeder they are and the more important they are to their overall population. There are millions of people in the U.S. fishing recreationally every day. With that many people, and that's just in the U.S., removing marine life from our oceans every single day, it's no wonder why marine life is struggling so hard to survive. Please join the growing numbers of fishermen who practice Catch and Release.

Additonal Resources

Overfishing Scorecard - The Ocean Conservancy
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
Healthy Oceans Blog
Office of Sustainable Fisheries: NOAA
Wikipedia: Sustainable fisheries
The Starving Ocean
Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood - The Blue Ocean Institute
Oceans Alive - Eat Smart
Seafood Watch List - Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Empty Ocean: Plundering the World's Marine Life

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