The real reason global fish stocks are dwindling – and what you can do about it

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Atlantic cod, halibut and salmon. All three go well with lemon butter sauce, mashed apple and a glass of white wine. Yet, however prepared, a fresh catch from coastal New England waters is always enjoyable – and maybe a little too much. These staple foods are now on the US government’s list of depleted fish stocks.

Globally, advocates say the depletion of fish stocks is the most urgent threat to the oceans and immediate change is needed. In some waters, consumer demand for certain seafood products is responsible for declining stocks; in other areas, environmental problems are harming marine life. Either way, it’s a complicated problem to be resolved because it involves a multitude of nations, organizations and research institutes.

Understanding Overfishing

The depletion of fish stocks is the result of both overfishing and to be overfishedwhich, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Institute, are two separate issues.

Overfishing occurs when individuals or industries remove more fish from the water than they can reproduce. This can be managed and even solved with government imposed fishing limits. Overfishing, on the other hand, can also involve overfishing – or can be the result of environmental issues such as pollution, climate change, or environmental degradation of the stock. If these issues persist over time, repairing out of stock may not be possible.

Although NOAA manages 460 stocks in the United States, only about 70% have known overfished status and 55% have known overfished status. At end of 2021, there were 26 stocks on the overfished list. These included cobia and Gulf of Mexico snapper; red snapper, red grouper and snowy grouper from the South Atlantic; Pacific Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, and Pacific Sardines; and blue king crab and North Pacific snow crab.

In New England, the aforementioned Atlantic halibut, salmon and cod were also on the overfishing list. But many fish stocks, including Atlantic cod, were on both overfished and overfished lists.

A global problem

The depletion of fish stocks is being observed in waters around the world. In the European Union, for example, overfishing affects at least 40 percent fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic. In the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, 87% of the stocks endure the same thing.

Proponents argue that government subsidies are part of the problem. In 2018, governments around the world spent $22 billion of public money subsidizing the fishing industry. About half of these grants were then used to fish in areas that would otherwise be unprofitable.

But solving the problem is not as simple as telling fishing boats to limit the amount of fish they take from the water; about 64 percent of ocean waters are beyond national jurisdictionand these waters are dominated by boats from only a few countries.

In addition, many countries are hesitant to impose fishing limits anyway. Why? Seafood is a major menu item for 3 billion people and political leaders are not looking forward to the task of replacing the missing protein source. Given that the fishing industry employs 60 million people worldwide, leaders are also expected to face undesirable economic problems.

Yet conservationists warn that change will be inevitable if fish stocks continue to deplete. And those changes could bring bigger problems than running out of marlin in a meal.

Changing the oceans

Overfishing disrupts ecosystems and can make oceans less resistant to change. While the oceans are already experiencing rising temperatures due to global warming, researchers have found that areas with depleted fish stocks are less able to cope with global warming.

Scientists have also noticed that stock depletion is actively pushing more species towards extinction. A study 2021 in Current biology found that overfishing threatened a third of all sharks and rays with extinction. Its authors concluded that the damage caused by stock depletion was greater than the threat of pollution, climate change and habitat loss, combined.

As well as harming marine life, scientists say stock depletion also has the potential to harming already fragile coral reefs. Healthy coral reefs depend on herbivorous fish, which nibble on algae and sediment that would otherwise cover the reefs. Yet these fish are at risk of succumbing to the stress of overfishing.

Shop responsibly

Although the oceans are changing, proponents say it’s not too late to do serious damage control. Groups like the Marine Stewardship Council are encouraging concerned citizens to lobby their government leaders to support sustainability initiatives, end fishing industry subsidies and set limits on how much stock can be extracted from the water.

Concerned consumers can also be proactive by researching which stores and retailers are engaging in sustainable practices. The MSC, for example, has a list retailers and brands that meet their sustainability standards. The council also has a blue label program that helps consumers recognize certified products while browsing the grocery store.

Because in the end, the simple fact of being attentive to the seafood department or the restaurant allows everyone to enjoy a nice starter of fish with lemon butter, without contributing to depleting fish stocks.

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