Overfishing

The scourge of overfishing is real. I say this because many people dont believe its a problem. On some level you can understand their angle but really, its a big issue.

On another level as well, its one of those things you cant see unless you are there yourself, its invisible in that sense, so believe it people, its a huge issue.

The Issue

The thing about fishing, in this case on a commercial scale, is, there is the combination of 2 simple ideas.

The first idea is that, no one 'owns' the fish. This means its really a free for all or thought another way, 'if I dont catch the fish, someone else will'. The issue of 'owning' fish stocks is probably an old one but not too many people, or at least not enough of the right people understand or believe it.

You see if you own something, you will care for it. Why wouldnt you right, cos its yours! If not, well, as I said, the early bird catches the worm. Just that in this case, there are hardly enough worms to go round anymore, and so we get overworming (overfishing I mean :P).

The second idea is that 'the ocean is huge' and so it implies that the stocks will never run out. On some level, this used to be true but with all the sophistication these days, the ocean has become quite small indeed. So if something is endless, you will do it with no bounds, again overfishing.

Most people know that fishing involves nets and hooks. In general, the coastal fishermen who are catching fish as a livelihood to feed their families do not affect the fish populations as much.

Of course they do have some effect, and in some places where the fishing fleet is large due to population pressures, there may be more than a significant impact. However, these are people eking out a living most of the time so more power to them!

Its the commercial operations with huge ships and/or large fishing fleets that pose the greatest damage. So-called 'factory ships', these large ships literally suck up all the fish in one location while simultaneously processing the fish on board, either just gutting them (fish preserves better when gutted) and/or cooking and/or canning the fish even, and so they can go on fishing to some other location.

They can go on doing this for a long time indeed. In many cases, this is actually being carried out by foreign fleets to the area concerned, both legally and illegally. Often overfishing to the extent of wiping out the fish populations there.

Either this kind of massive factory operation on the seas approach happens, or shorter runs to the sea by fleets of boats, putting the fish on ice and returning to send the fish to factories on land.

Huge nets, using sonar and radar and other technologies, will net huge schools of fish. In the few places in the world where this is heavily regulated, there are limits but in the vast majority of the situation there is little regulation and overfishing is inevitable.

In the very famous situation of the Cod Fisheries of the North Atlantic Ocean (okay this is definitely not tropical fish but hey its an example), even with regulations, the Cod disappeared and the industry collapsed. It was determined later that what was happening was that the factory ships were following the Cod to their spawning grounds in the Arctic Ocean and taking them there as well.

What did they really expect was going to happen? Isnt this really true overfishing? Not allowing them to even spawn? Just read my first and second idea to yourself, and you get the picture (With a tinge of $ signs as well). Of course the victims are the families that depend on the industry and my heart goes out to them.

A not so famous situation occurred in the sub-tropical region off the west coast of Southern Africa whereby there used to be huge schools of sardines (none now). Overfishing there, lead to an almost annihilation of that fish migration.

Nowadays, there are many documentaries on sardine runs off the coast of South Africa. Huge shoals that still exist, but these go up the east coast. The ones off Namibia and the west coast of Southern Africa are gone. Overfishing carried out from the 1800s to the 1970s, nobody even knew of it.

In fact nowadays, its become a big problem for that part of the world because the absence of this plankton eating fish has resulted in the eventual mass death of plankton dropping to the sea floor. The resulting decomposition, leads to situations of build up of hydrogen sulphide and methane gases and also a reduction of oxygen.

This combination of hydrogen sulphide, methane and oxygen reduction, under the right conditions can cause mass deaths of fish and other creatures ever so often. Not to mention a nasty lingering smell as well! (Hydrogen Sulphide = rotten eggs and actually the component that makes your farts smell!)

Long lines, often called 'long liners', with hundreds of hooks, stretching tens of miles or more long, intersect the oceans. Baited hooks are left for hours to catch some specific type of fish but often time catching fish not on the list and since the hooks have been soaking for hours, the fish are dead already.

Sea Birds get caught up as well. This leads to huge amounts of whats called bycatch (unwanted catch basically) that is usually simply thrown overboard.

Shrimp fishing is especially devastating and the more famous examples are in the almost tropical seas of the Gulf of Mexico where for every lb/kg of shrimp caught, several lbs/kgs of bycatch is thrown overboard. Not to mention the drowning of Sea Turtles caught up in the nets (the use of specialized nets with TEDs have reduced this though).

For some types of commercial fishing, there are even small planes that help scout to see where the schools are.

There is no place left to hide. Not even the depths of oceans are spared these days where large fish trawlers scour the sea floor and take everything in its path. Another over fishing situation in the making if not already, pretty soon.

Just like the oceans, many rivers are also overfished. If humankind can weave huge nets to catch large shoals of fish in the ocean, its even easier in the rivers and lakes. And again 'If I dont catch the fish, someone else will', though in some places, the local people do understand the idea of saving for the future.

What other people have done

Thank goodness that there are still, actually, right thinking people and governments out there so quite a few things have indeed been done to mitigate the devastation of overfishing.

The most effective has been this idea of keeping a 'no fishing zone'. Done properly, which basically means protected properly, from any kind of fishing, such areas become nurseries that will eventually lead to re-population of surrounding areas. So we move from overfishing to no fishing what-so-ever.

The first such story I ever saw and heard about was in terms of the fishing of sea horses in some part of the Philippines. The people there are quite poor and so one of the sure ways they can get hard cash is to fish for sea horses, which are prized by Chinese Medicine. Lets not get into the ethics or otherwise of that, since its a whole different story.

At any rate, just like any other story, overfishing of the sea horses occurred and so the income of these impoverished people were obviously affected.

Then came some folks from some enterprising NGOs who came and brought the idea of having such 'no fishing zones'. On top of that they got the local villagers to help patrol the area while at the same time making them understand that if they caught any pregnant sea horses, they should let them go.

With the support of the locals, the project was quite a success. Sea horse numbers rebounded and even began to repopulate surrounding areas, to the extent that other villages became interested as well. Their livelihood and the wildlife became protected at the same time.

I dont recall the exact details of this but I believe its called Project Seahorse. Its nice to know as well that the Chicago Shedd Aquarium has been involved in this project too. Its this idea of sustainability that we should think about moving forward. We cant stop people from earning a living so its always the question of how can we do it such that every living thing prospers.

More recently, there was similar news of such no fishing sanctuaries setup in Mexico. Over a period of a few years, the fish have rebounded to a phenomenal amount, proving that such 'no fishing zones' are viable options of rejuvenating tropical fish environments.

It will be interesting to see as well whether this sort of project can work in temperate climates. There is no reason it wouldnt, except for perhaps government will, but at the same time, many of the situations of overfishing in temperate climates (like the great Cod collapse of the North Atlantic) have been so devastating that the fish stocks themselves are so severely depleted for any meaningful or quick recovery.

At the same time, other creatures have filled in the empty niche making recovery quite tough (note the explosion of large Jelly Fish in the North Pacific Ocean which I theorize is partly due to the collapse of the Jelly Fish eating populations of Leatherback Turtles).

What you can do

Well the first thing is pat yourself on the back for even having read my ramblings above. Hopefully you would have learned something new. Awareness is half the battle.

The second thing you want to do is find out for your local area if the fish being served at the restaurant or at the market is being caught sustainably. If they are being farmed, even better still. This ensures that you help to develop the fish farming or aquaculture industry while at the same time relieving pressure on the wild stocks of fish from overfishing.

The third thing you can do is make your friends and acquaintances aware (such as by letting them read this page or whichever way you think is best) and if you are able, make your local politicians aware. Dont ever think that a single voice does nothing. The Arab Spring of 2011 is quite the example that a single voice grows into change that is generally good.

The fourth thing is, if you are a fisherman, practise catch and release fishing when it makes sense and/or dont take home every fish you catch!

The fifth item, well thats for your own creativity and thoughts on how you may be able to help reduce overfishing or better yet help in sustainable fisheries.

This page is my attempt I guess, so whats yours?

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