Fish Population Collapsing from Extensive Commercial Harvest
by Samuel Garduno, age 14
Seafood is loved all over the world and contains protein and healthy fats, but overfishing has become a threat to aquatic wildlife due to high demand and improving technology. For instance, overfishing of the bluefin tuna, a fish often enjoyed raw in sushi, has reduced the number of egg-producing tuna by 71-79 percent since 1970. One way that we can prevent overfishing is by switching to more sustainable methods in order to catch what is necessary, while also saving many sea creatures.
Advances in technology have led to fishers harvesting more than 170 billion pounds of sea wildlife every year. However, some of these methods are harmful. Two common examples are purse seining and longlining. Purse seining is a technique that involves a large net to trap a vast number of fish by triggering the net’s drawstring. This method is harmful because in some cases, it can interfere with fish breeding. Longlining, as the name suggests, uses a long main line, which can be up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) long, along with other smaller lines filled with bait hooks that are branched out and hauled by a boat. Like purse seining, longlining allows fishers to catch hundreds, if not thousands, of fish at a time. Unfortunately, both purse seining and longlining can lead to bycatch, which are animals that are unintentionally caught. For example, longlinging’s main catch is the bluefin tuna, but swordfish, birds, and sea turtles are caught as well, harming their populations.
Many other sea creatures, especially those that take a longer time to mature and reproduce, are affected by overfishing. The Chilean seabass, Dissostichus eleginoides, is a slow-growing saltwater fish native to the South Pacific and South Atlantic. It gained popularity in restaurants around the world in the 1990s, raising demand and leading to overfishing. As a result, the average size of the fish being caught decreased, leading to even higher prices at market and making these fish even more valuable to catch, legally or not. In the early 2000s, many people, including hundreds of American chefs, became concerned about the effects of overfishing seabass, so they developed the “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass'' campaign in hopes of letting the population replenish. Today, Chilean seabass imports are well monitored, but illegal fishing persists.
The Beluga Sturgeon, Huso huso, is also a slow-growing freshwater fish that is threatened by overfishing. It grows up to 15 feet and weighs up to 2,500 pounds. Sturgeon fully mature in 20 years, and once reaching maturity, females lay eggs every three to four years. However, their eggs are harvested by the fishing industry, making it hard for them to repopulate. Rules have been put in place worldwide to limit the harvesting of sturgeon eggs, but the practice continues to be a threat to the shrinking population.
Switching to sustainable methods is necessary to combat overfishing, and we can learn from the different ways people around the world conserve fish. For centuries, the Tagbanua people of the Philippines have used sustainable fishing methods that are mindful of all aquatic life. These methods are still used today. For example, they use the hook and line technique, which involves baited hooks at the end of a wire. They also fish in certain locations, and for some species, only during certain times of the year, in order to allow fish populations to replenish. As shown in a 2007 study, the ways of the Tagbanua prevented the bycatch of local Irrawaddy dolphins, which have gotten caught in nets and traps of other fishers.
We can also look to the ways of traditional Polynesian cultures for more examples of sustainable fishing practices. Polynesians of the past used cast nets, hook and line, and spearfishing methods to harvest fish; some of these techniques are still used by various cultures today. The cast-net method was utilized by an individual or a group, in which nets were thrown by the shore or in the water in order to catch small groups of fish. Another sustainable practice fishers used was the hook-and-line method, which traditionally used bone, shell, or stone to lure and catch fish. Finally, fishers would swim underwater or hunt from above the surface with a six-foot spear. In all of these methods, people only fished what they needed in order to feed their families and communities. We may not use bones and shells to fish today, but many of these techniques can be adapted for use with modern technology.
While most of us probably are not out at sea fishing, a lot of us enjoy tasty seafood dinners. To continue eating free from worry, we need to become more conscious of how fish are caught. The fishing industry can adapt sustainable methods to their current practices and think critically on the lessons of the past. As consumers, we can support fishing communities by staying educated on overfishing, as well as choosing sustainably-caught fish where possible. If we all do our part to encourage sustainable fishing, we can continue to enjoy the seafood we love for years to come.
[Source: National Geographic]