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The emptying of our oceans

80% of global fish stock are fully depleted or overexploited, and studies indicate that global fish stocks could be exhausted by 2048. Overfishing is rapidly depleting our oceans, thousands of species that we do not consume (bycatch) are killed in the process.

Wiping out oceans

Wiping out oceans

Using methods like bottom trawling and long-lining, giant ships using ernormous nets catch fish in tens of thousands, and are capable of wiping out entire fisheries in a single season.

World fisheries are suffering. With huge fishing fleets subsidized by governments, ineffective or non-existent multi-lateral agreements to control overfishing, and rampant piracy, commercial fishing has nearly emptied our oceans.

As fish populations closer to shore dwindle, commercial fishing operations have shifted their focus to largely unregulated deep-sea fisheries – as much as 40 percent of the world's trawling grounds are now in waters deeper than 200 meters. Giant ships are now using state-of-the-art sonar to pinpoint schools of fish quickly and accurately. Using methods like bottom trawling and long-lining, these fleets are capable of wiping out entire fisheries in a single season. This has resulted in a depletion of fish stocks, faster than they can be reproduced.

State of world's fisheries

As per the United Nations1, there has been a significant deterioration in the state of the world's fishery stocks over the last 30 years with:

  • Over 80% of global fish stocks are either fully depleted or overexploited
  • Over 1974 to 2008, the share of depleted / overexploited fish stocks has increased from 10% to 35%
  • The share of under / moderately exploited stocks has fallen to 15% from 40%
  • If commercial fishing of our oceans continues at current levels, it is predicted that all species currently fished would be exhausted by 2048.

Loss of biodiversity

Exploitation of fish stocks is threatening biodiversity in oceans globally. Big fish are particularly vulnerable to being captured in nets, and therefore their populations get exhausted first. This has lead to a global trend in overfished waters towards fish of smaller sizes. Humans are rapidly fishing their way through fish populations, starting with the largest, then targeting progressively smaller species until there's nothing left to catch.

Ninety per cent of the world's large predatory fishes, such as cod, tuna and grouper, have been depleted since 1950. Majestic large fish such as the Bluefin tuna, northern cod and the blue whale are in danger of extinction. Some of the other major instances of overfishing and depletion of fishing stocks include:

  • collapse of shrimp and groupers in the Indian oceans
  • the Peruvian anchovy fisheries, where capture has fallen by over 60%
  • collapse of the cod fishery of Newfoundland
  • sole fisheries in the Irish sea & the west English channel
  • many deep sea fish are at risk including the orange roughy, Patagonian toothfish and sablefish.

Fishermen have responded by changing to target new species, often renaming them to make them sound more appealing to consumers. Hence the Patagonian Toothfish was reinvented as Chilean Seabass, while the wonderfully named Slimehead metamorphosed into the Orange Roughy. But as the larger species get fished out, fishermen are increasingly forced to look further down the food chain.

By-catch / non-target fish

As disturbing is the large number of ‘by-catch’ sea animals that are killed every year, as it is not possible for fishing nets to target only those fish that are meant to be eaten. Sharks, sea turtles, birds, seals, whales, and other nontarget fish who get tangled in nets are termed "bycatch" and are thrown back into the sea, dead or injured.

Scientists have found that nearly 1,000 species of marine mammals— including dolphins, whales, and porpoises—die each day after they are caught in fishing nets. The amount of fish and other species caught as “by-catch” is estimated by the UN FAO2 to be more than 20 million tonnes globally, which is equivalent to 23 per cent of marine landings, and growing.

By some estimates, shrimp trawlers discard as much as 85 percent of their catch, making shrimp arguably the most environmentally destructive fish a person can consume.


Aquaculture vs capture shares

Aquaculture has been growing rapidly with capture fish production stagnating, and now accounts for almost half of all fish consumed globally. (Source: UN FAO, 2012 Statistical Year Book).

As ocean and river stocks are fast depleting, there is a rapid growth of aquaculture – or the factory farming of fish in enclosed water bodies. Aquaculture represents the fastest growing animal-based food production sector, and now accounts for around half of world fish supplies for human consumption (or 40% of total fish supplies, including fish caught to be fed to other fish).

Unfortunately, the destruction of their natural habitats means fish are also now being bred with the same levels of confinement, denials of natural instincts, abuse and exposure to diseases faced by land animals in the food industry globally.


1- UN FAO, 2012 Statistical Year Book
2- UN FAO, General facts regarding world fisheries