The Environmentally Unsustainable Industry of Wild-caught Fishing

This piece of writing was submitted in 2020 as an academic research project written by Molly Ahmed. As a disclamer this piece was written from an environmental perspective, and does not represent the ethical or economic sides of the issue.

Most attention to the relationship between the food crisis and environmental sustainability is drawn to land animals and the amount of carbon dioxide released for meat production. A largely overlooked problem within the agriculture system is the fishing industry. The current fishing industry supplies fish from two “streams”: wild-caught and farmed. Wild-caught fish are harvested by fishermen in their natural environments – oceans, lakes, streams, rivers, or other bodies of water – , while farmed fish are grown in pens that can be on land or in the water (“Canada’s In-Depth Guide to Sustainable Seafood”). While neither the wild-caught and farmed fish industries are entirely environmentally sustainable, the commercial wild-caught industry is the less environmentally sustainable method of fishing. The wild-caught fishing industry contributes to many environmentally damaging and irreparable consequences in the ocean as a whole and the ecosystems contained in it, including: overfishing, pollution, and the destruction of habitats due to current methods of fishing in place.   

One of the most damaging aspects of commercial wild-caught fishing is overfishing. Many major fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted, with commercial wild-caught fishing “[wiping out] 90% of large fish, including swordfish, cod, marlin, and sharks” (Goldburg and Naylor 21). While many consequences can come from overfishing, a large one is the disruption to ecosystems, in particular food webs. Ecosystems are complex structures, where all organisms are connected and contribute in a meaningful way no matter their size or place in the food web. Overfishing alters complex interactions between species and therefore, due to a cascading effect, all interactions in the marine ecosystem become altered. According to an academic journal: “fisheries tend to target the largest apex predators in a given ecosystem – like tuna – overfishing distorts the balance of trophic levels within that ecosystem” (Craig, Robin Kundis 351-352). Overfishing limits biodiversity in an ecosystem, which is problematic as higher biodiversity results in an ecosystem that has a greater resiliency and a greater ability to survive environmental changes. Overfishing also causes detrimental consequences to food webs. When Organism A in a food web is overfished, its population depletes, causing the Organism A’s prey to thrive. The prey’s population has no regulation in the form of predators so their food source also depletes as their population increases. Eventually, the prey’s population will, in turn, deplete as their food source disappears. At the same time, Organism A’s  predator loses a food source and is forced to only eat from their other prey in the food web. Eventually the predator’s other prey will deplete due to an increase of predators eating them, leaving the predator with no food source, causing their population to deplete. The overfishing of one species – Organism A’s in the wild-caught industry – has the capability to destroy an entire ecosystem. 

Some scientists suggest that farmed fishing is worse in terms of environmental sustainability because of the antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals that are added to the water. However, commercial fishing boats pollute water with harsh oils and gases that harm ecosystems at a more detrimental level than that of farmed fish. According to a scientific study: “fishing-boat fuel generally has much poorer fuel properties and a high sulfur content that can reach several hundred times that of the premium diesel used in land-based vehicles. Pollutant emissions from fishing boats are known to be a significant source of … pollution in the global environment” (Lin, Cherng-Yuan and Huang, Tsan 103). The high levels of carbon dioxide that enter the ocean from commercial fishing boats contribute to problems of ocean acidification, a decreased ability for shelled organisms to build or find shells needed to survive, and contamination of seafood with dangerous compounds. The fuel leached into the ocean puts society at a great risk as fish and shellfish populations deplete at a faster rate than predicted, causing a loss of a food source for humans, loss of an economy for small fishing villages, and an imbalanced ocean ecosystem that is much needed to mitigate the effects of human-caused climate change. 

Finally, the current wild-caught fishing industry supports the use of methods of fishing that destroy habitats and increase bycatch. The commercial fishing industry uses gear like bottom trawls, bottom gillnets, and dredging (“Canada’s In-Depth Guide to Sustainable Seafood”).  Since these gears are highly unselective, many unwanted species, known as “bycatch”, are also caught and, since bycatch are not the species fishers are looking to sell, the animals are generally just tossed, dead or dying, back into the ocean. According to a scientific study: “bycatch represents, conservatively, 25 percent of total fish caught, a total of 27 million [tonnes] of water biodiversity every year” (Craig 350). The bycatch from commercial wild-caught fishing often includes: turtles, albatross, sharks, manta rays, whales and even dolphins. Many of these species are endangered. Bycatch plays an important role in ecosystems of the ocean, and their removal has negative impacts. For example top predators, like sharks and whales, help control populations to maintain a sustainable food web and ocean habitat and their disappearance can cause havoc to the ecosystem. Bottom trawlers are particularly destructive. Fishermen drag a net along the bottom of the ocean floor as a fast and efficient way to get the most fish out of the oceans. Bottom trawling is often compared to clearcutting forests to find a squirrel, both are environmentally destructive practices with little to no gain. According to a scientific journal: bottom trawl nets destroy an estimated global area of fish habitat that is 150 times the area of forests cut annually worldwide (Craig 351). The metaphor of clearcutting a forest to find a squirrel is representative of the irreparable environmental damage that commercial fishing causes to find a resource that is far less important in the grand scheme of things. 

It is a common belief that wild-caught fishing is more environmentally sustainable than farmed, because growing fish for the purpose of eating is assumed to be similar to unsustainable methods of factory farms for land animals. In reality the wild-caught industry is far more destructive. Does taking animals from their habitat, destroying food webs and ecosystems, and killing “unwanted” marine species seem like a sustainable method of fishing? While both wild-caught and farmed fishing are environmentally unsustainable, wild-caught fishing is more so, as overfishing destroys ecosystems and food webs, pollution from fishing boats leads to ocean acidification and many other consequences, and current methods of wild-caught fishing promote bycatch and the destruction of habitats. It’s time to recognize that wild-caught fish are not as virtuous as commonly believed, and that these practices cause long term damage to the marine environment. 

Works Cited

“Canada’s In-depth Guide to Sustainable Seafood.” SeaChoice.org, Sep 2009, https://www.seachoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/InDepth-Guide-to-Sustainable-Seafood_web.pdf. Accessed 29 Mar 2020. 

Craig, Robin Kundis. “Protecting International Marine Biodiversity: International Treaties and National Systems of Marine Protected Areas.” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, vol. 20, no.2, 2005, pp. 333-369. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42842976. Accessed 29 Mar 2020. 

Goldburg, Rebecca and Naylor, Rosamond. “Future Seascapes, Fishing, and Fish Farming.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol. 3, no.1, 2005, pp. 21-28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3868441. Accessed 29 Mar 2020. 

Lin, Cherng-Yuan and Huang, Tsan. “Cost-benefit evaluation of using biodiesel as an alternative fuel for fishing boats in Taiwan.” Marine Policy, vol.36, no.1, 2012, pp. 103-107. Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X11000741. Accessed 29 Mar 2020. 

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