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How Overfishing Threatens Oceans

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Scientists have long been sounding the alarm about a looming catastrophe of ocean overfishing—the harvesting of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for species to replace themselves. Here’s a look at the critical issues in overfishing—from its effects on biodiversity to the limited successes of mitigation efforts.

How overfishing affects biodiversity

Faced with the collapse of large-fish populations, commercial fleets began traveling deeper in the ocean and farther down the food chain for viable catches. This so-called “fishing down” has triggered a chain reaction that is upsetting the ancient and delicate balance of the sea’s biologic system.

Coral reefs, for example, are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Plant-eating fish keep these ecosystems in balance by eating algae, keeping the coral clean and healthy so that it can grow. Fishing out too many herbivores—whether intentionally or as bycatch—can weaken reefs and make them more susceptible to being ravaged by extreme weather events and climate change. Fishing equipment and debris can also physically destroy the fragile corals that make up the reef foundations.

Overfishing can also harm other marine species. Trawling, a method in which boats pull massive nets behind them in the water, pulls in more than just shrimp and bluefin tuna—it captures just about anything in its path. Sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds, sharks, and other animals have all faced existential threats as bycatch.

Efforts to prevent overfishing

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)—which lays out international standards for fisheries management—pointed out in its 2020 report that there has been a slight increase in the percentage of stocks that are sustainably producing the most food possible, which is the goal of fisheries management.

Still, many challenges remain. About a third of global stocks are overfished—and the overall proportion of fish stocks at sustainable levels has continued to decline. The FAO report says this deterioration of fish stocks can particularly be seen “in places where fisheries management is not in place, or is ineffective.” Of the areas the organization monitors, the Mediterranean and Black Sea had the highest percentage of stocks—62.5 percent—fished at unsustainable levels.

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