Overfishing has become a global crisis. One-third of fisheries around the world are operating at unsustainable levels. Over time, this unsustainable fishing will both decrease the amount of wild fish available to fishers and have huge consequences for the environment. If left unchecked, overfishing can lead to disruption of the food chain, harmful algal blooms and even critical dispensation: fish populations so reduced in size they can no longer sustain themselves.
But overfishing isn’t inevitable. Regulations that prevent overfishing and encourage sustainable fishing have been proven to help restore fish and plant populations and heal marine ecosystems. And sustainable fishing may even be good for fishers’ profits, too.
Here are 10 overfishing solutions that could save our oceans and help prevent ecological collapse.
1. Rights-Based Fishery Management
Traditional fishery management structures encourage fishers to catch as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. But the traditional structure isn’t the only way that fisheries can be run. Under rights-based fishery management, fishers are guaranteed a certain portion of the catch, but also agree to adhere to certain limits — like how much fish they can catch, and at what times of the year fishing is permitted.
Each fisherman has a stake in the fishery that grows when the fishery grows and can be passed along to family members. All of this encourages long-term thinking and more sustainable fishing.
2. Sustainable Fishing Reforms
Similar reforms can be applied to fishing on the open seas and international waters. Regulation nets and fishing equipment can prevent high levels of by-catch, fish and other sea creatures that aren’t being targeted by fishers but are picked up by equipment like trawling nets. By-catch have a high mortality rate and are sometimes destroyed before being returned to the water. Preventing or discouraging by-catch will help keep the environments that fishers work in healthy.
3. Traceability Standards
Traceability standards require that fish importers and vendors label sold fish with information about where the fish came from. These disclosures help make the supply chains that deliver fish from catch to market more transparent and help root out illegal fishing. The standards also better inform consumers about where their fish is coming from.
4. Declaring Marine Protected Areas
Declaring certain waters protected and tightly regulating — or outright halting — fishing in those waters is scientifically proven to be one of the most effective overfishing solutions. Expanding the size and reach of these marine reserves is a simple way to prevent overfishing and restore marine ecosystems. Convincing governments to both commit to a full restriction of fishing and provide the resources necessary to enforce those restrictions may be more difficult than partial protections.
5. Fish Farm Standards and Reform
1.5 million salmon escaped from fisheries into the open sea around British Columbia between 1987 and 2008 — a result of loose or damaged netting. And even more major breaches have happened in the past few years. These fish — which are sometimes designer salmon, bred as food and not to survive in the wild — intermix with the local populations of wild salmon after they escape. The resulting offspring is less durable and less capable of survival. Farmed salmon are also often crammed into tight and dirty conditions, and are more likely than wild salmon to be carrying disease and parasites.
If you want to help prevent breaches of farmed salmon, you can make changes to your own purchasing habits. Support wild-caught salmon and buy from eco-friendly farms. You can also help push for reforms that require better conditions for farmed fish and hold fish farmers accountable for the damage caused by sick fish released into open water.
6. International Fishing Regulations
Some activists and scientists have even called for an outright ban on fishing in international waters — about 58% of the ocean’s surface. Given the effectiveness of protected waters in saving fish population, and the current lack of regulation of fishing in international waters, this policy would likely be an extremely effective overfishing solution. But it may be hard to convince international governments to both adopt the policy and commit the resources necessary to enforce it.
7. Overfishing Education
Educational subsidies and government programs could help inform fishers about the consequences of overfishing — and in areas where fishing is regulated, help fishers learn to comply with regulations without sacrificing profit or productivity.
8. Fishing Subsidy Reform
Subsidies to the fishing industry can unintentionally increase the number of fishers on the water — it’s estimated that there are two and a half times as many fishing fleets as there need to be to satisfy demand. Ending these subsidies could help reduce the number of unnecessary fishing fleets on the water.
It may also be possible to simply redirect the subsidies to keep these fishers employed without continuing to risk overfishing. Fishers are highly-trained at navigating the water and managing aquatic equipment. Governments could subsidize fishers who help marine experts collect data on the health of the water and local fish populations.
9. Protecting Essential Predator Species
Essential predator species, like sharks and tuna, are some of the most prone to overfishing. These species are also highly necessary for the maintenance of local ecosystems. Without predator species, there is a boom of prey species, leading to overpopulation, algal bloom, and eventually serious environmental damage.
Some of these species, like blue sharks, aren’t commercially valuable but still make up to 90% of the sharks mistakenly caught by fishing vessels in some areas. Tighter regulations against careless trawling and overfishing can prevent these mistaken catches and better protect marine ecosystems.
10. Agricultural Investment and Reform
People will continue to fish if there’s nothing to eat, no matter what sort of regulations are in place. Invest in sustainable agriculture practices, education and tools to improve agricultural output and consistency of output. Providing a sturdy source of staple crops will help prevent reliance on fishing, and make those communities that are most vulnerable to famine better fed.
How to Stop Overfishing
Reform, subsidies, and declaring certain areas of the sea off-limits to non-sustainable fishing are probably the best overfishing solutions. Individual consumer choices, like purchasing fish from sustainable fisheries and fish farms, are also a great way to encourage the growth of sustainable fishing. The long-term change will probably require legislation and a change in how fishing as an industry is regulated — and how growth and profit are balanced with sustainable practices.