High School: The Sage School
Project Title: Overfishing – The Real Cost of Fish
Post Graduation Plans: Attending Muhlenberg College
(Below are excerpts from Anika Lyon’s senior presentation and project paper)
I started my personal exploration of connection with the oceans by becoming PADI scuba certified in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. This experience solidified my love for the sea and gave me a firsthand look at why protection is so important. It made the rest of my project more impactful because being immersed in the ocean’s ecosystem made me not only more interested but passionate about saving our oceans. After Mexico, I visited Anchorage and Cordova, Alaska, to witness how one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world operates. I interviewed experts who created and manage the technology that helps gauge salmon populations and biologists who dedicate their lives to saving salmon. It was a hopeful turn in my project because, before going to Alaska, I didn’t think there was a system that could harvest enough fish to satisfy consumers and still be sustainable. The field study phase of my project focused on the personal relationship I feel with the oceans. I picked this topic because I was heartbroken about the state of the oceans and felt that people simply didn’t care about them like I do.
The biggest lesson that I learned from my independent trimester is the power of the consumer. I urge people to be mindful about where their seafood is coming from because it all boils down to demand. There are easy-to-use mobile apps like the “Seafood Watch” app created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which shows the endangerment status of seafood based on the region you’re in. I truly believe that making small everyday choices can make all the difference in a world that needs drastic change immediately.
As living beings on planet Earth, we owe everything we are to the ocean. Even when we know how important the sea is to life and controlling climate, we don’t treat our oceans with the great respect they deserve. We have been abusing and killing the life in our oceans on many fronts, and yet the public seems unconcerned or in the dark about these issues.
Overfishing is a big contribution when it comes to destroying marine life. Unless we can prevent the crash of our oceans, massive ecosystems will fail, resulting in changing worldwide dynamics of the ocean. In addition, with fewer fish in the ocean, we’re potentially facing widespread starvation.
The bigger picture of overfishing is a horrifying reality of a future without fish in the oceans. Overfishing is the most immediate threat to our oceans today because it destroys the global ecosystem, is having devastating impacts on food supplies for future generations, and yet still is an under-recognized crisis.
Even though only a couple species of fish are intensely overfished, through the trophic structure, many more can be affected. Shrimp, tuna, salmon, and cod are more overfished than other species, and in that order. However, any fish you can buy in a supermarket or off a menu is probably overfished to some extent. Eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overfished.
The best example of a targeted species is bluefin tuna, which, due to overfishing, is now in the same bracket of endangerment as the black rhino. Not only are these fish in high demand, caught mostly in China or Japan, but also they are killed very young because their meat is more tender. This practice leads to dramatic population decreases as these fish are caught before they are mature enough to reproduce.
Tuna are one example of how one species can hold a balance in the ecosystem. Taking out a fish at the top of the food chain affects every one of its prey, including herring, mackerel, and eels. Big changes in the populations of these fish would further change populations of their prey. The changes made by taking one fish out of the environment can be detrimental to many more.
In a comparison of fish and shark populations from the 1980s to 2014, only 10 percent of all sharks, and only 5 percent of the North Atlantic cod, are alive. Only 5 percent of the bluefin tuna remain from populations in 1950.
Sharks seem like a surprising fish to be overfished since you’ve probably never seen “shark” on the menu. However, these are some of the most overfished animals known. The most heart-wrenching aspect of the shark genocide is that they are only caught for their fins because of their said medicinal properties in China and for shark fin soup, which is a delicacy in some Asian regions. Overfishing sharks can have grave impacts on the ecosystem because they moderate healthy ecosystems. Sharks remove the sick, old, or weak marine life and keep populations of fish and other species at healthy numbers.
The arguably worst part of mass commercial fishing is bycatch. Bycatch is excess marine life that gets accidentally caught and killed in netting or by trawling vessels. There are 10 to 100 pounds of bycatch caught per every pound of attempted fish caught. Frequent bycatch includes various big fish, rays, sharks, turtles, dolphins, and plant life. Many of these animals cannot be eaten, or the commercial fishing company doesn’t have a permit to sell certain kinds of fish, so these freshly killed creatures are thrown overboard and left to rot in the ocean. The large number of decomposing animals can release enough carbon to create dead zones, making it inhabitable for other marine life.
Unless we can find a way to fix the changes we are making to Earth, or rather our relationship to the planet, we will be sucked into an ecological collapse caused by losing entire classes of animals. Not only does this relate to overfishing, but also to every other human activity that poisons and depletes the waters. As the world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle said, “Health to our oceans means health for us.”
How we decide to treat our oceans, and whether to protect them, will be the deciding factor in our long-term survival. Furthermore, if we continue to impact the oceans in the future like we are now, a steady food supply for millions of people will disappear.
Many of the world’s indigenous populations rely on fish, and with commercial fishing, the fish populations are in insufficient masses to support these communities. If we continue fishing like we are now, however, fish will be so expensive due to limited supply most of the world’s population won’t be able to afford it by 2050. It is not far-fetched to say that losing all healthy populations of edible fish would lead to a wave of starvation in the countries that truly rely on fish as food.
About 3 billion people rely on wild and farmed fish as their main source of protein worldwide. Losing fishable populations would be devastating to the indigenous communities whose lives revolve around fishing, both for a living and for food. According to an online publication of the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, “This contribution is even more important in developing countries, especially small island states and in coastal regions, where frequently over 50 percent of people’s animal protein comes from fish. In some of the most food-insecure places—many parts of Asia and Africa, for instance—fish protein is absolutely essential, accounting for a large share of an already-low level of animal protein consumption.” We are blindly fishing our world into a spiral of starvation.
Cabo Pulmo was once a booming fishing town with tourists coming just to fish the bountiful populations. After commercial fishing came in, the shore side became a strange ghost town. The locals recognized their lifestyle was gone because the sea was completely dead. They took it upon themselves to restore their portion of the Sea of Cortez stretching only 5 miles long. However, the effects of creating a “hope spot” (a designated area that prohibits commercial fishing, pollution, and offshore drilling, technically considered a Marine National Park by the Mexican government) were nothing less than a miracle. In a short 22 years, every indigenous fish population was restored completely, and, in some cases, came back healthier than normal. The biomass of the park has increased by 500 percent since the founding of the hope spot in 1995. This is proof that with awareness it is possible to restore an ecosystem damaged by overfishing.
Our neglect of the ocean is obvious when one looks at our budget priorities. In 2018, the federal government allocated $19.5 billion for NASA while only $321.7 million was allocated to NOAA for 2019. We don’t spend nearly enough money to begin to understand, explore, and save our oceans. With such little funding, it’s no surprise that only 5 percent of the oceans have been observed and that less than 1 percent of the oceans are protected while 12 percent of land is protected. We have failed so far to invest enough to protect and to explore the oceans and have managed to secretly destroy them.
We are running out of time to truly study the biggest ecosystem on Earth. However, treating the ocean in the same way we treat the land could save us from ourselves.
The awareness and motivation to make positive change for the ecosystem has been drowned out by our own selfish pursuits, and if we have the same respect for the water as we do land, we wouldn’t have disregarded the signs. We would never let this happen on ground, so why water? As Sylvia Earle said in her documentary, Mission Blue, “Our ignorance is the biggest problem we face.”
The future problems presented by overfishing—a threatened global ecosystem, limited food supplies, and humanity letting this catastrophe slide without the knowledge of it—could be tackled by giving the ocean the same attention we give to land. We must defend it, discover it, and develop a deep relationship with it.