The Problem Is More Than Just Plastic: How You Can Save the Ocean in 2018

Source: The TerraMar Project - December 29, 2017 in Featured, TMP

The Problem Is More Than Just Plastic: How You Can Save the Ocean in 2018
Photo: Hải Thanh/Unsplash

Supporters of the ocean have definitely made a point in 2017: It’s time to end our world’s addiction to plastic.

Our eyes are finally being opened to the gruesome realities of plastic pollution in our oceans through the combined power of science, art, marketing, education, and policy. There’s still plenty of work to be done to ensure a plastic-free future, but people are beginning to get the message.

At the forefront of this clarion call to action has been an alarming fact: that by the year 2050 the world’s oceans will have more plastic in them than fish.

But this statement is about more than just plastic pollution.

The other side of the equation is that fish are disappearing.

In 2018, it’s time for us to see the entire picture. And plastic pollution is just the tip of the iceberg.


Equally alarming, but less-mainstream than the atrocities of plastic pollution is the fact that our oceans are being pillaged for their most important resource: fish.

For example, did you know that every time you eat tuna, you’re very likely consuming an endangered animal?


Photo: Jonathan Forage/Unsplash

Actually, 90% of all predatory fish in the ocean are gone as a result of our insatiable appetite for fish.

Animals under the sea face a gauntlet of troubles in our modern world. Fishing plucks these species directly from the ocean while plastic pollution, climate change, invasive species, and habitat loss only make life harder for the remaining fish to survive.

Breaking Down The Problem

Fishing doesn’t have to be as big of a problem as it has become. And sustainable management of our world’s oceans is possible.

But we need to be aware of where the problems lie, so that we as consumers can stop supporting unsustainable fishing practices.


Photo: Alexander Andrews/Unsplash

Habitat Loss

Probably the most damaging method of fishing is bottom trawling. Large, industrialized fishing fleets drop massive nets to the seafloor, where they are dragged along the bottom with two ‘Doors’ or heavy weights that are used to keep the net open. Fishermen will drag these nets for hours along the bottom, indiscriminately catching every animal they run into.

The ‘Doors’ and net bottom destroy any habitat along the ocean floor, ripping up seaweed, reef, and any substrate that marine life depends on. Left behind is nothing but a barren wasteland.

When the net is brought up from the depths, fishermen will pick out the fish that they can legally (or illegally) keep and sell, while everything else gets dumped back into the ocean as By-Catch, dead or dying.

Dredging is another fishing method that severely harms ocean habitat. This is a method more commonly used to catch shellfish like scallops, and involves tearing up the ocean floor in search of this oceanic gold.

Image: NOAA

Illegal Fishing

One of the most widespread problems with fishing in our world’s oceans, especially for larger, high value species, is illegal fishing.

Illegal fishing runs rampant around the world, but is most prominent on the high seas. Whether its something as egregious as illegal shark finning, or as simple as catching more than the quota, illegal fishing undermines conservation efforts and prevents us from properly understanding our impact on the ocean.

Illegal fisheries are carried out by complex criminal organizations, and everyday fishermen alike, and receive their power from a lack of traceability of seafood and governance on the world’s oceans.

Gill-Nets And By-Catch

As discussed, bottom trawls indiscriminately catch fish species along the ocean floor. This is extremely harmful to the many fish species on the ocean floor, but for the most part, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds do not become entangled in these nets because they are too deep.

But gill-nets are generally a coastal fishing method, and they are responsible for massive levels of by-catch of these top predators who become accidentally entangled in the nets and drown.

These nets are left soaking in the water for hours at a time, where anything that swims into the wall of mesh becomes entangled and trapped.


Photo: Fredrik Ohlander/Unsplash

Fish Farming

The issue with fish farming is that we still need to catch wild fish to support many fish farms.

When we eat high trophic level farmed fish like salmon, the fish need to be fed somehow. To feed these farmed salmon, we actually need to place more pressure on forage fisheries elsewhere in the world (forage fish are small fish like anchovies, herring, and menhaden that entire ecosystems rely on for food).

Forage fisheries have the potential to be sustainable, but can be extremely harmful to ecosystems if mismanaged. This is because these animals form the base of their respective food webs, supporting larger predatory animals like marine mammals, seabirds, predatory fish, etc.

Fish farming also has the potential to harm wild fish nearby if the farms are open to their surrounding environments. Farmed fish are subject to disease outbreaks, and with modern technology, even genetic modification. If these animals escape their farm nets into the wild, they can mix with local fish populations and spread disease and even their genes, harming these wild animals.


Photo: NOAA

Some methods of fish farming, like those used to farm shrimp in Asia, are also extremely damaging  to coastal habitat. Shrimp farmers clear massive spaces of mangroves so that shrimp can be farmed. Mangroves are key to biodiversity in these areas, and are crucial habitat for many juvenile fish species.

3-Way Expansion

Commercial fishing is leading to a vicious cycle of death in our oceans.

Overfishing of our coastlines has led fishing fleets to expand into deeper waters to make their money. Fisheries are also expanding to higher latitudes such as the Arctic and Antarctic, where we don’t know as much about the animals there or how slowly they grow. Animals in colder waters generally grow slower because there is less energy overall in the ecosystem. This is dangerous because fishing for these animals would then have the potential to wipe out entire fish populations if mis-managed.

Fisheries are also expanding to target different species as previous targets become depleted.

Fish Are Friends Not Food

So what can we as individuals do to help stop these global industries that are clearly much larger than ourselves. And are more complex of a problem than simply reducing our use of plastics everyday.

We cannot ban fishing altogether. There are deep cultural roots and a dependance on fish for protein around the world.

Solutions will come from a combination of market transparency, strong governance, and consumer awareness.

First off, we need a system that accurately labels seafood with it’s source, the impact the fishery has on the ocean, and an accurate identification of the fish being sold. Today, mis-labeling of seafood runs rampant in markets and restaurants around the world. Farmed fish are too often labeled as wild-caught, because people will pay more for wild fish. And low value fish are often mis-labeled as something more appealing.


Photo: James Wei/Unsplash

For consumers to have an impact in their purchase decisions, they need to know what they are buying.

Eco-labels like MSC are a step in the right direction, since they offer a way to label different fisheries as upholding a certain standard of sustainability. However the problem with these eco-labels today is that labels like MSC are incentivized to label more fisheries as sustainable than less. So MSC ends up labeling fisheries like bottom trawls and dredges that use extremely  impactful practices and overfish the oceans. Just so that MSC can make some more money on their label.

To solve the problem of illegal fishing, strong governance at sea is crucial. Commercial fishing vessels should be required to use tracking systems that allow governments to understand exactly where these people are fishing at sea. And vessels should be required to take fisheries observers onboard so that data can be collected on ALL of the fish being caught.

Finally, consumers should be aware of what is happening around the world because of commercial fishing. Just like with plastic pollution, we need to be shown the impacts of our choices and come face to face with them.

When people see a sea turtle with plastic stuck in its nose, or a seabird with plastic bits in its stomach, it’s a powerful message.

People need to ‘see’ what happens around the world for their tuna roll to make it to their restaurant dinner table. They need to understand the corruption, unnecessary death, and habitat destruction that happens for a seafood dinner.

2018 is the time to address overfishing, and what we as consumers can do to make a difference.

Let’s make sure we give the fish a fighting chance.

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