Marine life could recover by 2050 with the right policies

dozens of sharks swimming in clear waters

Despite centuries of rampant overfishing and pollution, marine life in the world’s oceans could be fully restored in as little as 30 years with aggressive conservation policies

New research, published in the journal Nature, points to ocean animals’ strong resiliency and the successful recovery of several species, including humpback whales.

In order to achieve this marine recovery, nations around the globe must agree to designate 20 to 30 percent of the oceans as marine protected areas, institute sustainable fishing guidelines, and regulate pollution.

small, inshore fishing boats resting in harbour

Rebuilding fish stocks and maintaining sustainable fishing policies could increase profits of the global seafood industry by $53 billion a year.

We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren’s generation, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so. Failing to embrace this challenge – and in so doing condemning our grandchildren to a broken ocean unable to support high-quality livelihoods – is not an option

Carlos Duarte – marine biologist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and lead author of the new research

Scientists did warn that climate change, which is increasing ocean temperatures and driving acidification, must also be tackled if this restoration of marine life is to be successful.

“We are at a point where we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted ocean,” said Carlos Duarte, lead author of the new research.

10 facts about overfishing…

  1. Fishing vessels wage war on the oceans
    Modern fishing ships use technologically advanced fish-finding sonar that can find a school of fish with almost military precision. Once the fish are caught, the ship is used as a floating factory, with onboard processing and packing plants, preservation systems, and huge engines that allow the ship to drag their enormous nets through the ocean.

2. Apex predators are disappearing fast
In just 55 years, human beings have wiped out 90 percent of the ocean’s top predators like sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel. Depletion of these apex species can cause a shift in entire oceans ecosystems where commercially valuable fish are replaced by smaller, plankton-feeding fish. This century may even see bumper crops of jellyfish replacing the fish consumed by humans.

3. Fishing disrupts the marine food chain
After depleting the most valuable fish, the apex predators and large fish like bluefin tuna, the next step is moving down the food chain. This means going after typically smaller species and fishing in different locations of the ocean.

4. Overfishing has been happening for many years
Overfishing has been documented since the early 1800s when humans took out select whale populations in search of blubber for lamp oil. By the mid-1900s, Atlantic cod, herring, and California sardines were harvested to the brink of extinction. This depletion reached catastrophic levels by the late 20th century. Fact from National Geographic.

5. Fishing nets catch far more than intended
The term for non-targeted animals that end up in fishing nets is bycatch. Many animals like turtles, dolphins, sharks, and sea birds, get caught on fishing lines or pulled up by nets then tossed back into the sea, often dead or dying. In the 1990s, a huge boycott led to the “Tuna Safe” label on tuna cans, which implied that the nets used to catch the tuna were fitted with holes to let dolphins escape. However, dolphin safe does not imply sustainable or responsible and the issue of bycatch is ongoing.

A fishing boat hauling in a net full of fish
Fisheries researchers say a new worldwide approach to management could help avoid overfishing and the insecurity that it brings to fishing economies | Image: NOAA Fisheries

6. We’ve tapped too far into the ocean’s vital resources
By 1989, when about 90 million metric tons of catch were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high-water mark, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since.

7. Taxes go to paying for fishery subsidies
As if technologically advanced ships weren’t the only reason fisheries are capable of overfishing, many governments provide subsidies to fisheries. According to a 2010 study by Oceana, overfishing subsidies total an estimated $16 billion annually, which is equivalent to roughly 25 percent of the value of the world fish catch.

8. Bottom trawling is tearing the ocean apart
Bottom trawling is the ocean equivalent of clear-cutting a forest. Ships drag huge, heavy nets held open by doors, many of which weigh several tons each, over the seafloor to catch fish that dwell near the bottom of the ocean. In the process, they destroy everything else, including deep sea coral and sponges, and other sensitive seafloor life.

9. Overfishing leads to unsustainable aquaculture
Aquaculture, or fish farming, requires feed for captive fish. To grow just one pound of farmed salmon, an estimated four to eleven pounds of prey fish are consumed. As the aquaculture industry continues to expand, prey fish are depleted at alarming and unsustainable rates. If current trends continue, some researchers predict that aquaculture will outgrow the supply of fishmeal as soon as 2020.

10. One day we may have to bid farewell to the fishing entirely
National Geographic reports, “A study of catch data published in 2006 in the journal Science grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048.”

Overfishing – what you can do…

Make Positive Consumer Choices
Choosing sustainable fish helps protect fish stocks, here’s how you can help.

Buy seafood with this logo on the packet. The well-established Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is used for wild fish. Their blue tick label indicates that a fish comes from sustainable waters, is not over-exploited and is not endangered.

Stocks of fish go up and down. Use the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) Good Fish Guide iPhone and Android app to find out which fish are the most sustainable right now

RSPCA Assured replaces the RSPCA Freedom Food certification. The RSPCA welfare standards cover farmed fish like salmon and trout as well as cattle and other farm animals.

Choose those that are certified. Tuna labelling schemes aren’t as thorough though and while the Dolphin Safe – Earth Island Institute is the strictest dolphin-friendly labelling scheme it doesn’t ensure overall sustainability. Greenpeace regularly assesses the sourcing of all top brands in their Tuna League. Sainsbury’s came top of the 2011 league.

Tips for choosing sustainable fish
The big five – take care with the most common fish we buy in the UK:

  1. Cod
  2. Haddock
  3. Salmon
  4. Canned tuna
  5. Prawns.

Due to their popularity, there are sometimes problems with all these fish and you need to choose carefully. The MSC app helps greatly with this.

Try different fish. This will take the pressure off fish like cod and haddock and make the most of bycatch fish that often gets discarded. It’s good to spread the load of our fish eating onto many different types of fish, not just a few.

Check out alternatives to cod such as coley, pouting, pollock and pollack can all be used in many recipes in place of cod, such as fish pie, fish cakes or stews. Give prawns a rest and discover the delights of other sustainable seafood such as mussels, clams, oysters, cockles, crab and squid (calamari).

Go wild, not farmed. Fish farmed in big nets in the ocean pour tons of waste onto the seafood floor and spread disease to wild stocks. It is also an inefficient way to make food – requiring 6 pounds of wild caught animals to create 1 pound of salmon.

Ask your restaurant if the fish is sustainable, and what seafood they have on their menu that is sustainable. If they have none, choose another option. Just asking them will make them look into sustainable seafood. Your desire creates the economy.

Join a Campaign and Support Organisation

Here are some UK organisations working towards healthier oceans:
Marine Stewardship Council
Marine Conservation Society
Surfers Against Sewage
Great British Oceans
Blue Marine Foundation
National Lobster Hatchery


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