Report: The State of the Ocean
Updated: May 5
Impact of Wildlife Extraction and Aquaculture on Global Marine Ecosystems
The ocean covers 70% of the planet, is the foundation of life on earth, and still harbours an abundance of biodiversity. This richness of wildlife is under attack though, especially in the last half a century.
Climate change in itself is a major driver of ocean degradation through warming, acidification, and ocean circulation issues. Pollution from ships and waste from consumers are also major environmental disasters for our oceans. But the focus of this report is on fishing and how this is one of the largest causes of environmental damage.
The Big Picture:
1950 = 20 million tonnes of fish extracted from the ocean
2016 = 140 million tonnes of fish harvested from the ocean / + 60 million tonnes from aquaculture (UN FAO).
This works out to 0.79-2.3 trillion fish per year (2007-2016) or 25,000-75,000 fish per second!
This is despite a stat from 2003 showing an additional 11-26 million tonnes are illegal/unregulated
Not all illegal fishing is unreported. Some of it is mislabeled, while other amounts are caught using legal loopholes. Illegal catch is thought to comprise a larger total proportion, more like 20% instead of 5-10.
Over 90% of typical fish populations in the oceans are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted according to the Secretary-General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Mukhisa Kituyi, and the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Peter Thomson.
This is shown in the 2020 FAO State of Fisheries report where they show 59.6% of fish are "maximally sustainably fished" (likely unsustainable given uncertainty around illegal fishing and monitoring). And 34.2% of "stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels." That's 93.8% of fish populations that are either exploited at biologically unsustainable levels or removed close to the rate of replacement.
According to the UN state of the oceans and global assessment reports from IPBES:
33% is fished beyond sustainable levels
60% are maximally fished
Only 7% is sustainably fished (where they can recover)
These definitions, however, can be misleading, as fisheries science defines a population as “sustainably harvested” when it is at approximately half its carrying capacity. This means that all of these fish populations are depleted from historical levels. If a fish population recovers above 60 percent, fisheries scientists classify it as underfished.
36% of the world’s total yearly fisheries catch is ground up into fishmeal and oil to feed land-farmed fish, chickens and pigs. So outside of humans, land farmed animals are one of the biggest consumer of fish. According to University of British Columbia researchers, globally, pigs and chickens alone consume 6 times the amount of seafood as US consumers and 2 times that of Japan.
According to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 55 percent of the ocean is covered by industrial fishing, and 66 percent of the global marine environment has been altered by human actions.
Technological prowess in fishing is the major driver of biodiversity collapse in the oceans. Stronger radar, bigger nets, and faster ships have allowed fishing vessels to plunder the oceans with remarkable efficiency.
Fish Farming / Aquaculture
Aquaculture now produces more than half of the world's fish meat. This comes with a tradeoff of other issues including pollution in marine environments which affects ocean and human health. A lot of fish farming also relies on wild caught fish for feed as well.
Fish survival from aquaculture, in some places, is as low as 83%. There are increasing “catastrophic events” where >10% of the fish population in a farm die off. Between 2016-2019 such events have increased by 650%.
Aquaculture vectors disease to wildlife.
Aquatic animals are also difficult to contain and often escape enclosures, introducing invasive species to freshwater and marine environments alike.
Both bycatch, and technological prowess has resulted in the biodiversity collapse of the oceans. The World Wildlife Fund concluded in their 2020 Living Planet report that “Fishing for human consumption is considered to have the greatest impact on ocean biodiversity”, compared to factors such as climate change and pollution.
By the year 2100, without significant changes, more than half of the world’s marine species may stand on the brink of extinction.
Freshwater areas have not been immune to biodiversity loss; biomass in freshwater has declined by 84%
Sharks are less than 10% of their original population
Most whales are less than 1% of original populations
Scientists estimate as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.
Bycatch definitions vary widely and make it difficult to estimate the specific quantities
A new practical definition is : ‘bycatch is catch that is either unused or unmanaged’
Under this definition about 40% of all fish capture is bycatch. This is a massive additional impact of fishing industry.
In general, for every 1 pound of fish caught, 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill (region-specific).
Some records of shrimp trawls show levels as high as 50:1 bycatch.
40-50 million sharks killed in fishing lines and nets.
As many as 40% (28 billion kilograms) of non-target species caught globally every year are discarded.
At least 10% is discarded according to this study
The difference between the two comes down to technicalities of how bycatch is measured. Sometimes, unmanaged catch is not considered bycatch, even though other marine animals die as a result of the operations.
Carbon Storage and Marine Emissions
Oceans absorb about 30 percent of the CO2 emitted every year, more so in protected areas with kelp forests and higher biodiversity. In fact, undisturbed natural ecosystems contain more carbon than their agricultural counterparts. This is true as well with undisturbed ocean ecosystems, which means that the more we fish, the more lives we threaten, and the less carbon we draw out of the atmosphere.
Biodiverse ocean ecosystems help store carbon, saving us billions of dollars in climate change damages. The Global Ocean Commission report calculated that ocean organisms living in the high seas—60 percent of global ocean waters, located outside the economic zones of specific nations—absorb 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Given the dollar figure associated with that carbon sequestration, they concluded it would make more economic sense to ban commercial fishing altogether.
At the heart of alot of this damage is ocean trawling. A recent study showed that trawling emits at least as much as global aviation.
The deep ocean is not well understood. According to NOAA, 80% the ocean floor remains unmapped, unobserved and unexplored.
Ocean storage of CO2 requires choosing the lesser of two evils. The ocean is going to absorb the majority of our CO2 emissions over the coming centuries anyways, but in the process the atmosphere and ocean surface waters will be subjected to unprecedented warming and acidification. On the other hand, vast quantities of CO2 could be isolated in the deep sea, driving down atmospheric and ocean surface concentrations in the short term. This could help stabilize the climate. The cost would be untold damage to sensitive deep-sea ecosystems that we know very little about. It’s an uncomfortable choice, but it’s one that we may have to seriously consider as our carbon budget steadily dwindles.
Runoff from agriculture, in the form of over-application of manure or synthetic fertilizers, has resulted in oxygen-depleted areas of the ocean known as dead zones.
Nutrient-loading or “eutrophication” of streams and deltas by waste effluent and fertilizers causes algae to bloom in surface waters. While they produce oxygen at the surface, they sink to the substrate when they die. The decomposition of these algae consumes oxygen, creating low-oxygen or “hypoxic” dead zones where very few organisms can survive.
These areas void of ocean life are doubling every ten years.
Sustainability Labels and Initiatives
One has to wonder then, is it possible to sustainably source seafood or at least trust certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the most popular sustainability certification that many consumers look for in grocery chains. However, surprising to some, they’re rife with greenwashing. At this stage of the environmental crisis, we’re past the point of having the luxury to make small incremental changes, like opting for certified sustainable seafood.
Of course, some MSC-approved fisheries are better than your typical unregulated trawling operations. But consider that MSC has awarded blue eco-labels of certified sustainability to over 130 fisheries around the world. These fisheries pay over $100,000 to get privatized third-party audits. These audits do not come from environmental assessors, but from companies who coach fisheries on how to get approved. All fisheries seriously seeking this MSC certification since the 1990s have been approved, with their fair share of controversy.
At a time when consumers are increasingly skeptical of the environmental impacts of consuming sea animals, the motives of these so-called stewards of the ocean comes into question. MSC has had success stopping some overfishing activities, but going into 2021, widespread radical action is needed to protect the oceans. Doing slightly less harm won’t cut it.
According to a 2019 estimate, the industry receives nearly $36 billion USD in subsidies per year
Capacity-enhancing subsidies (eg fuel) made up the bulk at USD $22 billion
China, EU, USA, Korea and Japan make up $20.5 billion USD in subsidies.
Studies calculate that the majority of high-seas fishing is unprofitable without state subsidies.
Fuel subsidies, most directly linked to overfishing, comprise the largest share (22%), followed by fisheries management (19%) & non-fuel tax exemptions (15%)
The OECD started drawing links between subsidies and overfishing (widespread since the 1940s) to member nations as early as the 1960s, but the area went largely undiscussed until 1998, when the World Bank published the first global estimate of fishing subsidies (then USD $14-20 billion).
And still, little to no progress has been made. Global talks were supposed to address, at the very least, eliminating most capacity-enhancing subsidies but WTO negotiations have dragged on for over two decades. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating subsidies by 2020 was completely missed.
Countries cannot even agree on basic definitions on subsidies and overfishing.
The largest area of global contention is “Special and Differential Treatment” (i.e. exemptions) for poorer countries, a common sticking point in any WTO subsidy discussion. Developing countries need some special consideration, but, since they now constitute 17 of the world’s 26 most prolific countries, there is fear that exemptions could thwart meaningful change. China, responsible for ⅕ of the global catch and the largest subsidizer, continues to push for exemption status, too.
A study by researchers out of University of California has calculated that ending all harmful subsidies could result, by 2050, in a 12.5% increase in global fish biomass and a 3.5% rise in the annual global fish catch.
Rather than aiming to restructure a struggling industry (eg reallocating subsidy funds), many governments are instead focused on bailout and relief packages
Human Rights and Slavery
Fishing industry advocates often reference numbers of people employed by the fishing industry, and how many rely on fish protein for food security. This is absolutely a concern and worth considering when making policy decisions.
Industrialized international fishing fleets have systematized the extraction of marine life from territorial waters of poorer countries in places like West Africa and the Galapagos Marine Reserve, exploiting legal loopholes and lack of enforcement. This effectively steals food subsistence fishing communities, spurring starvation and emigration crises driven by industrial fishing.
Despite significant global subsidies and funding, corporations marginalize their workers and force them into slavery. A global investigation of navigation patterns estimated up to a quarter of fishing vessels may have enslaved workers on deck. These countries are at the core of an illicit trade that spans 60 percent of the world’s oceans and generates an estimated $160 billion USD in annual sales.
Fish consumers are unlikely to be able to know that the product they are purchasing involved slavery or not, and it is highly likely that fish consumers do eat products that involve slavery without knowing.
Illegal Fishing & Mislabelling
Illegal fishing is the 3rd most lucrative illegal activity in the world (after drugs and arms trafficking) and there's limited funding to even monitor Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
It is estimated that ~26 million tons of fish/yr are caught illegally for a ~$23B black market.
Illegal and unreported catches represented 20–32% by weight of wild-caught seafood imported to the USA in 2011.
Compounding the issues of illegal fishing is 44 recent studies showing nearly 40% of the fish studied for mislabelling around the world is not what was advertised:
20% of all ocean plastic is “Abandoned Lost Discarded Fishing Gear”
That figure is 46% in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
More on Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear, see UNEP 2009
Entanglement mostly from plastic rope and netting cases have been reported for at least 344 species to date, including all marine turtle species, more than two-thirds of seal species, one-third of whale species, and one-quarter of seabirds. Entanglement by 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates has also been recorded.
This is a major reason for the deaths of so many North Atlantic Right Whales, who are severely endangered with under 400 that remain. Most are entangled in fishing gear.
As Enric Sala put well, there's not much use in just telling the obituary of the planet, without solutions. He's behind a group called Pristine Seas, striving to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. We likely only have 10 years to make major attempts to protect wildlife of the ocean if we want to stop the extinction of species.
Here's what we are excited about:
Coastal Ecosystem Restoration
Similar to how landowners need to be incentivized to protect forests for carbon sequestration and biodiversity, the same type of carbon credit systems should occur for protecting and expanding carbon storage in the marine biosphere.
These programs can also be used to provide work and similar livelihoods for those currently making a living off the oceans.
There are now examples around the world of previously employed workers in the fishing industry now growing kelp to help sequester and store atmospheric carbon.
In British Columbia, Canada, where sea otters have been successfully reintroduced to the ecosystem. Sea otters eat sea urchins, who eat kelp. Naturally, if there aren’t sea otters, sea urchins eat too much kelp, which is a vital component in ocean sequestration. Since the rebound of sea otters, the kelp forests have grown twenty-fold and now sequester about 10 percent of BC’s carbon emissions.
Rewilding coastal ecosystems is the most effective known method to sequester carbon at the moment. A just transition to high-paying careers in blue carbon sequestration for communities all along our coasts and rivers should be a central aspect of any national strategy to fight climate change.
Marine protected areas
Marine protected areas have shown to be an effective means of safeguarding vulnerable species and ecosystems, conserving biodiversity, re-establishing ecosystem integrity, instituting clear guidelines, and sheltering the feeding and breeding areas of marine species (SDG target 14.5).
More than 16,000 such areas have been established covering 7.4 percent of the world’s ocean, including this recent example in Tristan da Cunha. Half of them do not allow fishing or other human activities. Implemented correctly, they have been shown to prevent coral losses and provide environmental and economic benefits.
Some refer to these protected areas as conservationists’ silver bullet. Other studies even go as far as stating that if we were to increase the amount of MPAs, say by just 5 percent, we could improve future catch by at least 20 percent. This is akin to saying if we protect certain areas from fossil fuel extraction, that it’ll increase what can be taken in surrounding areas. It’s time to move past this mindset of oversimplified solutions with the main goal of increasing extraction, rather than genuine conservation for the sake of nature.
Unsurprisingly, a meta-analysis of scientific studies on the topic shows that the biomass of fish, on average, is 670 percent greater within fully protected areas. Right now, 8 percent of the ocean is protected, and only 2.6 percent of those MPAs are considered strongly protected and fully off-limits to fishing.
Marine protected areas have shown to be an effective means of safeguarding vulnerable species and ecosystems, conserving biodiversity, re-establishing ecosystem integrity, instituting clear guidelines, and sheltering the feeding and breeding areas of marine species. They also play a role in increasing the carbon storage of the oceans, to buy us much needed time in our need to transition away from fossil fuels.
When protecting large areas of the ocean, the international waters just outside the zones are frequent targets of large fleets of trawlers. Many of the trawlers outside of MPAs catch some of the 100 million sharks that are killed each year for food. Not only will this result in the extinction of many species of sharks, but removing a predator from a healthy ecosystem creates a major ecosystem imbalance. This can be addressed with the implementation of bilateral and multinational MPAs, like the Galapagos-Cocos Swimway.
To address this illegal and unregulated fishing, compromises are being made, like the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA). Paul Rose, the Expedition Leader with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, hopes agreements like this, along with new satellites and artificial intelligence that can track vessels that may turn off their tracking equipment, could end illegal unreported fishing.
Since its inception, Rose’s team has inspired the creation of 23 marine reserves. In November, the group announced that they had secured the largest no-catch marine protected zone in the Atlantic Ocean. Tristan da Cunha, a British territory island in between South America and South Africa, and the surrounding ocean equal to the size of Texas will be protected for millions of seabirds, penguins, sharks, and whales. The marine sanctuary will span 265,347 square miles, almost three times larger than the United Kingdom. Ninety percent of the waters around the island chain will also become a “no-take zone,” where fishing, mining, and other extractive activities will be banned.
Experts increasingly agree that regulation must go beyond simply excluding commercial fleets from sensitive marine reserves and begin scaling them down worldwide. While respecting the sovereignty of native nations, industrialized countries must begin to phase out fishing subsidies and provide sustainable livelihoods for workers in the fishing industry.
Investing in research and development of plant and cell-based seafood can help to supplant demand for marine life as food.
Shifting to plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived seafood is one of the best ways to improve our oceans’ health as it provides direct replacements, increasingly similar in taste and texture.
There are a myriad of plant-based seafood brands that have emerged within the last few years:
Figure is from the Good Food Institute's report An Ocean of Opportunity
*This report will be updated as new key research is published
See more at our curated library of peer-reviewed papers on Fish and Oceans and many other categories:
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