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Sustainable fishing refers to leaving enough fish in the ocean for populations to bounce back and future generations to enjoy. It also involves protecting marine habitats and saving threatened species. People whose livelihoods depend on fishing can maintain them when we make collective efforts to safeguard the oceans.
Sustainable fishing guarantees that the future will have healthy ocean and freshwater wildlife populations. It also includes sustainable practices in marine and freshwater fisheries to ensure they thrive.
Aquatic environments host several species of fish and invertebrates, most of which we consume as food. We harvest other species, like pearl-producing oysters, for economic purposes. Many cultures respect seafood since it is a vital source of healthy fats and proteins. People have been fishing for thousands of years to feed families and communities.
The increased demands for seafood, fuelled by an increased human population and technological advances, have led us to develop fishing practices that are fast depleting fish and shellfish populations worldwide. Each year, fishing boats and trawlers remove 77 billion kilograms of wildlife from the oceans. Scientists have raised concerns that if we continue to fish at this rate, the world’s fisheries will soon collapse. We must implement strict and sustainable fishing practices to keep relying on the sea as an essential food source.
Let’s look at an example of the Bluefin tuna. The Bluefin tuna is one of the largest and fastest fish in the world. Its meat is delicious, and people often enjoy it raw, like sushi. The high demand for this species has led to its overfishing and high market prices. This has threatened its population. The population of Bluefin tuna today is only 21%-29% of what it was in the 1970s.
Since the 1970s, fishers have caught Bluefin tuna employing the fishing methods of purse seining and long lining. In purse seining, fishers use a net to herd the fish together. They then scoop them up by pulling the net’s drawstring. The net can catch many fish at a time. Fishers typically use this to catch fish that come together to spawn or fish that move in schools.
Longlining uses a line with a length of around 100 km. Fishers set these lines behind a boat. As the boat moves, it drags the lines behind it. The lines have smaller lines with baited hooks attached to them. The hooks catch the fish.
Both these methods are efficient at catching fish. Using these fishing techniques, fishers catch hundreds to thousands of fish at a time.
Fishers get immediately paid for catching so many fish at a time. However, continuously fishing this way leaves behind very few fish of a species in the ocean. If the population of a fish species is small, it cannot replenish itself easily through reproduction.
Overfishing is when we take away species from the ocean faster than those populations can reproduce. Along with overfishing, purse seining and longlining also result in a lot of bycatch. Bycatch is the unintentional capture of species. For example, you might go on a fishing boat intending to catch tuna. But, if you use purse seining or longlining, along with tuna, you might unintentionally catch turtles, sea birds, or other marine species like swordfish and sharks.
An excellent example of an overfished species is the Chilean seabass, also sometimes known as the Patagonian toothfish. Restaurants in the United States and some other countries made this fish extremely popular in the 1990s. This fish is endemic to the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans. Fishers typically catch the fish in international waters by longlining. International agreements regulate fishing in international waters. But these are difficult to enforce. Therefore, illegal fishing became widespread. Boats and trawlers would catch seabass in numbers way beyond internationally established limits. Thus, the size of the fish and the amount of fish caught decreased. With decreased availability of seabass, its price shot up, which further fuelled even more illegal fishing. Since seabass numbers became very small due to overfishing, fishers resorted to catching smaller, younger seabass that hadn’t reproduced yet. With the capture of younger seabass, the healthy replenishment of its population became highly unlikely.
Sustainable fishing practices allow us to consume seafood while ensuring that wild populations remain for future generations to enjoy. Many indigenous cultures have practiced sustainable fishing for thousands of years. Practices used today in sustainable fishing reflect the lessons we learned from these cultures.
The Philippines is home to the Tagbanua people. This community uses fishing practices that harvest fish while also maintaining a healthy population in the ocean. They follow these practices even today. The community fishes for certain species only during specific times of the year. They read the tides and the moon to decide when to harvest a species. This practice allows wild fish stocks to replenish themselves. The community prohibits fishing in areas like coral reefs. They consider coral reefs as protected spaces in the ocean. When they go fishing, they use the hook-and-line method. They catch only how much they need to feed their community and family.
The South Pacific Polynesian cultures also greatly depend on the ocean’s resources. They traditionally use spearfishing, hook-and-line, and cast nets fishing methods. In spearfishing, the fishers craft spears 2 meters long. They would then spear the fish from above or dive underwater. They would only target specific species and fish only how much their communities and families need.
Many regions of the world still use these sustainable fishing practices today. Native Hawaiians practice spearfishing and cast net fishing. Areas in South America, Australia, Africa, and Asia use modern spearfishing to harvest fish. In modern spearfishing, fishers use spear guns to propel the spear underwater. Some areas of the United States, including Hawaii and Florida, practice spearfishing as a popular recreational activity. Spearfishing is a sustainable fishing practice because it targets only one fish at a time. It also results in minimal by-catch.
People who fish commercially employ the rod-and-reel method to fish sustainably. The rod-and-reel is a modern version of the traditional hood-and-line method. This method allows fishers to catch only one fish at a time. Therefore, it prevents the overfishing of species. The rod-and-reel is a sustainable alternative to other commercial fishing methods, such as longlining.
According to studies, there will be no fish left in the ocean by 2050 if present-day trends continue. Sustainable fishing is critical to stop overfishing and maintaining healthy wildlife stocks in the sea. At this point, every fish and every species counts. Marine species are vital to maintaining the integrity of ocean systems. Ocean systems are critical to the proper functioning of our planet and its climate.