Seafood is a major source of animal protein for the people and communities in the Coral Triangle region, the world’s tropical coral reef hot spot. However, the gap between the fish required for food security and the sustainable fishing harvests from coastal fisheries is growing.
Sustainable fishing is crucial in order to guarantee that there will be populations of ocean and freshwater wildlife in the future. The ocean environment is home to countless species of fish and invertebrates, which provide people with an important source of protein, omega-3, and macro-nutrients. Seafood is eaten across the world, transcending diverse cultures, and is particularly important for coastal communities in developing countries. For thousands of years, people have fished to feed their families and their local communities.
Seafood is exceptionally popular and demand has grown immensely. With advancements in technology, fishing practices are becoming much less sustainable. Researchers estimate that more than 77 billion kilograms of marine creatures are removed from the sea every year. If fishing continues at this rate, it is very likely that the world’s fishing stocks will collapse. In order to continue relying on the ocean as an important food source, economists and conservationists say we will need to employ sustainable fishing practices.
Overfishing is defined as taking wildlife from the sea faster than populations can reproduce and restock themselves. Fishing methods such as purse seining, long-lining, and many other types of fishing can also result in a lot of bycatch, the capture of unintended species. Species that are commonly caught as bycatch include birds, sea turtles, and other fish such as swordfish (Xiphias gladius).
Overfishing and unsustainable methods have several negative impacts; they remove young fish in nets which reduce the effectiveness of fishing nurseries; produce marine debris such as ghost traps that can damage reefs; they catch too many large fish, which are responsible for producing more young fish that are likely to survive to adulthood; it can wipe out stocks if they partake in fish spawning aggregations; and these methods are indiscriminate, as the gear is non-selective.
Millions of humans live near coral reefs around the world, placing an extra burden on reef fisheries. Establishing healthy fisheries, including in remote islands and atolls, could dramatically slow down the loss of many reefs, marine ecologists agree. An analysis of 2,500 coral reefs in 46 countries has yielded some fascinating (or rather unsurprising) results: coral reefs prosper where sustainable fishing practices are used. Although coral bleaching is becoming a rampant epidemic in the oceans of the world, threatening even the Great Barrier Reef, there is some positive news to share on coral reefs.
The people of these regions do fish, but their activities appear to be focused on more sustainable fishing techniques, such as the use of nets to capture vast numbers of fish and the freezing of their catch for later sale. Papua New Guinea goes a step further by stopping non-resident from fishing in their oceans. They also fish in a more agricultural style, alternating which areas of the reef are fished almost in the way that a farmer preserves safe soils by rotating the fields in which they grow crops.
Sustainable Fishing Practices
There are many sustainable fishing methods that would allow people to responsibly enjoy seafood whilst protecting fish stocks for the future. Many indigenous cultures have fished sustainably for thousands of years. Today’s sustainable fishing practices reflect some lessons learned from these cultures that have been around for decades.
In the Philippines, the Tagbanua people have traditionally employed fishing practices that simultaneously harvest and maintain fish populations in coral reef habitats. They continue to follow these practices today. Tagbanuas fish for specific species only during certain times of the year, determined by tides and the moon, allowing fish stocks to replenish themselves. They set aside certain areas, such as coral reefs, as protected spots in which fishing is prohibited. When they fish, these traditional fishermen mostly use hook-and-line techniques, capturing only what they need to feed themselves and their families. A report published in 2007 celebrated ancient Tagbanua fishing practices as a method of avoiding harming the threatened Irrawaddy dolphins, which are often caught in more advanced fishing gear such as nets.
You can also find sustainable practices in the traditional Polynesian cultures of the South Pacific. Their most common historical fishing practices were hook and line, spearfishing, and cast nets. In line with traditional practice, they dive underwater or spearfish from above, again targeting specific animals. Cast nets were used by fishers working individually or in groups. The nets could be cast from shore or canoes, catching groups of fish. All of these methods targeted fish needed for fishers’ families and local communities, ensuring that fishermen only take what they need.
Chances are if you have ever gone fishing you have mirrored these native, traditional practices, using a rod and reel. Rod-and-reel fishing is a modern version of traditional hook-and-line. Rods and reels come in specific shapes and sizes that allow fishermen to pursue a wide range of fish species in both freshwater and saltwater. Rod-and-reel fishing results in far less by-catch than commercial fishing nets since untargeted species can be released instantly. In addition, only one fish is captured at a time, avoiding overfishing. For commercial fishers, rod-and reel-fishing is a much more sustainable alternative to long lining.
Many people, populations, and nations also rely on fish and other marine life as a source of food and raw materials. In order to preserve fish populations, we need to reduce overfishing and by-catch by fisheries’ management. Managing fish stocks is not an easy task. It needs coordination at all levels of government, from local governments to nations across the globe.
The nations are responsible for the management of fisheries in their coastal waters. In the United States, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for fisheries management within 5-321 kilometers of land. Local municipalities are handling the water near the coast.
However, various players have different views on fisheries’ legislation. Fishermen themselves are involved both in preserving their livelihoods and in ensuring that fish stocks remain for years to come. Conservationists are trying to conserve marine and freshwater ecosystems, also attempting to discourage fishing and other practices that threaten animals and their habitats. Other stakeholders include citizens, which want to purchase and eat the seafood they enjoy, as well as scientists that aim to protect the health of ocean ecosystems.
The territorial seas of a country do not occupy significant portions of any vast oceans. The bulk of Earth’s oceans are “high seas”—international regions that do not belong to a specific country. Fishing enforcement in international waters is difficult; it involves nations with conflicting agendas and economic requirements to agree on management approaches.
However, there are also multinational deals in effect. There are 17 Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) made up of nations that share economic interests in a given field. Once Member States commit to the RFMO Regulations, they are bound by these laws, which can include catch limits and requirements for the types of gear used. Evidence shows that these restrictions have led to a decline in by-catch (such as dolphins in tuna nets), but the conservation of sustainable fish populations remains a problem.
Compliance with fisheries laws on the high seas is highly complicated, but the Member States have sought to solve the issue of illicit fishing and prohibit the introduction of illegally captured seafood. The overarching goal of fisheries management is to develop regulations based on scientific data. These regulations may be based on knowledge of species’ life histories, migration patterns, or other information. If countries can not work internationally, this will have disastrous effects on coral reef ecosystems.
As customers, we can select seafood from well-controlled, healthy fisheries. To do this, we need to teach ourselves where our fish comes from and how they’re caught. Tools such as the Seafood Decision Guide will help us make the right decisions for the future of our ocean. The remaining challenge is that policymakers must consider the needs of consumers, the livelihoods of fishers, and the data of scientists as we go forward.