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Fishing Stocks Have Collapsed Around the World

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More and more fishers are hauling in empty nets.

More and more fishers are hauling in empty nets.

Writing for BBC News, Richard Black points out that “There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the century if current trends continue, according to a major scientific study.” He based his statement on a 2006 report that was published in Science that predicts a “global collapse” of ocean biodiversity due to overfishing; all species currently fished, the authors said, would be gone by 2048.

Atlantic Teeming with Cod

John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto to give him his Venetian name) sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1497 to what he called “New Founde Lande.” He reported that the cod were so numerous in the water off the island’s coast that “they sometimes stayed his shippes.” Fishing itself was a poor test of skill because, as Cabot said, cod could be caught by dropping a basket in the water and hauling up the catch.

By 1550, more than 400 ships a season were crossing the Atlantic to take cod from the Grand Banks fishing grounds. The bounty of the sea seemed endless so that in the 1950s more than 250,000 tons of northern cod were being landed annually.

The traditional Newfoundland inshore fishery was from small boats called dories. Their catch was sustainable but doomed.

Halibut fishing from a dory in the 19th century; very hard work and extremely dangerous.

Halibut fishing from a dory in the 19th century; very hard work and extremely dangerous.

But, by the late 1950s, big factory ships arrived in the deeper waters. They came from Europe, the United States, and some even from Asia. They hauled enormous nets and captured everything in their path, so that now the annual catch rose to 800,000 tons.

But, the cod could not replace their numbers to satisfy this kind of pillage and the catch started to decline. The inshore fishers noted a drop in their catch and sounded the alarm, but nobody listened until scientists started to confirm their warning; the cod fishery was collapsing.

In 1992, the Canadian government announced a ban on fishing northern cod. It was estimated there were just 1,700 tons of cod left in the ocean.

Almost 20 years later, Brian Petrie of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography announced that “Cod is about a third of the way to full recovery, and haddock is already back to historical biomass levels.” A limited amount of fishing has resumed, but there will never be a return to the massive overfishing of previous years.

The lesson of the Grand Banks is being learned all over the world; some are taking heed, others are ignoring the warnings.

German factory ship Kiel in which fish are filleted and frozen.

German factory ship Kiel in which fish are filleted and frozen.

Abundance in the Seas

British documents from the 17th and 18th centuries speak of huge pods of blue whales, orcas, and sharks turning the waters off Cornwall dark with their mass.

A dump of oyster shells near Poole on England’s south coast, dating from the 10th through to the 14th centuries, contains the remains of between 3.8 million and 7.6 million shellfish.

And, Wildlife Extrareports that, “Before oil hunters in the early 1800s harpooned whales by the score, the ocean around New Zealand teemed with about 27,000 southern right whales—roughly 30 times as many as today.”

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Improved Fishing Methods Cut into Stocks

It wasn’t long before technology started to improve the size of catches and reduce populations of the fish.

In the 1860s, British driftnet herring fishers were claiming that longliners using baited hooks were taking too many fish. The government struck a commission in 1862 to look into the problem under Thomas Huxley.

In European Fisheries History, Carolyn Scearce writes that the commission dismissed the concerns of the driftnet fishers and “declared the complaints to be unscientific. Huxley held the view that nature was almost infinitely resilient and would adapt to any pressure that humans could exert on the environment. This belief was shared by many not only through the nineteenth century but well into the twentieth.”

Fish Catches Increase and Stocks Start to Decline

Until the second half of the 20th century, fishers had been nothing more than hunters. They knew where the fish were likely to be, but their nets could still come up filled with nothing but seaweed. Then, the equipment started to get more sophisticated; echo sounders, radar, even satellite tracking helped captains locate schools of fish.

Here’s a bit of history from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization: “For the two decades following 1950, world marine and inland capture fisheries production increased on average by as much as six percent per year, trebling from 18 million tonnes in 1950 to 56 million tonnes in 1969.”

In 2011, the annual catch was 82.6 million tonnes, but in 2012 it dropped to 79.7 million tonnes.

Soon, signs of trouble were showing up in the Atlantic fisheries and elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, Atlantic halibut were so depleted that the commercial catch had to be stopped in the early 1900s. On the West Coast, in the 1930s, the legendary sardine fishery collapsed. Other countries also began to suffer the consequences of overfishing.

Catastrophe Everywhere

The World Wildlife Fund has catalogued the scale of the fishing disaster:

  • “Marine vertebrate populations declined 49 percent between 1970 and 2012;
  • “Populations of fish species utilized by humans have fallen by half, with some of the most important species experiencing even greater declines;
  • “Around one in four species of sharks, rays, and skates is now threatened with extinction.”

To which the Wilson Center adds:

  • “An estimated 70 percent of fish populations are fully used, overused, or in crisis as a result of overfishing and warmer waters.”

“You and I are probably members of the last generation who will sit down at dinner tables to things as exotic as grouper—or cod, even.”

— Jeffrey Graham, fish biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Most Fish Species Over-Exploited

Ruth Thurston and her colleagues wrote in Nature Communications that “In 2009, the European Commission estimated that 88 percent of monitored marine fish stocks were overfished, on the basis of data that go back 20 to 40 years and depending on the species investigated.”

Researchers working on the Census of Marine Life have uncovered disturbing data. Poul Holm is a professor of environmental history at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland and he heads up the History of Marine Animals Populations project. The Globe and Mail quotes Dr. Holm as saying that today there are 85 to 90 percent fewer marine animals in the world’s oceans than there once were. “We can now confirm,” Holm says, “this is a global picture, fairly consistent in the developed and developing world.”

Bonus Factoids

  • According to the World Wildlife Fund, governments around the globe subsidize fishing fleets by as much as $46 billion a year.
  • Each person eats an average of just over 19 kg of fish a year; that’s about double the amount of 50 years ago.
  • Albatrosses have become collateral damage of the fishing industry. They follow fishing boats to snatch an easy meal and get entangled in the fishing gear. Africa Geographic says that “15 of the 22 albatross species [are] threatened with extinction.”
  • About 15 percent of the world’s animal protein comes from fish and other seafood.
  • Worldwide, about one billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein.


  • “Cod Collapse.” Canadian History, undated.
  • “Living Blue Planet Report.” World Wildlife Fund, 2015.
  • “Ocean Fish Stocks on ‘Verge of Collapse,’ Says IRIN Report.” Azua (Zizhan) Luo, New Security Beat, February 28, 2017.
  • “Marine Census Points to Vast Diversity.” Cigdem Iltan, The Globe and Mail, August 2, 2010.
  • “The Effects of 118 Years of Industrial Fishing on U.K. Bottom Trawl Fisheries.” Ruth H. Thurston et al., Nature Communications, May 4, 2010.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

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