Is Seafood Sustainable? Part II: The Overfishing Crisis


This is Part II of a three-part series on the global overfishing crisis and the sustainability of seafood.

Overfishing is a grave environmental concern. In a recent Care2 guest post series on overfishing in the U.S., Lee Crockett, the Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group, explained that for decades now, humans have been catching more of certain species of fish than can be replaced by reproduction, causing populations of several popular seafood species to plummet. Crockett noted that, despite recent efforts to manage local fish populations more sustainably, nearly one fifth of fish species economically important to people in the U.S. are still being caught at unsustainable levels; some populations have dropped to less than 20% of numbers measured in the 1970s.

Fish, mollusk and crustacean species in seas around the world are suffering similarly from overfishing and habitat loss caused by unsustainable commercial fishing methods like bottom trawling, a wasteful fishing method that kills many more fish than can be sold to consumers, destroys coral reefs and drastically damages the sea floor.

Overfishing seriously threatens the supply of seafood species humans like to eat, but the potential effects of upsetting the balance of the ocean ecosystem go far beyond the dinner table. The ocean covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, and the condition of the marine environment affects life on land. Ocean life plays a key role in the Earth’s crucial carbon cycle. Just as trees and grasses absorb carbon dioxide on land, phytoplankton and marine plants in the water absorb carbon dioxide from the air; at least half of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine plant life, and marine plants absorb about half of the carbon dioxide currently produced by humanity’s industrial activities.

Already the world has seen signs that overfishing is drastically changing the ocean environment. The removal of so many top ocean predators, like sharks and tuna, from the seas has resulted in a population boom for jellyfish. In the past few years, jellyfish blooms have clogged harbors, sunk boats and even recently shut down several nuclear power plants. Overfishing has also been linked to an increase in algal blooms — overgrowths of algae that choke the sea’s surface and block out oxygen and sunlight, killing plants and fish below.

As in any ecosystem, in the ocean, the welfare of species is interconnected. When humans remove threads from the ocean food web by devastating certain marine species through overfishing, the entire ocean ecosystem is put at risk. We do not yet understand what the long-term consequences of overfishing may be for the planet as a whole, but the immediate consequences have already been severe.

The increased public interest in the sustainability of seafood is a positive development. But will a general public opinion shift in favor of eating less threatened, more sustainably harvested seafood species be enough to allow the ocean environment — and overfished seafood species — to begin to recover?

Consider this: in January of this year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that global per capita fish consumption reached a record high of 17 kilograms (about 37 pounds) of fish per person per year. According to the World Health Organization, global per capita fish consumption has been growing at the rate of 3.6% a year since 1961. And as individual seafood consumption has been on the rise, the number of people eating fish has also been growing: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the world’s human population recently topped 6.9 billion.

In 1950, humans were harvesting about 20 million metric tons of fish each year. To supply the increasing, massive global demand for seafood in the 21st century, last year, global fisheries harvested more than 145 million metric tons of food from the sea: an increase of more than 700%.

Though consumers are beginning to be more conscious about picking more sustainably harvested seafood, the crux of the overfishing problem is that humans are eating too much seafood, period.

Read Part I of the Is Seafood Sustainable series. Part III coming soon.

Related Care2 Stories:

Is Seafood Sustainable? Part I

Aquaculture for a Hungry World

Why Ending Overfishing Pays Off in the Long Run

Photo of jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium by Mila Zinkova, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.


W. C
W. C1 years ago


William C
William C1 years ago

Thank you.

Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Anja N.
Justin R7 years ago about overpopulation crisis...

Tiago B.
Tiago Buhr7 years ago

I don't think it;s sustainable after reading all 3 posts

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S7 years ago

This is certainly connected to the 7 billion and growing world population. People pushing the ideology of women as breeders - i.e., women should be having as many babies as possible, rejection of birth control, etc. - are disgustingly irresponsible. These same people who put themselves at the top of the animal kingdom have less reasoning ability than the "lowest" of the animal kingdom. Hypocrisy rears it's head again in the conservative movement. In fact, hypocrisy looks to be the foundation of the conservative platform.

J C Bro
J C Brou7 years ago

Vegetarianism is looking even better as we read

Alice H.
Alice H7 years ago

It would be nice if we could realize we live on a earth of finite resources before it is too late.

Louise F.
Louise Frontiero7 years ago

NOT IN THE NORTHEAST ATLANTIC MR CROCKETT.......I live in Glouceste Ma and the fishermen here have been conserving the species for about 20 years -- Globably I think is where the "PEW Foundation " should put its priorities -- BIG FACTORY BOATS who rape the oceans - not the little single family owned boats that the US has

Janine Hofmann
Janine H7 years ago

When i see how cruel "we" are to animals, it makes me sick. The people have lost respect to animals. Did it end in the time of 2. World War? That people ate flesh not often, not only because they were poor, but also because they had respect to animals? And today, they eat it as if it has not to get food, raised - and killed. As if a steak has always been a steak, as an apple is an apple...

Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
(Native American proverb)