Module 15: Fishing and Fisheries

The Current State of Fisheries

Fish comprise the largest source of protein consumed by humans around the world. Today more than 70% of the world’s fisheries have been exploited due to poor fishing practices, subsequently resulting in vast ecological imbalances and leaving many fisheries severely depleted. Overfishing is defined as “situations where one or more fish stocks are reduced below predefined levels of acceptance by fishing activities” (1). In some cases, depleted fish stocks have been restored; however, this is only possible when the species’ ecosystem remains intact. Imbalances in the ecosystem make it difficult to return stocks to sustainable levels.

There is a need to safeguard future fish supplies, which Duke University Professor of Environmental Economics Martin Smith says may be achieved by adjusting the price of seafood to reflect the cost of maintaining the ecosystem health in fishing regions. Professor Smith also says that "many imports (come) from developing countries that are not necessarily well-positioned to manage their resources sustainably." Since there are no set regulations in place regarding international exportation of products, developing countries often produce much more seafood than they consume and export the excess.(2) Developed countries utilizing foreign fishing fleets threaten the sustainability of developing country fisheries. Government assistance and partnerships could help these fisheries protect and sustain their marine environments.(3)

In many places there are no limits on how much one can catch and there is little guidance regarding fishing practices. One option includes the implementation of trade policies, such as import bans and tariffs that could be used to punish countries that fail to meet sustainability standards. Private incentives that raise the price of seafood and therefore subsidize the costs of mitigating the damages caused by harmful fishing practices may be another viable solution. However, this may lead consumers to purchasing lower-priced fish, thereby raising the costs of these fish and causing them to be overpriced for people in developing countries. Yet another option may be to allocate more foreign aid to encourage fisheries in developing countries to use sustainable fishing practices. This aid could be used for sustainable fishing gear, improved management, aquaculture facilities, compliance and trade. Foreign aid would not replace other methods for encouraging sustainability, but would bebe an addition to current efforts being made.(4) In addition, access agreements could be created to allow the government to help fisheries in developing nations negotiate with wealthier countries to help protect their marine environments and fishing communities. If dramatic conservation measures are taken immediately, there is a possibility for recovery of fish stocks.

Sustainable Seafood

Sustainable seafood comes from fishing practices that allow a depleted or threatened fish population to recover to healthy levels. Sustainable fishing practices help maintain the health of the oceans so the fish can live and thrive. Sustainable seafood comes from a well-managed source, where fishing practices allow the fish population to grow and thrive rather than be depleted.(5)

The Marine Fish Conservation Network is the largest national coalition that is dedicated to promoting the long-term sustainability of marine fish. The Network consists of 200 members from environmental organizations, commercial and recreational fishing associations, aquariums, and marine science groups. The Network works to educate policy makers, fishing industrialists, and the public about issues faced by the fishing industry and the need for conservation and better management. The Network also analyzes the ability of existing federal laws, primarily the Magnuson-Steven Act (MSA), to adequately promote marine fish conservation. The Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1996 (popularly known as the “Sustainable Fisheries Act”) limited the amount of fish that could be caught and prohibited overfishing. The Fisher Management Plan (FMP) specified criteria to measure overfishing.(6) The MSC has also developed a set of standards to assess and certify fisheries, based on scientific data. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) “seal of approval” allows consumers to identify which products are from well-managed sources. (7)

Other organizations such as Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium publish seafood guides to help consumers in developed countries make informed choices when buying seafood. Retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, are committed to ocean preservation and endeavor to sell products from responsibly-managed fisheries. (8)

Go To Module 16: Innovations in Fishery Conservation and Sustainability >>


(1) Pauly, D. “Aquacalypse Now - The End of Fish.” (28 September 2009). Accessed on 10 August 2018.

(2) “Sustainable Fisheries Needed for Global Food Security.” ScienceDaily. (13 February 2010). Accessed 10 June 2020.

(3) Ibid

(4) Ibid

(5) Seafood Nutrition Partnership. “Seafood Sustainability.” Accessed 10 June 2020.

(6) “Marine Fish Conservation Network.” Accessed 10 June 2020.

(7) Ibid

(8) Ibid