A fisherman is working alone at the ocean in the sunset. The boat is small - blue and white.

Why is commercial fishing harmful to the Environment?

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Many of us have valuable memories of fishing trips and related activities. It is or has been a way to get food on the table or make ends meet for some people. When I was a kid, I also used to go fishing often. It was exciting and easily rewarding. I love seafood and all the dishes we can make of those creatures. Anyway, I don’t eat any of that anymore because I became a vegetarian last spring. I also have given up fishing as a hobby even though my family members still enjoy it. Why give up something you like, you might ask. Here is my why. And it is mostly about commercial fishing as an industry.

The problems with commercial fishing

Many different fishing methods are used in commercial fishing. Here are a few of them and the related problems they can cause. It is vital to notice that almost all of these methods can be used in more sustainable ways if wanted. But is it too little too late, and how to get fisheries to follow the rules;

Midwater trawling. Bycatch. Especially harmful for marine mammals and sea turtles
Bottom trawling. Destructive to Ocean habitats – including coral reefs, causes a lot of bycatch.
Gillnets. Bycatch. Entangling large whales, dolphins, sea lions, porpoises.
Cyanide fishing. Destroys coral reefs.
Dynamite/Blast fishing. Bycatch. Destroys the underwater environment.
Longlines. The average bycatch is approximately 20%. Dangerous for birds, turtles, and sharks.
Traps. Entangling marine mammals and sea turtles.

Clownfish and bigger, yellow fish are swimming at a colorful coral reef. Commercial fishing methods harm and destroy reefs and Ocean's ecosystems.
Many fishing methods destroy coral reefs and marine ecosystems. Not all of them do that directly, but by overfishing, bycatch, and causing imbalance among the populations. Ecosystems do need all their participants.  

Bycatch. When the non-targeted fish or marine animals get captured when fishermen are trying to catch one specific species – this phenomenon is called bycatch. And the amount of this non-purposefully caught catch is almost unimaginable. According to the “Fish-forward” -project (EU), 5-10 years ago, 40 % of all the fish caught worldwide was bycatch. What happens to these non-targeted fishes? Most of them are tossed back to the Ocean – but they are already dead or dying – or disposed to the land. The total amount of bycatch annually is approximately 38 million tonnes (in kilos,) and that includes other marine animals, such as mammals. Try to imagine 300 000 sea birds, 300 000 dolphins and whales, and 250 000 rare turtles annually. That is horrifying and unnecessary.

Oceana’s By-Catch report from 2014 also gives devastating numbers. There were approximately 4 million fishing vessels worldwide, which brought in more than 160 billion pounds of fish annually. Sixty-three billion pounds of this catch was discarded. When thinking back to the great nineties, 650 000 whales, dolphins, and seals got killed every year as bycatch.

The actions and choices of different fisheries do matter. Think about this example: According to Oceana, 2010, only two bottom longline fisheries in the Southern Region of the USA were responsible for the bycatch of 3400 dusky sharks. Methods, policies, and priorities do matter. Overall in the USA, 17-22% of the caught fish is discarded before the ships reach the port.

What does commercial fishing cause in the oceans?

Overfishing, Extinction, and Destroyed habitats. All these three phenomena happen because of commercial fishing. All of them are also connected to bycatch. Overfishing means the situation when stocks cannot replenish as fast as people catch the fish. Bycatching, of course, increases the risk of overfishing remarkably.

Overfishing also has a direct impact on some people’s survival. There are people and societies whose livelihood and protein intake are entirely dependant on fishing. Now overfishing and diminished fish populations have put their surveillance at risk. Yet, so many who support overfishing with their lifestyles are not those whose lives actually depend on what Ocean has to offer.

Mission Blue – with Sylvia Earle – is an eye-opening documentary from Netflix.

Researchers were shocked in 2018 when they noticed that approximately 46% of the plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean garbage patch was made of fishing nets. Overall at least half of the plastic in the Ocean is said to be from fishing gear. There are ropes, nets, FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices), plastic fishing baskets and crates, and longlines. These have been intentionally or accidentally discarded or lost. These forgotten gears don’t only pollute and slowly become microplastics, but they still keep on fishing – ghost fishing. NOAA’s report from 2015 included an estimate that there are over 85 000 lobster and crab ghost traps in Florida Key’s National Marine Sanctuary. Only in that area.


So we humans, we catch too much, too fast, too often, and meanwhile, we perform careless actions. We take what we want, no matter the consequences. Why is this happening? Because we, as consumers, have given our silent blessing to the situation. We want cheap food, fresh ingredients, more and faster. We dread “trash fish.” Most of the fishermen work hard in difficult and dangerous conditions without proper pay. How to change the situation so they would not need to rip the oceans to survive? How change some of their attitudes to be more cautious? Should we value what the Ocean gives to us more and start to treat seafood as a rare cuisine? Should most of us give up seafood? Should the whole commercial system around fishing be changed for good? Are there too many greedy hands in the supply chain? What say you?

Do we show compassion for the fishes?

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I know that any conversation about ethics, veganism, or “animal right” is quickly triggering. And there is no need to play with blame and guilt. However, as I like to pay attention to people’s thinking processes, I have been given this some thought.

When I was a kid, I asked the adults if it hurts the worms when we put them into the hook. “No, worms are so simple, they don’t understand pain or feel choking in the water.” “Okay,” fishing continues happily from this point. “Does it hurt the fish when they get the hook in their mouth?” “No, and fish are meant to be food. They are also simple and don’t understand pain.” “Okay! Good.” Happy for a moment – like 20 years or so in my case. However, adults taught me to kill the catch immediately that it wouldn’t suffer. For this reason, I preferred not to fish with a net as I could not kill so many fish fast enough. So it seems there were some thoughts about the pain and suffering then?

As I grew older, I read researches about the sensitivity and surprising intelligence of fish and marine life. I wanted to doubt what I read and push those thoughts away. Otherwise, I could not have eaten sushi or enjoyed any foods containing fish. Who wants to hurt anyone? As I later became a vegetarian for environmental reasons, I did let that information in my mind again. It is funny how we protect ourselves and our minds from guilt. It is a great coping skill and also needed pretty often.

My daughter still goes fishing with her dad. Kids fishing a few times a month and using an angle or spinning fish rod do not harm nature environment-wise. But if she asks about fishing from an ethical perspective, I won’t lie. She can make her judgments and choices about it while she grows older, and for now, she can use her coping mechanisms if her consciousness needs those. But we adults, we know more; we have science-based evidence to make choices when planning the weekly and daily habits, shopping trips, and meals. We can choose the bigger good.

Featured image: Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay 
Fishes by the coral: 5406753 from Pixabay
Turtle: Geraldine Dukes from Pixabay 
Seal: A_Different_Perspective from Pixabay
Dolphin: enriquelopezgarre  from Pixabay

Read more: EU, Animal Equality, NOAA, Oceana report, WWF, WWF Overfishing, Seashepard


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