The Fruits of Civilization (71-3) Overfishing


Until the 20th century, the stocks of fish in the vast oceans of the world seemed to be inexhaustible. There was no attempt to limit catches, and all the effort was put into maximising exploitation. ~ Clive Ponting

The false perception that marine resources are infinite is still common. ~ Brazilian-American ichthyologist Luiz Rocha

The fishing industry worldwide has done its utmost to destroy its own business. Since 1950, 25% of the world’s fisheries have collapsed from overfishing; a trend that began in the late 19th century.

Industrial fishing occurs in >55% of ocean area and has a spatial extent more than 4 times that of agriculture. ~ American ecologist David Kroodsma et al in 2018

The decimation of ocean ecosystems has been a government project. After the 2nd World War, the United States used fishing rights and fisheries technology as a geopolitical tool.

The US subsidized the modernization of Japan’s fishing fleet during Allied occupation of that country (1945–1952). Funds from the Marshall Plan, meant to rebuild Europe, went to expanding fishing.

All around the world, America engendered overfishing. Sensing the political struggle, other countries responded in kind.

90% of Earth’s once-abundant fisheries are either fully exploited or facing collapse. Oceanic ecology has been unbalanced worldwide.

As an example, cod fishing off Newfoundland, Canada collapsed in 1992. 40,000 jobs were lost. 25 years later, the fishery has yet to recover, and it never will.

In the mid-1980s, overfishing forced Spanish, Japanese, and South Korean industrial fishing fleets out of their national waters. They went to the ocean off Chile and pillaged until the fisheries there collapsed.

Then the fleets moved on. Beginning in 1997, Prince Edward and nearby islands in the Indian ocean were fished to commercial extinction in just 2 years.

Of the 3.5 million fishing vessels worldwide, only 1.7% are classified as industrial; yet these ships take almost 60% of the global fish catch. The corporations that run these large fleets take the bulk of the $30 billion in government subsidies handed out each year to the worldwide fishing industry.

On land, the terrestrial animals most at risk of extinction are large-bodies creatures and top predators. It was long assumed that these patterns applied in the ocean as well. Not so. Since 1960, smaller fish that are commercially fished had up to twice as many stock collapses as fish higher up on the food chain.

All kinds of species, including the small ones that used to think were incredibly resilient, are also vulnerable to overfishing. Even temporary collapses of small, low trophic-level fishes can have ecosystem-wide impacts by reducing food supply to larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. ~ American marine ecologist Malin Pinsky

Benthic bounty is also had by dredging the sea floor, which is devastating to an oceanic ecosystem. Coral and sponges that provide a habitat for fish are demolished and their populations do not recover.

The world’s richest areas for marine biodiversity are also those areas most affected by both climate change and industrial fishing. ~ Spanish marine ecologist Francisco Ramirez et al

Overfishing occurs everywhere and is only checked by authorities long after stocks have been depleted. Only 0.01% of the world’s oceans are closed to fishing.

Despite international regulations aimed at overfishing, the high seas remain a lawless place. Regulations often met in the breach, as the monetary lure is strong and enforcement spotty.

We don’t want them on the boat. We feel as though they’re out there to kind of shut us down. ~ American fisherman Nick Muto

Self-destructive to the last, fishermen resist regulation. Government observers are harassed.

They’re going to make your life as hard as possible. ~ American fishing observer Christopher Stump


Build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish. ~ Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013

In recent decades, China has been an aggressive overfisher. The South China Sea yields 1/10th of the global fish catch. Coastal fisheries now have just 5–30% of the stocks they had in the 1950s: so Chinese fishermen have gone farther offshore and into distant waters.

In the 2010s, China has taken all that it can out of African waters, including destroying seabeds with bottom trawlers. Bottom trawling is banned, but the Chinese show little regard for legalities, and no concern for sustainability.

The Chinese government heavily subsidizes the pillage of African waters. Most of China’s 2,600 fishing vessels are large enough to scoop up as many fish in a week as native African boats could catch in a year.

As China has become more prosperous, fishermen from other countries have increasingly catered to Asian tastes. Peruvian fishermen slaughter 15,000 dolphins each year to use their meat as bait to catch sharks. Fishermen prefer dolphin meat because its strong blood odor readily attracts sharks. Shark fin is considered a delicacy in Asia, and often served in soup at expensive Chinese restaurants.


Krill are tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that grow to be 6 cm long. Krill are found in all the oceans. The coolest krill live in the pack ice that forms in Antarctica.

Krill feed on phytoplankton and are themselves fed upon by all manner of marine animal. Krill is an essential oceanic food source, and their numbers have deteriorated precipitously in recent decades. Krill populations dropped over 80% in the 4 decades from 1977 to 2017, precipitating a decline in seabirds, notably penguins, many of whom rely upon krill to fill their bellies. Marine mammals, including whales, have also been adversely affected.

Ocean warming is partly behind the krill decline, but the main reason for such loss has been suction harvesting by large trawlers, which can gather vast quantities of krill. These fishing fleets are feeding a growing global demand for krill-based health products, based upon dubious claims that are more superstition than science. The krill industry proudly projects that it can grow 12% a year from 2018 to 2021 and will doubtlessly suck up all the krill that it can, until the krill kill is no longer profitable or possible.