Well there's plenty of fish in the sea. Right?
Fish are a food staple for many of us Pagans and frequently swim in and out of our faery tales, stories, and folklore from the Americas to Ireland, and all the way to China. Plus they are an excellent source of low fat, high protein, vitamins and minerals, and with a healthy dose of omega3 fatty acids! Today, about 3 billion people depend on fish as their main source of protein and millions worldwide depend on fishing for their livelihood. But worldwide, everyone seems to love their fish dish. In the 1960's, the average person consumed 9.9 kilograms of fish per year. Ten years later, it went up to 11.5 kilograms. By the 1980's, that number went up to 12.5 kilograms, 14.4 kilograms in the 1990's, 16.4 by the mid-2000's, and now every person in the world is averaging 20 kilograms of fish every year. Most of that growth, however, comes from China with an increase from 21% worldwide consumption in 1994 to 35% in 2005. Africa has the lowest consumption with only 8.3 kilograms per person per year, and North America is at 24.1 kilograms.
There are variations of fish consumption between cultures and traditions of course, and with its availability, prices, seasons, and socioeconomic levels- as well as coastal populations versus inland. But with all this increasingly continuous consumption of fish, and mostly large fish at that, does that take a toll on the oceans?
Overfishing is when certain populations of fish are overexploited to a point of not being able to procreate with enough genetic diversity. So in other words, when all you have left are siblings, that fish population won't last much longer due to the defects caused by inbreeding. But if you have a high enough market for tuna and there's none left, then you have to import them from somewhere- or salmon or whatever the fish is; depleting that area, as well. In one study, from 1950 to 2008, 24.2% of worldwide commercial fishing stocks have collapsed; meaning no longer recoverable, 33.7% are overexploited and on the verge of collapse, and 33.2% are fully exploited. Yet in another study, it was believed only 13% had collapsed with the same number of overexploited. But regardless of the exact number of collapsed commercial fishing stocks, this should not be happening; fishing should be done sustainably in order for the population to recover. But it also does depends on the area, the politics governing those areas, and the market value for exporting.
In 2015, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea had the highest amount of unsustainable stocks with 62.2% that are on the verge of collapse. Not far behind, the Southeast Pacific's unsustainable stocks were at 61.5%, and the Southwest Atlantic were at 58.8%. However, the remaining Pacific areas (Eastern Central Pacific, Northeast Pacific, Northwest Pacific, Western Central Pacific, and Southwest Pacific) were all around 13-17% unsustainable. This means that as the numbers increase in those previously listed areas, they will increase the business in areas that have a higher catch; depleting their sustainability. Not only does this jeopardize those billions of people who do not have access to other sources of protein, plant-protein included, but it also jeopardizes the economic livelihoods of millions of others who depend on fishing to feed their families. And as if that is not enough, it also jeopardizes the health of the oceans.
The majority of commercial fish are large fish, and when you remove a vast amount of various populations of large fish that make up a single trophic level within a food chain, then the ripple effect expands to the other marine beings that depend on those fish for food and balance; it starves the larger predators and overpopulates the smaller prey and aquatic plants. Similarly, when crustaceans, like lobster and shrimp, or pelagic fish, like sardines and herring, are overexploited, the exact same thing happens, only on a different level in the food chain. But these still consequently affect all the others. Grouped with 40% bycatch (unwanted fish beings that are caught in the nets with the wanted fish, die, and then are thrown back into the sea) and pollution, the ocean is rapidly losing its fish and thus, its health. Marine animals maintain levels of toxins in the ocean, as well as oxygen and large-scale algal bloom; they literally regulate the oceans. And because of overfishing, bycatch of fishing, and pollution; the sea will have no seafood in it by the year, 2048, according to ecologist, Boris Worm. And once seafood is gone, it's only a matter of time until the remaining ocean beings disappear from such a disruption.
The future of global commercial fishing can no longer be sustainably done through wild catch; it has to be aquaculture. Aquaculture is also known as farmed fish; the control and regulation of fish in a sequestered and closed environment. There are two kinds of aquaculture: finfish and shellfish, and these are constructed as installed pens in the ocean. Not only does this allow for the populations in the wild to recover, but it also allows us to help repopulate the wild fish by way of conservation. With better management practices and procedures in aquaculture, it now counts for more than half of all commercial fish.
The downside of aquaculture is its effects on the wild environment, of which it sometimes shares space with. Shellfish can add increased sediment to the ocean floor, through the base of the caged pen, that can increase nutrient toxicity to that area. Finfish aquaculture, however, has much more risks than shellfish. Because of how extensive finfish farming is, many times these fishermen add nutrients that, like in the case of shellfish, also end up in the ocean floor which can affect the flora and fauna below which in turn alters the sediment chemistry, as well as the entirety of the water column. The same thing happens from high concentrations of waste generated from these fish in this one area. Aquaculture is also very fragile with its vulnerability to extreme storms that can wipe out the entire income of small fishing companies in a single night. And sometimes, through complications, these fish escape the pen in an area they are not native to and thus become exotic species; disrupting the ecosystems and wiping out the food chains that had evolved for that environment. Once these farmed fish are free from their pens, they can also spread diseases that the surrounding wild fish are not accustomed or have not yet adapted to. Thus, aquaculture comes with a lot of pros and a lot of cons, regardless of its advancements.
The best thing a consumer can do is to know the source of their fish and make sure it’s aquacultured and if so, if the fish are native to that area anyway in case something were to happen. Another, more direct impact, is to simply eat less seafood and eat more seaweed and plant protein sources.