This video will forever change how you look at the ocean and seafood. Is the world running out of fish? Will the collapse of the ocean be the collapse of humankind? See what research says about the dire state of our oceans.
Table Of Contents
The health of our oceans is absolutely vital to all life on this planet—including those of us on land. In fact, the oceans are the only reason our planet even has life. Earth’s first breath of oxygen came from cyanobacteria over 2.7 billion years ago.
But now the oceans are facing total destruction from the very beings they brought to life: humans. The collapse of our oceans will spell disaster for all life on this planet. As marine life conservationist Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd says, “If the oceans die, we all die.”
Causes of Marine Life Depletion
Humans have fished the oceans for thousands of years, but with the rise of commercial fishing methods, pollution, runoff, and habitat destruction, marine animal populations are no longer able to replenish themselves fast enough.
This article and video are going to look into the vital question: is our ocean running out of fish? And, if so, what is the implication for life on this planet? tweet this
This issue is incredibly complex and we will barely be touching the surface—much like our vastly unexplored oceans.
To understand the depletion of marine life in our oceans, we must address the main causes:
- ocean dead zones,
- pollution, and
- habitat destruction.
We’re also going to look into what the main source of this oceanic destruction is, and why it’s rarely (or never) discussed by those individuals and organizations dedicated to protecting the oceans and their inhabitants.
The Impact of Overfishing
Let’s start with the most obvious and oft-discussed reason for the reduction of marine life: overfishing. Ninety to 100 million tonnes of fish are pulled from our oceans each year with some sources even estimating 150 million tonnes.
Between the 1950s to 2011, worldwide catches increased fivefold, while the amount of fish in sea was reduced by one-half. Three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted and some scientists predict that we will see fishless oceans by 2048.[tweet this]
According to the most current report in 2014 from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the Untied Nations: “the world’s marine fisheries have expanded continuously to a production peak of 86.4 million tonnes in 1996 but have since exhibited a general declining trend. Global recorded production was 82.6 million tonnes in 2011 and 79.7 million tonnes in 2012.”
However, a more recent study published in 2016 challenges these statistics, finding gross underreporting of catches as well as issues with the FAO’s data entry methods leading to underrepresentation. The study’s creators, Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller, “suggest that catch actually peaked at 130 million tonnes,” rather than the FAO’s 86.4 million, “and has been declining much more strongly since.” Their reconstruction of total catches showed a decline of over three times that of the reported data as presented by the FAO.
With 60% of West Africa’s industrial fishing—and a staggering 92% of China’s—remaining unreported, even this corrected figure may not capture the full magnitude of commercial fishing.
Statistical Word Play: Why It’s Worse Than It Sounds
Statistics on ocean life in general remain cloudy—both due to the practical difficulty of tracking marine life and the terminology used by the organizations.
In their 2012 State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, the FAO found 87.3% of fish stocks were fully exploited or overexploited. However, comparing this figure to the report before and after is no easy feat.
Between their 2010 and 2012 reports, the FAO reduced it’s level of exploitation terminology from six to three terms. Now, in their most recent report from 2014, they’ve further clouded the issue, replacing “exploited” with “fished” and introducing two vague categories termed “sustainable” and “unsustainable levels.” This terminology has the dual affect of both making the situation sound less dire and making comparison between the reports unnecessarily difficult.
When you pick through the data and unravel the terminology, the upward trend of fish stock depletion becomes clear. The bottom line is that, as of the most current report from 2014 using 2011 data, less than 10% (9.9%) of our world’s fisheries remain unexploited. [tweet this]
Bycatch: A Devastating Consequence for Marine Life
It’s not just the amount of fish being taken from the ocean for food that is the issue. Far more devastating are those non-target species unintentionally captured, termed bycatch—or more accurately, bykill.
According to the FAO, for every one pound of fish caught, up to five pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill— though figures can be as high as twenty pounds of untargeted species for every pound of targeted animals killed.
A report that just came out a few weeks before this article found that in select US fisheries alone, bycatch in 2013 totaled approximately 689.1 million pounds.
All of the industrial fishing methods used around the world come with the high cost of bycatch. One study analyzed bycatch solely from pelagic longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean.
Longlining is a method which uses a main fishing line up to one hundred kilometers in length, with secondary lines branching off it—each set with hundreds of thousands of barbed, baited hooks.
The study found that 4.4 million non-targeted marine animals are killed as bycatch due to pelagic longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean every year, including, on average: 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 59,000 sea turtles, almost 77,000 albatrosses, and almost 20,000 dolphins and whales.
Trawling, the primary method used for shrimp, is often referred to as the ocean equivalent of clear-cutting rainforest with 80-98% of unintended catches being thrown back into the sea, dead.
It’s estimated that 650,000 marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and seals, are killed or seriously injured every year by commercial fisheries outside the United States. Because of this, almost every foreign fish product sold in the United States enters the U.S. market in violation of federal law—namely the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)—which has remained pitifully unenforced for over 40 years. With 90% of all seafood consumed in the United States coming from foreign sources,  this means that the American seafood industry has a large hand in devastating marine mammal populations while grossly violating its own federal law. [tweet this]
Going for the Biggest Fish First: The Removal of Sharks and Other Apex Predators
The mechanical method used for fishing isn’t the only issue; there is also the method of species targeting. Humans tend to go after the biggest fish first until they are no longer available. Then they move on down the chain, a process marine biologist Daniel Pauly termed “fishing down marine food webs.” The removal of apex predators leads to what’s called “trophic downgrading” where the loss of predators allows other species to grow unimpeded, upsetting the entire ecosystem.
One study suggests that the removal of sharks may contribute to climate change by leaving the unchecked numbers of species to feast on the ocean’s vegetation, releasing the ancient carbon found there in massive quantities. Dr. Peter Macreadie, one of the study’s authors, cautioned that:
“If we just lost 1 per cent of the oceans’ blue carbon ecosystems, it would be equivalent to releasing 460 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is about the equivalent of about 97 million cars. It’s about equivalent to Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.”— Dr. Peter Macreadie
With 73 million sharks killed every year for the shark fin industry, and 40-50 million sharks dying ever year as bycatch—not to mention the impact of shark culls—the ocean’s most vital predators are under attack. And the repercussions of their decimation will affect us all.
The Impact of Ocean Dead Zones, Pollution and Habitat Destruction
Not only do fishers move from species to species, but they will also move from area to area, decimating one before moving onto the next. For example, 33% of the EU’s seafood comes from developing nations.
While overfishing is certainly the most obvious drain on the world’s fish, and the most talked about, it is by no means the only cause. Ocean dead zones are a huge threat to marine life. Dead zones—or hypoxic zones—are areas of the ocean where there has been such a reduction in oxygen that animal life suffocates and dies.
While ocean protection organizations will mention dead zones, they by and large ignore their number one cause: animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of not only ocean dead zones, but also species extinction, water pollution, and habitat destruction, all of which severely impact our oceans.
In the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, Dr. Richard Oppenlander discuses the immense impact of land-based animal agriculture on our oceans:
“Livestock operations on land has caused more than – or created more than 500 nitrogen-flooded dead zones around the world and our oceans. It comprises more than 95,000 square miles of areas completely devoid of life. So any meaningful discussions of the state of our oceans has to always begin by frank discussions about land-based animal agriculture, which is not what our conservation groups, Oceana being the largest on in the world now — the most influential, as well as others — it’s not what is at the apex of their discussions.”— Dr. Richard Oppenlander
The Myth of Sustainable Seafood
In addition to not acknowledging the main cause of water pollution, habitat destruction, species extinction and ocean dead zones, Oceana and other major ocean defense organizations propose that the solution to the decimation of ocean life is to eat sustainable seafood.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as sustainable seafood. [tweet this] With whales dying from starvation, and 90% of all large fish species gone, the ocean can’t even sustain itself, let alone the up to 150 million tonnes of sea life we pull from it every year. Additionally, sustainable seafood labels also don’t account for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fishing.
The 2013 State of the Ocean Report from the IPSO stated:
“Not only are we already experiencing severe declines in many species, to the point of commercial extinction in some cases, and an unparalleled rate of regional extinctions of habitat types … we now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation. Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing – through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss – the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.”
What About Farming Fish?
It’s clear that wild fish and marine animals are in danger. So what about farming fish? Isn’t that an ideal solution? Wouldn’t it reduce the amount of fish we’re taking form the sea?
Sadly, the opposite is true. When fish farms, or aquaculture took off in the 1950’s, the number of wild caught fish also rose dramatically. From 1950 to 2001, fish farming increased 38 fold from 1 million tonnes 38 million tonnes.
Fish farms actually increase the number of wild fish caught because farmed carnivorous species requires large inputs of wild fish for feed. Aquaculture systems also modify and destroy wild fish habitats, pollute the water with waste disposal, introduce exotic species and are breeding grounds for pathogens and pests.
Today, the majority of wild-caught fish go to feed our farmed fish as well as our pigs, cows and chickens. In an extremely thorough and mathematically challenging article, Harish Sethu of CountingAnimals.com deduced that the United States alone uses more than 5.6 billion pounds of wild-caught fish to feed the animals we eat, with between 144 and 293 wild sea animals killed annually to feed the farmed fish and shrimp eaten by the average American consumer.
By the best estimate allowed with hindrance of the FAO’s underreporting and impersonal quantifying of sea life by the tonne and not the individual, every year we kill over 2.8 trillion fish. That’s 2.7 trillion more every year than the number of humans to have every existed in the history of our species.
So, if fishing is so unsustainable, why is it continuing at a frenzied pace? Well, it’s no surprise that a huge motivator is money. A 2010 study found that, “global fisheries subsidies for 2003 are between US$ 25 and 29 billion … These results imply that the global community is paying the fishing industry billions each year to continue fishing even when it would not be profitable otherwise—effectively funding the over-exploitation of marine resources.”
Now all of what we’ve covered has not even touched on the ethical side of fishing. You can see my video on whether fish feel pain to look into that aspect.
The Bottom Line and What You Can Do
The bottom line is that there is no way to fish sustainably. Our oceans, our earth, and we ourselves, are facing a massive extinction. We have already gone beyond the point of being able to reverse the damage. As Dr. Oppenlander states, “It has been 300 million years since the last time our oceans have been this warm and acidic, and at that time, it took over 30 million years to recover.”
We have to stop fishing. And we have to call for the organizations charged with the duty of protecting our oceans to actually protect them, not have an active hand in their destruction by pedaling a myth of sustainability.
So what can you do to help? Stop eating seafood and educate others. Send them this article. Dig into the resources below if you doubt these claims. But make a change. If the oceans die, we all die. [tweet this]
At this point, we are the only hope for the ocean. And the ocean is our only hope for survival. [tweet this]
This video report and the accompanying article took approximately 159 hours to produce. If you’d like to help support the creation of more free, scientifically-backed educational videos, see the support page.
— Emily Moran Barwick
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Congrats on the video. It was worth the many hours of work. So the question is, what the hell do we do? Even if polluting is stopped, 7 billion people need food …
Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) says
Thank you so much. Eat plants.
I’m vegan but I think a better solution is reduce the numbers of people by not having so many offspring. There’s only one outcome if the population of the World carries on at it’s present rate.
Thanks for all you do Emily.
Re-sharing your post
Thank you Emily. Very eye-opening even tho I thought I was well informed.
I became vegan 1 year, 3 days ago and have been encouraging everyone I know to do the same.
This video will help enforce my position.
Jack McMillan says
Great job Emily! As always. Have shared on FB to help disseminate. Also, I co-host a couple radio shows with Ellen Jaffe Jones called The Vegan Myth Busters Show. It broadcasts in several states. We covered this topic recently, but I want to re-visit it in a future show, going more in-depth, using some of your transcript material here, as you have done such extensive research. Of course I will reference you, and plug Bite Size Vegan. Again, great job! Thanks Emily. Jack McMillan, Cleveland Vegan Society.
Great work Emily! Compelling, detailed, and well documented. Thanks Emily! Richard Pendarvis, San Antonio Vegan Society
Evelyn Hamilton says
So worth all your hard work. Stunning, powerful, astonishing. So much to say, but this has left me speechless, except to say thank you, thank you, thank you.
Pam jam says
Awesome work Emily. ….as always.
Realllllllly appreciate all your hours.
Vegan for life….xxxx