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The Issue of Overfishing in the United States

By Sophia Warfield | Position Paper + Public Remediation Project

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My paper is addressed towards an audience of environmentalists; it is essential that environmentalists are taught about overfishing so they can teach others and gain support for the movement to end overfishing. They are the group that is dedicated to help make the Earth a healthier place. It is necessary for this audience to read this paper because it will aid them in gaining knowledge on overfishing, which too often receives scant attention compared to climate change. In addition, environmentalists tend to have strong views on topics related to saving the Earth. Thus, if more environmentalists become aware of the exigence of the issue, more effort may be used to solve the problem. My secondary audience includes U.S. residents, ages 16 and above, who are also willing to join in on the efforts to help combat this issue. Even though United States is one of the nations that has done the most towards stopping the issue of overfishing, it is not enough. With this information, I believe that my audience will try to combat overfishing by taking hands-on approaches such as habitat restoration.

My introduction to habitat restoration left me sweating and exhausted. In 2017 I traveled down the East Coast in three minivans on a mission trip to Georgia with sixteen other people from my church. We were assigned to a variety of service projects during our week and a half stay, ranging from fixing homes for veterans to volunteering at an oyster restoration project. The latter was my favorite. I did not really understand the importance of what I was doing at the time, but I enjoyed the camaraderie and the exercise despite shoveling oyster shells for what it seemed like an endless amount of time. Because the work was so tiring, we shifted off our jobs to others in an assembly line. I went from shoveling the oyster shells to dumping them on tables, filling up bags with the shells, tying knots, and throwing them over a fence into a pile with hundreds of other filled bags. I found out later that we were helping to repopulate seafood, save the environment by filtering the water, and restore some people’s livelihoods by protecting their jobs. And we were only a tiny piece in a huge East Coast operation. My experience led me to investigate the issue of overfishing and to understand how much it demands our attention.

Overfishing is defined as the taking of fish at too high of a rate for the species to be replenished the next year. In the past, fisheries did not consider their effects on fish populations and the environment, which led to many populations getting overfished as fishermen exceeded environmental limits to gain a greater profit. The first documented case of overfishing was in the 1800s when people realized that whale blubber could be used to create oil for their lamps. This created a huge burst of fishing for whales to the point of endangerment (Palliser 10). Even after this instance, Americans still overfished many species because of their desire to gain more wealth. Another instance is George’s Bank’s Haddock stocks, which were overfished for decades before the 1990s, as a result of them being a necessity for New England fishermen. These stocks were the number one source of profit for New England fisheries, and they were generating over 400 million pounds of fish each year. This continuing trend put a huge strain on the George’s Bank stock, which led to the species yield reaching a record low--leading the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to name the species officially collapsed in the 1990s (Brodziak et al. 123).

Due to these increasingly harmful instances of overfishing, a method of monitoring fish stocks was developed globally called the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). The MSY is the absolute maximum harvest of fish that should be taken annually from a certain population of fish for the species to regenerate to the previous amount or higher for the next year, yet many people see it as a goal rather than a limit. Because this did not work to end overfishing, the United States passed the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCM) in 1976 to initiate an annual catch limit for fisheries. This act also extended U.S jurisdiction, which required that foreign ships follow the conservation laws (Powell, 2019). In 1976 before the MSFCM was passed, foreign ships were catching 10 times as much as the US fishermen, which greatly contributed to the overfishing of the entire area. Just after one year of the act passing, the United States started creating more fishing vessels to catch fish in this area since foreign competitors left and did not want to abide by the regulations. By 1992, the entire area was being controlled with U.S. vessels following strict regulations, and all foreign vessels were gone, choosing to fish in an unregulated area instead (Powell 2019). This proved to be beneficial because in 2016, only 8% out of the 390 annual catch limits were exceeded. However, even with maximum sustainable yields and the catch limits, the world’s total fishing yield continued to decrease after it reached the highest yield in 1989 of about 90 million tons (“Overfishing”).  Considering overfishing is not the only problem leading to decreased yields, establishing a strict MSY will not be enough by itself to accomplish reaching the supply of fish we once had.

The supply of fish continues to decrease over time, and this has a huge impact on many people within the United States. The average American eats 15.5 pounds of fish annually, which is a number that increases each year (“Americans”). Fish is a huge staple throughout America, and the declining fish yields present a problem for most people that enjoy fish as a staple in their diets and others for whom fish is a necessity to include because of allergies or religious reasons. It is not just those who enjoy fish that this issue impacts, but it also the fishermen in the US that rely on fish to provide for their families. Coastal fisheries support about 1.8 million jobs nationally, but this number is declining because the lowering ability for fishermen to make a living off the smaller fish populations.

In this paper I will show that overfishing is an issue that needs to be addressed because of the likelihood of great harm to fish populations, those who rely on fishing as an occupation, and all who benefit from fish being a part of their diet. First, I will address how bycatch is one reason why overfishing has occurred. Secondly, I examine the negative impacts of the direct loss of fish upon consumers and fishermen. Then I tie in information about how the US fishermen are impacted negatively when foreign competitors are constantly overfishing, making it harder for Americans to sell their fish. Some elected representatives representing land-locked states may not be convinced that this issue of overfishing is important enough for them to address, and therefore I examine information as to show how this issue effects more than just coastal environments. Although prior laws have been passed to combat overfishing, they have not solved the problem. I conclude by offering a way for non-environmentalists to assist by actively rebuilding habitats and eating sustainably.

The most obvious effect of overfishing that proves change is needed is the direct loss of fish from aquatic ecosystems. Nearly 90% of global marine fish are overfished or fully fished, meaning that the stocks are being fished at their MSY or even more (Shaver and Yozell 6). Commercial overfishing especially has impacted such a large species of fish in the oceans, with the result being that only a small percentage of species can be labeled as healthy stocks. A primary reason for this catastrophe is bycatch. Bycatch is most commonly defined as the accidental capture of a non-targeted species, but it can also include species that were hit by fishing boats, or animals that were entangled by fishing nets, even if they managed to escape (Read et al. 164). Bycatch presents a huge problem of overfishing to marine animals, damaging the aquatic ecosystems. In fact, bycatch is the greatest threat to whales, dolphins, and turtles, especially the species of Albatrosses and many species of turtles, who even face extinction as a result of frequently being caught as bycatch (Read et al. 164). To emphasize the extent of how many whales get impacted by bycatch, it is important to note that 70% of North Atlantic Right whales have been entangled at least once in their lives, and it impairs their ability to live (Read et al. 167). When whales are impacted by bycatch, so is the plankton population which can overpopulate and harm other types of fish and aquatic plant life that rely indirectly on the whales. To some extent it does not matter if bycatch is purposeful because the damage is still being done.

Overfishing jeopardizes the ability of the U.S. consumers to take advantage of the health benefits offered by fish. It has been determined that fish are a healthier source of protein compared to red meat. For instance, a three-ounce serving of beef can reach up to 186 calories with more fats (Arnarson). Meanwhile, a three-ounce serving of flounder can be as low as 60 calories with other minerals such as iron zinc and potassium (“Fish”). In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA publish the “Dietary guidelines” every five years, in which they recommended that Americans should double their intake of seafood (Nylen 759). In the United States, and even throughout the word, the middle class has been growing exponentially, which means that more people are able to afford a wider variety of foods, which includes the healthier option of fish (Shaver and Yozell 10). This increasing demand for fish can be fulfilled in a sustainable way, but currently these sustainable practices are not put into play, which will cause negative effects for humans and the fish. For example, the USDA creates a “Choose My Plate” website. It makes seafood recommendations for good sources of protein, yet it ignores the fact that their list includes recommendations for fish that are under intense fishing pressure (Nylen 762). We will soon reach a point when our demand is too high, and the stock populations are too low for our demands for fish to be met.

But the direct loss of fish is not the only negative impact of overfishing, and consumers are not the only people affected. A second impact of overfishing that proves its urgency is its effect on the jobs of fishermen. Because many of the fish eaten in the United States are imported, a large strain is placed on US fishermen to maintain enough sales to provide for their families throughout the year. Consider the shrimpers in North Carolina, which used to be the most profitable state among the Southern Shrimp Alliance Members in 2000. But, due to the growing supply of imported shrimp, there has been a steady decline of about 50% in shrimp prices for North Carolina (Andreatta and Parlier 182). As overfishing increases abroad, it produces a highly negative impact on the economy of the US by making it harder to live as a US fisherman. A huge part of this is due to illegal dumping of shrimp into the US by Thailand, China, Vietnam, and India (Shaver and Yozell 11). When these countries dump such large amounts of shrimp into the US, their shrimp tends to have lower costs because of their ability to sell in bulk.

Foreign overfishing creates a burdensome effect on fishermen by increasing the difficulty for US fishermen to sell their catch. For instance, fishing had always been a huge part of Carteret County in North Carolina in terms of occupation. Up until the 1990s, a commercial fisherman could have provided comfortably for their family on a full-time job (Andreatta and Parlier 180). This is no longer the case, which can be shown through the fact that there has been a 50% decline in fishermen in Carteret County from 1999 to 2006. With the increasing regulations within the US such as the annual yield limits set by the Stevens-Magnusson Act in combination with the foreign competition, commercial fishermen in Carteret County are being marginalized.

Another example of foreign overfishing affecting US fishermen is in Gloucester Massachusetts, where a catch-share management regulation was passed, limiting the amount of fish that could be legally caught, but exceptions were granted that created additional hurdles beyond the regulation. Under this policy, fishermen could buy “shares” of each other’s total allowable catch, presenting a problem for smaller fishermen who might not process enough capital to buy other’s shares (“Overfishing is”). Dave Marciano was one such fishermen. He fished commercially in Gloucester for three decades until he was forced to sell his fishing permit because the catch-share program became too expensive for him to participate in (“Overfishing is”).

Another way in which overfishing and even policies designed to combat overfishing harm U.S. commercial fishermen is by forcing fishermen to adapt to seasonal fluctuations of species. For example, in the South during January, the best species for commercial fishing are Specks and Sunshine, but as the calendar transitions to March, the best species to fish include Bass and Bluegill (“Seasonal”). The cost of production for multiple species surpasses the profits that these fishermen make because the overfishing in other countries provides American consumers with cheaper fish. Most consumers will not spend the extra cost to purchase fish from the US, thereby forcing many US fishermen out of business.

It is not just U.S. policies that have impaired American fishermen’s success. International policies, which are not as restrictive as the U.S. would have liked, also impair American fishermen’s livelihoods. One example is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), passed in 1994, which stated that member nations had exclusive jurisdiction up to 12 nautical miles outside each coastal state. The US refused to sign it in 1976 because their own Magnuson-Stevens Act, their jurisdiction extended exclusive jurisdiction 200 nautical miles (“The Law”). The US did not want to risk having their jurisdiction shortened as a result of an international agreement.

Pirate fishing is an additional source of global political tension in U.S. fisheries. Pirate fishing refers to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and it is a huge problem worldwide. Since so much of the fish sold in the United States is imported, the US is especially vulnerable to having IUU fish imported; it was estimated that 25 to 30% of wild-caught seafood imported in the United States was illegally caught (Willette 25).

The misuse and overuse of specific fishing techniques have also contributed largely to overfishing. Dredging and trawling are two of the most harmful. A prime example of the former, and its consequences, is occurring in the Chesapeake Bay. The collapse of eastern oysters in the Bay is one of the largest declines of documented marine species, and the primary cause is overfishing. In the 1700s, a traveler exclaimed how populous oysters were in the Chesapeake Bay. There were so many that the ships had to carefully navigate through them (Wilberg et al. 131). These oysters became a resource that was essential to the success of fisheries, to the extent that Maryland had the largest fishery in the United States in the late 1800s because of the abundance of oysters (Wilberg et al. 131). But when fisheries obtain so many oysters at such high of a rate, oyster fishing no longer is sustainable, and it leads to population depletion. Due to excessive overfishing caused by fishermen not thinking about the future, the oyster harvests rapidly declined during the early 1900s. Ever since then, oysters have remained at low levels and have not been able to make large recoveries (Wilberg et al. 132). The reasons that this overfishing occurred was because of the fishing technique called dredging. Dredging is a method for fishing that has a large rake-like object that is towed along the bottom of the seafloor (Palliser 11). This is a common method for harvesting oysters because it smashes the oyster beds, allowing the oysters to break off and be captured. Therefore, not only is this directly depleting the population of the oysters through fishing, it is also destroying the habitats. The dredges remove shells and live oysters from their compact oyster beds. This turns more of the beds into sediment, which makes it much harder for oyster species to repopulate when so much of their habitat has already been destroyed. A study found that dredging for only two hours can reduce reef height by six centimeters (Wilberg et al. 141). Considering that fisheries are harvesting oysters for much longer than this, the environmental damage adds up to create a drastically negative effect on the species’ ability to repopulate the following years. Dredging for oysters is not the only fishing technique that hurts the environment; another such technique is trawling. Trawling drags a net along the bottom of the seafloor, opposed to dredging which tows a metal rake (Palliser 11). Trawling disturbs the habitats of various fish because as it runs along the sea floor to catch the fish, it disrupts any vegetation it comes across, such as grass, seaweed, or even coral (Palliser 11). Trawling and dredging are employed liberally because they capture as much seafood as possible with minimal effort. Sadly, dredging and trawling are two fishing techniques that result in overfishing.

Although recreational fishing a small-scale contributor to overfishing, it can impact the environment in harmful ways. One such way is the overfishing of predator populations. A case study conducted in Cape Cod addresses that once the predator populations were overfished via recreational fishing, it led to the increased die-off of shoreline vegetation on the marsh (Altieri et al. 1402). In other words, recreational fishermen, also known as anglers, overharvested the fish from the top of the food chain, which resulted in a dramatic increase of the herbivorous crab, Sesarma (Altieri et al. 1402). Without predators, the Sesarma were free to repopulate and eat freely, which resulted in the die-off of the shorelines. This destruction of the salt marshes is extremely harmful to the environment because salt marshes provide a lot of beneficial factors for humans, animals, and ecosystem health. For instance, salt marshes act as a buffer from shoreline erosion and they are homes to a variety of food sources such as shrimp and finfish (US Department). The Cape Cod study is one of many that suggest overfishing, including recreational fishing, can have devastating consequences.

Despite all the evidence showing how urgent of an issue overfishing is, not all people agree. Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist and marine ecologist at the University of South Florida, argues that overfishing is no longer a danger. He strictly states, “For the first time in at least a century, US fishermen are not taking too much of any species from the sea” (“Overfishing is”). Murawski claims that the Gulf of Maine cod have recovered even though fishermen were technically overfishing still.  He has watched the Magnuson-Stevens Act in New England be enforced, which imposes strict catch limits. Therefore, he believes that the right levels of fishing have been hit (“Overfishing is”). Just because management techniques applied in one region (in this case, New England) have been successful does not mean that they will be successful elsewhere even if they are applied. A report published in 2013 disputes Murawski’s 2011 claim that overfishing would no longer be a problem. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), over 70% of the world’s fish species are fully overfished or drained, and this overfishing trend is continuing. The FAO also reports that illegal fishing is increasing, which also shows signs that undocumented overfishing has continued (Nuttall).

One specific solution that could be implemented on local, national, and global scales--and is particularly beneficial--is habitat restoration. Coral restoration would be a great project to get involved in because it helps rejuvenate the habitats of fish and sea animals that rely on coral for their ecosystem to live in. Coral restoration can include growing coral in land-based nurseries or transporting coral from healthy to degraded reefs. When coral is rebuilt, it allows for more fish to repopulate because their habitats are improving, and, as a result, there is more livable space. This habitat restoration solution can also be enacted in bays where overfishing has caused the depletion of oysters and oyster beds. By restoring the beds, people can help to make bays healthier, while providing a habitat where oysters can repopulate. This was something that I was able to get involved with my church members by going on a mission trip for a couple of days. Volunteering, even for minimal time, for a restoration project could provide lasting benefits to that area.

 A case study on the habitat loss in the Upper Chesapeake Bay claims that the most effective strategy to rehabilitate oyster populations includes the focus on restoration activities (Wilberg et al. 141). By providing improved habitats for different sea animals, restoration projects can help to increase populations of these species. Higher populations would make it much more difficult for humans to overfish. So, if more people get involved in habitat restoration, it could help to provide better conditions for species to repopulate. An even easier solution that individuals can enact is to simply take into consideration which species of fish they are eating, where it is from, and how it is caught. The Monterey Bay Aquarium creates a consumer guide which places fish into one of three categories, “Best Choices”, “Good Alternatives”, and “Avoid” (“Consumer”). This helps people to pick seafood that is fished or farmed in a sustainable way, to help support a healthy aquatic ecosystem. If people decide to eat fish more sustainably, it could prevent the consumption of fish that are overfished or threatened. This would help to reduce overfishing by diverting consumer demand away from species that are at risk of exhaustion. I acknowledge that these ideas represent short-time solutions, but it is important for more of us to stay active in solving the issue on a local level while governmental and global legislation to stop overfishing is underway.

The issue of overfishing is often overlooked worldwide because other environmental issues, such as climate change and pollution, capture the global focus of scientists and activists; however, overfishing in the United States deserves our attention. What is being done to combat overfishing is not enough, and more people who care about the environment need to get involved with this cause and create change. It is time that we stop disregarding overfishing and do something to save the fish, our environment, and ourselves.



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