Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Don Federico, a Panamanian fisherman who has spent more than 26 years at sea and has thousands of stories to share. He told us what it was like when he first began fishing:
"We saw dolphins, whales, sharks and turtles everywhere. Out of ignorance, the fishing boats would catch and kill upwards of 300 dolphins per day, and the children would play with turtle eggs on the beaches."
Now, less than three decades later, Don Federico explained that there is none of that.
Even in isolated areas, it’s a huge event when tourists spot a whale or a dolphin. Turtles no longer come to nest on our beaches, and shark finning is decimating local populations. The fish you could previously catch in a couple of hours, now take weeks of time for a fishing boat to collect.
In February of this year, and partially in response to the serious threats facing marine biodiversity, the United Nations resolved to make June 8 of every year "World Ocean Day." On this day we are asked to think about what the oceans mean to humankind. We are challenged to learn about the many beautiful and complex marine creatures and habitats that bless our oceans, to remember the diverse ecological services and foods the seas provide, and to consider what we can do to help conserve these important ecosystems.
Thus, in honor of today, I want to reflect on overfishing—likely the greatest threat the oceans face in our time—and what we can do about it.
Perhaps because we cannot see below the surface, most people do not understand the very serious impacts of many kinds of commercial fishing. Some fishing methods destroy highly productive ecosystems as fish are gathered, and with too many boats fishing for too few fish, we are simply taking too much.
Most of the fish caught and killed are just thrown back into the sea because it won’t bring a premium price in the market.
Scientists have shown that commercial fishing has wiped out 90 percent of large fish, including swordfish, cod, marlin, and sharks. The most recent global assessment of wild marine fish stocks found that 52 percent are fully exploited, while 25 percent are either overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.
Not surprisingly given the above, a few years ago scientists estimated that nearly half of the fish consumed by humans globally are farmed. Unfortunately, fish-farming likely won’t solve the problem, because these fish, too, need to eat.
Every year, roughly 30 million mega tons of marine catch is used for the production of animal feeds to grow salmon, chicken and even beef, for human consumption.
So, what can and should we do, both as a society and as individuals?
We need clear and effective policies to address the threats to the oceans; including appropriate mechanisms for ensuring quality monitoring and enforcement of laws.
We need individual governments and the international community to take a lead and start managing our ocean resources with a view to sustainability and from the perspective of precaution.
Fishing limits need to be set considering what is needed for marine populations to recover, so that the children of Don Federico and those in innumerable other fishing communities around the globe can continue living from the sea in the proud tradition of their parents.
You can help, by speaking out on issues related to ocean protection, and by making changes in your own life to protect the oceans.
In honor of World Ocean Day, please consider the following possibilities:
- Don’t eat swordfish or other threatened fish species. Use the Seafood Watch guide to determine what fish to buy for dinner.
- Don’t throw toxic substances (solvents, paints, oil, medicines, etc.) down the drain or the sewer. Keeping our water clean helps protect coastal environments.
- Choose goods with less packaging. A lot of plastics end up floating in the ocean and are mistaken by marine animals for food.
- Volunteer or contribute to environmental organizations working on marine protection.
- Make more of your meals vegetarian.
- Teach your children about the oceans and what they do for us.
Visit our websites to learn more about what Earthjustice and our partners in Latin America are doing to protect the marine environment!