Lately the climate change issues vying for center stage seem endless and ever-expanding.
There’s the elimination of fossil fuels, the effort to end single-plastics use and the many challenges that arise from increasingly extreme weather.
An area that is at times overlooked or seen as disconnected, however, is overfishing. Nonetheless, what’s become clear is that climate change and the conservation of marine life are inextricably tied to one another.
The Environmental Defense Fund [EDF] identifies overfishing as “the most serious threat to our oceans.” According to the nonprofit advocacy group, overfishing threatens ocean ecosystems and the billions of people who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.
The Natural Resource Defense Council [NRDC] estimates that “the world’s large ocean fish, including tuna and swordfish, have declined by up to 90% from preindustrial levels.” Studies highlighted in a 2016 piece from The Conversation demonstrated that the overfishing of predatory fish such as sharks can increase the population of smaller fish and zooplankton that primarily feed on plants, resulting in higher levels of CO2 production in marine environments.
One of the most cited studies on this issue, from Science, states that while climate change will definitely add to the burdens on the ocean caused by overfishing, the impacts are still “largely unknown.”
What we do know, however, is that increasing ocean temperatures have caused population declines among many fish species around the world. Globally there has been a 4.1% drop in fish populations. The biggest drops were in the region near China and Japan where fish populations have dwindled by as much as 35% between 1930 and 2010.
“Failure to solve the climate change problem will defeat attempts to bring sustainable practices to fisheries across the world.”
According to a report by the WWF, climate change and ocean health are unquestionably linked. It states,
“Failure to solve the climate change problem will defeat attempts to bring sustainable practices to fisheries across the world. Dealing with climate change and ocean acidification must go hand in hand with efforts to solve problems such as unsustainable fisheries and pollution.”
A further troublesome effect of warmer waters is that it’s threatening shellfish populations on the East Coast by increasing the predation rate, meaning predators of shellfish begin to prey on shellfish earlier in the year and for a longer period of time. Yet, some areas where shellfish harvests have remained consistently productive have attributed their successes to conservative fishery management.
Another prominent area that the damages caused by overfishing and climate degradation greatly impacts is the economic viability of the ocean. Its health impacts the billions of people who depend on it for their livelihoods and as a primary food source.
In 2015 the WWF reported that a very conservative estimate of the ocean’s key assets are worth at least $24 trillion. Around 70% of that economic value is dependent on healthy ocean assets that have been threatened by unsustainable practices.
For example, the Great Barrier Reef provides approximately 69,000 jobs and $5.7 billion of economic activity a year. However, warming coastal waters and mass coral bleaching, in addition to the threats posed by coastal industrialization and existing pressures, have caused a 50% loss of reef-building corals.
The study also reported that 90% of global fish stocks are either being used at an unsustainable level or have reached their maximum level of use. Additionally, between 1970 and 2010 the number of marine species declined by 39%. One of the most chilling statistics from the report is that, at current rates of global warming, coral reefs will disappear entirely by 2050.
However, we’re not completely doomed. Some fish populations have actually seen an increase, such as the black sea bass along the Mid-Atlantic coast. The caveat is that these increases are still subject to decline if temperatures continue to rise.
A potentially more hopeful reason we’re not doomed is that we have the capacity to turn things around. Environmental advocacy groups like the EDF and NRDC have identified the effectiveness of fishing rights to help repopulate struggling fisheries and promote long-term sustainability. WWF highlights a number of actions that will restore the ocean economy, including conserving and effectively managing 30% of coastal and marine areas by 2030, rebuilding fish stocks and global action to curtail climate change.
Our awareness of the problem paints a grim picture. But if we are able to rally around global efforts to protect one of our most vital resources, our oceans have a strong chance of healing.
To help support efforts to reverse the effects of overfishing, check out these great organizations and remember to only buy sustainable fish products:
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