6 Sustainable Fishing Methods to Save Our Oceans [+ 2022 Stats]

Canva - School of Fish and Coral

Sustainable fishing methods and environmentally friendly practices are needed to save the ocean from the disastrous effects of irresponsible and unsustainable fishing practices.

Destructive fishing methods and overfishing have destroyed large portions of marine habitat and depleted ocean species to the point of no return.

So, how do we turn this thing around and set a better course? How do we, as consumers, help save the ocean and preserve marine life?

In this guide, we’re going to look at how fishing impacts the environment, what fishing methods are the most destructive, how we can save the ocean, and what the most sustainable fishing methods are.

Let’s dive right in!

The Impact of Fishing on the Environment

Unsustainable fishing practices and destructive fishing methods have a massive and long-lasting impact on the environment.

According to the Marine Conservation Institute, 90% of global fish populations are currently fished at their maximum limit or are overfished. In the US, 25% of fish populations are overfished.

The WWF breaks down percentages of world fish stocks as being 29% overfished, 61% fully fished and only 10% underfished.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - Graphic by WWF of overfishing stats
Image: WWF

Damaging fishing methods, like bottom trawling, destroy seafloor ecosystems that took centuries or millennia to establish.

They also destroy sensitive habitats like coral and sponges. The damage takes decades to recover, even if it is protected and not damaged again.

Unsustainable fishing also kills thousands of tons of non-target species, called bycatch, that are caught unintentionally.

These animals die of exhaustion or injury and are dumped back in the ocean. Bycatch is not limited to fish and kills turtles, sharks, dolphins, birds, and mammals.

There are also indirect impacts, like water pollution, carbon emissions, and even loss of biodiversity due to ‘ghost fishing’ where marine animals are entangled in abandoned fishing nets and tackle floating underwater.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of ghost fishing lines with entangled fish in them

Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent impacts, in more detail:

Overfishing

Overfishing occurs when the population of fish depleted too quickly for the population to recover maintain its size.

Catching too many fish too quickly or catching too many juvenile fish that haven’t yet reproduced can lead to overfishing.

When a species is overfished, the population is no longer sustainable and will cease to exist, unless it is given time to recover.

Overfishing also impacts the other marine life that depends on the depleted fish species for food and the surrounding ecosystem. In some cases, other species will die off if a fish population is severely overfished.

Habitat Destruction

Unsustainable fishing practices lead to the destruction of ecosystems and habitats in many ways. The most significant being the destruction of habitats, especially fragile coral and sponge habitats, due to destructive fishing practices that physically damage the seabed, coral, and reefs.

Bycatch and Impacts to Threatened Species

Bycatch refers to the fish and other marine species that are caught unintentionally when fishing for a particular type of fish. These are called non-target species and usually have no commercial value.

Fish, turtles, sharks, dolphins, seabirds, and sea mammals are all frequently caught in huge numbers by fishing vessels that are fishing for only one or two specific types of fish. These non-target species often die of exhaustion trying to escape or are otherwise injured. They are thrown back into the sea, dead or dying.

Check out this video by Mongabay on bycatch:

It is estimated that 10.8% of the global catch, around 9.1 million tonnes, of bycatch is discarded annually. Bottom trawling is especially harmful to non-target species, with around 16 pounds of bycatch for every pound of fish that can be sold.

Illegal Fishing

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a huge, global problem. Internationally, it is very difficult to regulate and control fishing practices. The result is that many fishers take advantage of lax, inconsistent laws and poor enforcement to fish with impunity.

Illegal fishing often results in overfishing, excessive amounts of bycatch, and the fishing of threatened species. It also often involves destructive fishing methods.

It is estimated that illegal fishing represents between 11% and 33% of the annual global catch, which amounts to between 11 and 26 million tonnes.

What Are the Most Destructive Fishing Methods?

Any fishing method can be destructive if it is not practiced and managed sustainably. That said, some fishing methods are exceptionally destructive:

Blast Fishing: Involves the use of dynamite or homemade bombs that are detonated in the water, indiscriminately killing all the fish and other marine life in the area. The dead fish are then collected from the surface or seafloor. This practice destroys everything in the blast zone, including the coral reefs and seabed habitats.

Bottom Trawling: Involves towing a huge trawling net across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path. The practice is massively damaging to the seabed and corals. Huge amounts of bycatch die of exhaustion or injury in the net. Commercial trawl nets are huge, up to 300 feet wide, and can destroy acres of seabed in a single pass.

Cyanide Fishing: Involves spraying sodium cyanide into the habitat where the desired fish are found. The cyanide stuns the fish, making them easy to collect. This method is mainly used for collecting fish sold for aquariums. The method harms the fish themselves, the other organisms in the vicinity, and the coral and reefs. Up to 75% of fish caught this way die within 48 hours from the stress of being stunned and then handled, so each catch gathers more than needed to offset the mortalities.

Muro-ami: Is a Southeast Asian practice that involves the use of an encircling net that is suspended above a coral reef. The reef is then pounded and often completely destroyed using rocks or heavy cement blocks suspended from cranes. Smashing the reef scares the fish and forces them out into the net.

Check out this video by What Lurks Below to see more on these destructive fishing practices:

Can We Save Our Ocean?

There is no simple solution that can be universally employed to ensure that all fishing is done sustainably, marine ecosystems are preserved and human livelihoods are maintained for an ever expanding population.

There are just too many conflicting interests involved, too many countries that can’t afford to properly monitor and enforce good fishing practices, and too many people who depend on fishing for their livelihood.

That said, it is not too late to save the ocean!

Minimizing the impact of fishing on the environment involves using sustainable fishing methods, reducing bycatch, and protecting habitats from destruction.

It also involves monitoring and controlling fishing to reduce illegal fishing and further prevent overfishing.

Government Regulations and International Treaties

The regulation of fishing practices is essential to control overfishing and promote sustainable fishing methods.

Certain treaties, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, deal with aspects of overfishing. The treaty makes provision for specific zones for commercial fishing, periods for population recovery, and measures to prevent the exploitation of marine mammals.

Individual governments also use various methods to monitor and control fishing within their jurisdiction. These include catch quotas, closed seasons, and limitations on the methods that may be used, as well as the species that may be caught.

Marine reserves are areas where fishing is prohibited due to the presence of sensitive ecosystems or threatened fish species.

Removal of Fishing Subsidies

Government subsidies paid to deep-sea fisheries make it financially viable for them to fish beyond naturally sustainable levels.

Fishing in international waters outside of a country’s exclusive economic zone is unregulated. Here, subsidized fisheries use trawling nets to drag the ocean and amass huge volumes of fish (and other species) with impunity.

Take a look at what Sir David Attenborough has to say on the subject in this video by the World Economic Forum:

Encouraging Responsible Aquaculture

Farming fish in captivity motivates fishers to manage their fish stocks effectively and maintain their numbers. It also reduces the strain on the ocean, as fewer fish need to be caught from it.

However, there are drawbacks, and many carnivorous fish species, like salmon, need to be fed fishmeal, which often comes from ocean-caught fish. Thus, it is necessary to closely monitor and control aquaculture too.

Consumer Awareness and Conscious Consumption

Globally, consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of their buying and consumption habits.

As awareness of the impacts of overfishing and destructive, unsustainable fishing practices grows, more and more consumers are choosing not to eat fish at all. Others are reducing their consumption or choosing fish that is certified as sustainable or farmed.

Certifications like the blue MSC label for fish from fisheries that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council are a convenient way for consumers to identify fish from sustainable sources.

6 Sustainable Fishing Methods and Practices for a Brighter Future

Sustainable fishing practices involve good management and ensuring that overfishing does not occur. They also involve minimizing the impact on surrounding habitats and ecosystems and minimizing bycatch.

Here are seven sustainable fishing methods that can be used to achieve this:

  1. Hook-and-Line Fishing

This technique involves using a fishing rod/pole that has one line and several hooks attached to it. The line is not very long and the fisher monitors the line closely. If any non-target species are hooked, they can be quickly removed from the hook and released unharmed.  The downside of this method is that it limits the volume of fish that can be caught to what a single fisher and rod can catch.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of a man in a boat fishing with a rod

  1. Spear Fishing or Harpooning

This method is usually used to catch larger fish species, like swordfish. The fish are speared with a barbed spear or harpoon, which is fired from a spear gun or thrown by hand.

As each shot is aimed at an individual fish, there is very little bycatch and this method does not allow for masses of fish to be caught at a time, which reduces the potential for overfishing.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of a man spear fishing underwater in scuba gear

  1. Traps and Pots

Fishing traps or pots are stationery cages or nets that float in the water. Fish or shellfish are steered or lured into them and once they are in, the design of the trap makes it difficult for them to get back out again.

Most traps are designed so that undersized fish can escape, reducing the risk of catching juvenile fish or smaller fish species.

Traps can be used near the surface, or near the seafloor without causing damage if they are not dragged. As they’re stationary, and designed to keep the fish alive, they’re also less likely to injure bycatch, which can then be released safely.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of fishing traps stacked on dry land

  1. Trolling

Trolling involves the use of numerous fishing lines with baited hooks being dragged through the water by a moving vessel. This method targets only fish that are quick and will follow a fast-moving, baited hook, which eliminates a lot of bycatches. However, bycatch does occur, and if they target species near the surface, turtles seabirds are also at risk.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of several rods standing on the side of a boat fishing

  1. Purse Seining

Purse seining involves dropping a net over a shoal of fish and drawing the edges together with a drawstring (like an old-fashioned purse). These nets can be enormous and can catch whole shoals of fish at once.

When used for fish species that shoal alone and do not mix with other fish, there is little bycatch. Using nets that are sized correctly for the target species can further reduce any bycatch, as well as the risk of netting juveniles.

Sustainable Fishing Methods - stock image of a shipping vessel using a purse seine net

  1. Exclusionary Devices, Modified Gear, and Thoughtful Fishing Practices

Any fishing method can be made less harmful by using exclusionary devices, modified gear, and fishing responsibly:

  • Exclusionary devices can prevent non-target species from being caught in nets
  • Nets can be sized so that juveniles or smaller fish species can escape
  • Nets and lines can be made from non-tangling and biodegradable materials to reduce ghost fishing
  • Lines can be weighted to sink more quickly, quickly taking them out of range for seabirds and turtles
  • Acoustic devices can be used to scare away some marine animals that while fishing is in progress
  • Flappers and flags can be used on lines to scare away birds and prevent them from getting hooked or caught up in lines
  • Hooks can be designed to do less damage and make it easier to release bycatch safely
  • Fishing can be done at specific times of the day to reduce incidents of bycatch
  • Specific types of fishing can be banned from areas that will not quickly recover from the method used

Conclusion

In conclusion, irresponsible and unsustainable fishing practices, destructive fishing methods, and overfishing have had a disastrous impact on the ocean.

They have resulted in overfishing, unintentional catches, habitat destruction, and the loss of sensitive species and ecosystems.

To save the ocean, there has to be a global shift towards environmentally responsible fishing practices and sustainable fishing methods. As a consumer, you can do your part by buying fish that has been farmed responsibly or fished sustainably.

It is not too late to save the ocean!

References and Useful Resources

GreenBiz: 24 Groups Supporting Sustainable Fishing and Reforming the Industry

Marine Stewardship Council: Track a Fishery to Find a Certified Supplier

National Geographic – Environment Topic: Oceans

Nature Journal: Benchmarking Global Fisheries Discards

Oceana: Bottom Trawling: Images

Sunset: Sustainable Fishing Methods

United Nations: Overfishing Destroying Livelihoods

World Ocean Review: Illegal Fishing

World Wildlife Fund: Facts & Figures: The Cold Hard Facts About Overfishing

Frequently Asked Questions

What are sustainable fishing methods?

Sustainable fishing methods are fishing techniques and fishery practices that aim to maintain fish populations in a sustainable manner, reduce negative environmental impacts and prevent unintentional bycatch. Read the full guide for more info on sustainable fishing methods.

What are the most destructive fishing methods?

The most destructive fishing methods are Blast Fishing, Bottom Trawling, Cyanide Fishing and Muro-ami. Check out the full guide to find out more about these fishing methods and why they're so destructive.

How can we mitigate the impact of fishing on the environment?

Using sustainable fishing methods, and managing fisheries in a responsible manner can mitigate many of the negative impacts of fishing on the environment. Read the full guide for more info on how we can do this.

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