Commercial Fishing: Economics over Ecosystems


Despite monumental technology advancements, the returns of commercial fishing continue to diminish. Sonar location, powerful boats, and thousands of miles of nets are producing today what a simple boat and net setup produced in 1850. It’s no mystery, there are fewer fish out there these days. Depending on the ocean, commercial overfishing has been in effect since the early 1900’s. Hundreds of studies have analyzed and confirmed the state of danger the industry is in and the eventual collapse of the fishing industry. Fishermen these days cannot even turn a profit. The industry is heavily subsidized—only high-tech equipment and long voyages get the fish, while market profits from fish remain low. Today, the fishing industry supplies about 200 million jobs worldwide—the industry is artificially about twice as large as sustainably recommended.

The main issue with commercial fishing is overharvesting. Any species of fish has a natural rate of reproduction. Harvest stock within the fish species maximum threshold and the species has a chance to replenish the lost fish, but overharvest and the population do not have numbers to reproduce to cover the loss.

The global economics of commercial fishing can be simplified into a single pond. Say the pond has a stock of 50 fish, and produces five new fish per year. This means, the maximum threshold of harvest is five fish. Catch five fish per year out of the pond and the population is sustained. But, if six fish are caught in a year, and only five fish are reproduced, the population is unsustainable. This is overfishing. The pond fisherman will need to cut back his catch to even fewer than five fish to recover from the extra loss, or the population will decline to zero.

This issue is only complicated by multiple parties. Say 10 fishermen were fishing the pond for their livelihood—without rules and regulations, the pond would quickly be exhausted of its fish and turned barren, collapsing the “pond fishing industry.” Each fisherman has his own incentive to catch as many fish as possible. Any fish he doesn’t catch, his competitor will.

Perhaps Joe sees the future collapse coming, and tries to convince the others to come to an agreement to cut back on harvests. In a perfect world, the group listens and is trustworthy, providing a sustainable solution. But we are far from a perfect world. Bill, another fisherman at the pond, cannot agree to the terms. He cannot afford to cut back on his stock because he has 10 mouths to feed! So while the rest of the group keeps its promises, he fishes without regulation–and makes a killing! Joe and the group just lost out to the tragedy of the commons. Agreements to sustainability created opportunity for Bill, and he made record catches while the others tried to sustain for the future. In this situation, nobody owns the pond, and nobody makes or enforces the rules. The agreement was paper thin.

Expand this pond metaphor out and you have 196 countries—all with different needs—trying to decide how to sustain the fish stock. Countries can make their own laws for their own waters, but most of the oceans are international waters—where laws are few and far between. International waters run into similar issues that carbon laws run into—nobody owns the air or the water. Pollution and overfishing have a lot in common. When the resource is unowned, it is painfully difficult to regulate who does what.

This is where governments come in to solve conflicts of interest. An overarching international government organization that every country agrees to would help regulate and punish offenders of agreements. The problem is that many countries simply will not agree to such rules. Thus we have the same problem as the pond example.

The bottom line is that 200 million jobs rely on commercial fishing; there will be no meaningful cutbacks until the environment forces them. Just the same as our emissions, we head down the same path with commercial overfishing. Putting millions out of employment is not worth the economic troubles that it solves for the oceanic ecosystems. Being a human being, it honestly is difficult to tell many millions of people they need to quit their jobs, and tough luck for their families. The economic development in this industry has spun out of control, and turning back is so much harder than ignorance.

In yet another chapter of earth’s harvestation, the environment must take a back seat to people, and future generations.

This post was contributed by Zach Semago, an outdoorsman, writer, and conservationist who writes about all things fishing on his fishing reports blog.

Image Credit: Fish via Shutterstock

6 thoughts on “Commercial Fishing: Economics over Ecosystems”

  1. I am a west coast commercial fisherman and this article does not contain one grain of
    truth. We are not a subsidized industry and we are making a fairly comfortable living.
    U.S. fisheries are the most regulated in the world. Sustainablity in fish stocks are a
    key concern to every fisherman, that is why the number of overfished species has
    been dropping, not climbing. Check it out for yourself at the National Marine Fisheries
    website. Whoever wrote this article has their own agenda.

    1. Chris,

      I’m glad conservation is going well on the West Coast, but this is a global issue. I live in Washington, and we had a cool summer last year, but I’m not about to refute global warming because of it. Look beyond your own neighborhood.

      “The proportion of stocks estimated to be underexploited or moderately exploited
      declined from 40 percent in the mid-1970s to 15 percent in 2008 (Figure 19). In
      contrast, the proportion of overexploited, depleted or recovering stocks increased from
      10 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 2008. The proportion of fully exploited stocks has
      remained relatively stable at about 50 percent since the 1970s, with scattered, slightly
      lower levels between 1985 and 1997. In 2008, 15 percent of the stock groups monitored
      by FAO were estimated to be underexploited (3 percent) or moderately exploited
      (12 percent) and, therefore, able to produce more than their current catches. This is
      the lowest percentage recorded since the mid-1970s. Slightly more than half of the
      stocks (53 percent) were estimated to be fully exploited and, therefore, their current
      catches are at or close to their maximum sustainable productions, with no room for
      further expansion. The remaining 32 percent were estimated to be either overexploited
      (28 percent), depleted (3 percent) or recovering from depletion (1 percent) and, thus,
      yielding less than their maximum potential production owing to excess fishing pressure
      in the past, with a need for rebuilding plans. This combined percentage is the highest
      in the time series. While the degree of uncertainty about these estimates may be great
      (Box 1), the apparently increasing trend in the percentage of overexploited, depleted
      and recovering stocks and the decreasing trend in underexploited and moderately
      exploited stocks do give cause for concern.” — FAO 2010 Study

  2. Onco Rhynchus

    Everybody take a deep breath and get some more relevant facts. Here’s a highly recommended, up-to-date factual review of all things fishy including definitions of various kinds of overfishing (with examples) bycatch, high seas fisheries, illegal fisheries, marine protected areas and more. It’s a little tiny book that should be considered required reading for anyone professing to know anything about the commercial and/or sport fishing industries and their impact on ocean ecosystems.

    Hilborn, Ray, and Ulrike Hilborn. 2012. Overfishing, What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press. 150 pp.

  3. One answer lies in community projects and eventually new industry in artificial reef projects en masse. This could be achieved by having a catchment management plan which includes recycling items to form cavities (interstitial spaces) encapsulated in suitable concrete. Many persistent pollutants can be incorporated in the slurry, and then poured to encapsulate other items (see website). The concrete is cast and cured, then delivered into the ocean via general shipping (and small vessels) as dry-ballast. At assigned locations the concrete modules can be deposited onto seafloor near ports, to protect areas (physically) from bottom trawling, or to create dive sites and rejuvenate local biosphere. The modules can be grown, recruiting from (thereby reducing) natural mortalities. The introduction of structure raises the carrying capacity of the given benthis, and modules can be transplanted alive to other locations in the event of spills, disasters, marine aquaculture, rehabilitation efforts, etc.
    Only a few small changes to current lifestyles and maritime industry participation would achieve profit from ecological surpluses, rather than exploitative frontiersmanship.
    Long.term… biodiversity is maximised, community is enhanced, and each current fisher can hand something real down to his/her kin.
    Taking a new pride in participating with the landlubbers in proper ocean management.
    Reaping what they sow, instead of squabbling over the last of the ‘treasure’.
    Get real…for your kids sake…
    Using biodegradable nets would help too… given the severity of the current ocean pollution situation. Thank You

    1. Trawling is widely known as one of the most destructive fishing methods out there. Depressing it is considered an “advancement” for the industry.

      Something mind-boggling I never mentioned in the article is “bycatch.” Bycatch, for example, is when a fisherman unintentionally nets a shark when he’s fishing for tuna. I’ve seen numbers that say fishermen have 10-20 lbs. of bycatch PER POUND of desired species. That’s ridiculous. When fishermen get bycatch it usually is dead by the time it gets to the boat, and they just throw it back into the sea. Image wasting 950 pounds of fish for 50 pounds of marketable meat.

      As far as solutions go, I’m a big proponent of reducing bycatch by whatever means because it doesn’t effect angler’s wallets. Technological advancements and new netting systems allow unintended species like sharks, turtles, whales, dolphins, and other unintentionally captured fish to get out of the net without harm.

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