The collapse of the world’s fisheries, a visual guide.

The World Wildlife Fund has published a map that shows how intensively our oceans are being fished in comparison to 1950. The map is pretty startling and, with a rapidly growing world population that consumes more and more, it looks only to get worse.

Is it possible that the world’s fisheries could collapse in our lifetime because of this? Many species of fish are not harvested sustainably and many others contain high amounts of mercury or other contaminants.

I carry around a pocket guide with me and look at it before I decide what kind of fish to order when I go out to eat. You can get one here: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide.  You can even get an app for your phone.

Unfortunately, it may not be enough to choose “the right fish” if certain fisheries collapse.  The oceans are complex and the collapse of one fishery may have a connection to another fishery that is not well understood and that could cause a chain reaction.  Another issue is the bycatch, or non-target catch, that is killed in the search for certain species.  While the target species is able to withstand the pressure, oftentimes the non-target species are taken in such high numbers that they may disappear from an area.

The end of fish, in one chart
The Washington Post.






  1. Chuck Avatar

    When I lived on the Oregon coast I worked at several different seafood processing plants and witnessed alot.
    There was this one big trawl boat who would always bring in over his limit of brown & green rock bass, he would take the plant foreman aside and have them take off the overage first, of course it wouldn’t be on the off load bill, they would take it straight to the fillet line and process it. This skipper had the audacity to then accuse the plant of stealing fish from him. Then another boat and another plant a trawl boat came in and the skipper was bragging about bringing up at least 100,000 lbs of black cod and this was way way over his limit, they had to dump at least 80,000 lbs back overboard to go to waste as these fish were dead. Also not to mention the shrimp boats catching halibut in their nets and the hake fisherie boats catching salmon. These big boats and improved technology have greatly given the fishermen a big advantage and the fish a disadvantage.

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I flew from Denpasar , Bali up to Bangkok on a redeye 747. From my window seat I was agog at the number of Squid boats prowling the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the sundry waters around Malaysia. Squid boats use electric lights to attract the squid to the nets.

    They were beyond count.

    1. DLB Avatar

      Quite honestly, from the articles I read and stories I hear, I don’t know how there is a single edible, living thing underwater within 750 miles of China.

  3. Wolfy Avatar

    We are raising a consumer society around the world with all our focus on capitalism and outright greed. The writing is already on the wall: billions go hungry every day; there is not enough clean water or food; famine, disease, drought are devastating larger and larger portions of our world. We fight wars for oil. And our leadership has no more pressing issues than harvesting our natural resources for profit and getting re-elected. I hate to sound so grim, but I think we’re F’d!

  4. louise kane Avatar

    The problem of managing fisheries is extremely complex, just as divisive and multifaceted as the livestock and wolf issues in the west. With fisheries, at least the US, the Magnuson Stevens Act set up regional fishery councils. There are similarities to the F&G commissions except the federal govt. also have members on the management teams. In fisheries, the fishermen are part of the management councils. Every fishery (trawling, gillnetting, longlining etc) points its finger at the next fishery as the crux of the “problem” of declining fish stocks. With fishermen on the councils, its the ultimate fox in the henhouse scenario. Fishery management has gone from limited days at sea mandates to an increasingly bizarre twisted maize of quotas, closures, and limited permits that allow for terrible waste, unsustainable take methods, indiscriminate seasons and chaos. No one is happy and the ground fishery of New England is in collapse now, the victim of political stalemates when severe closures would have prevented the collapse. Its never the right time to do the right thing. The fishermen scream the scientists don’t know anything and that there are far more fish than scientists claim. Sound familiar… Its very similar to the wolf issue in the west, the methods that are used to count individuals or populations may be inaccurate or corrupted. Doing the right thing is unpopular with the loudest, most vocal groups who come to expect they have the right to decimate a public resource. My father, my husband and I all fished as well as many of my friends. My son still does. Its a way of life and I know how hard it will be to end. I also saw that it would have been the best thing to close many of the fisheries years ago. The writing has been on the wall a very long time. In New England, fishermen have had a chance to adapt and they should have by now. In the west, livestock owners should also have had time to be using and incorporating non-lethal measures to reduce predator conflicts. Fishermen have killed all the fish; the livestock industry is attempting to kill all the predators. Neither should be allowed to do this, and neither should be subsidized for causing a tragedy of the commons in the east or west.

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      I addressed some of the issues you mention here on another thread. In Alaska, we have been extremely fortunate in the sequence of history to have in place generally healthy stocks and a management system designed to keep them that way. In some striking ways, the particular combination of circumstances was similar to those that gave rise to the birth of democracy in North America and the constitution of the United States, although the revolution here was bloodless. The overthrow of colonial power (in this case corporate ownership with heavy influence through Washington, DC) through successful pursuit of statehood opened up a clean slate and writing of a new constitution and establishment of new organizations and traditions. Federal management was heavily responsive to the case pack objectives of the outside-based processing companies (which operated large fish traps and treated fishermen of all types largely as indentured servants, not too different from King George) relative to salmon escapement needs. Salmon runs declined greatly, although I will depart briefly here from the official Alaska cheerleading script to offer the opinion that a major contributing reason for that decline was an ocean “regime shift” in the late 1940s that ushered in a period of very poor marine survival for nearly 3 decades, until another shift in 1977 restored the tailwind of high salmon survival. Fortunately, federal management and corporate fishing gear (traps) got blamed for it all.

      The decks were completely cleared. Fish traps, which weren’t inherently a bad method, were banned in the new state constitution and the new fishery was redesigned for small owner-operated vessels (with vessel size limits for purse seiners, etc.). Give the land directly to the serfs! A very key factor was putting conservation (escapement) first from the beginning, before fishermen got used to anything else. A first commissioner was appointed who put rebuilding first and an entirely new staff of biologists was hired. And in reaction to the history of federal management decisions coming out of DC, complete emergency authority for closing fisheries on short notice, as well as determining weekly fishing periods, adjusting boundaries, etc. was invested in each local area management biologist. Most of the salmon fisheries struggled along under continuing austerity until the North Pacific ocean regime shifted back from a head wind for salmon to a tailwind 3½ decades ago. Generally public credit, support and trust has been strongly behind state management, although all those biologists who had to make a lot of lonely, harsh, unpopular decisions in the 1960s and 1970s deserve a huge amount of credit. And I’d say the public in this state gives it to them.

      Another hugely important factor has been establishment of a Board of Fisheries independent of the department to make all decisions that involve allocation among users. I’ve watched trust between users and management seriously poisoned in some other fishery management jurisdictions for lack of that separation.

      So, given that the board of fisheries is made up of resource users, doesn’t that create the same fox-in-henhouse problem you describe in New England? I’ve watched the state process for over 3 decades and have noticed absolutely no erosion in the priority commitment to conservation. Is it the laws and rules that maintain it or the tradition and narrative? Probably both, but I have to give tradition a lot of credit — just as our democratic system as Americans continues to depend heavily on our belief in the idea and tradition. And as far as I’ve been able to observe, not being a participant, the same tradition also appears to have been adopted heavily in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which manages most of the fisheries for groundfish and shellfish beyond 3 miles. The council has certainly made some controversial allocation decisions, but its adherence to scientific advice has been a strong tradition and fishermen are used to that. Recent halibut severe halibut quota cuts evoked public comments on the pain from fishermen who want everyone to know how it hurts, but they are accepted.

      Can such a system translate to New England fisheries that have long served as a model for the other regional councils to avoid? Probably not without breaking some traditions. My sense from comments of New England fishermen is that they highly value free entry into fisheries (to the point where occasional social strife and violence erupt over fishing grounds — the wild, wild east effect). One unfortunate side effect is that it drives down individual income so everybody is scratching by and have no financial buffer to absorb cuts in quotas when stocks decline — and they therefore appeal desperately through political channels for relief. In this area, transferable limited entry permits and quota shares have been implemented, but typically with limits (based again on ingrained aversion to fishery consolidation and corporate ownership) insuring that participants continue to be professional, owner-operating, small-boat fishermen. Having individual ownership of fishing rights helps limit the fishery to make it more financially viable for participants while insuring that future benefits go to those who conserve today.

      Regarding livestock, a comparison of fisheries with Mongolia may be a better general analogy than the US – although certainly some western public allotments appear no different than simple liaise faire in the way they’ve been abused. I sometimes wonder how it would have turned out if a different model of continued open range grazing had been applied in the west instead of private land ownership and barbed wire. Probably severe overgrazing, as Elk 275 has noted from his explorations in Mongolia. But then, what if you eventually applied the same kind of conservative, quota-based system for open range grazing that has worked successfully in some fisheries? Just a thought.

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        OK, since nobody has yet taken on that last analogy, I’ll admit there is the small matter of the winter of 1886-1887 that killed off most of the cattle, ended open grazing and really ushered in the barbed wire. What to do about that?

        Well how about ranching a well-adapted native species that’s highly resistant to tough winters? Couldn’t whatever millions of bison estimated to have roamed the west when Europeans arrived have produced an equivalent sustained yield of meat to what cattle produce from the same area today? OK, so now we have commercial hunts based on quota shares. Now, the analogy is getting really close to wild capture fisheries that represent one of the last hunter-gathering activities that supplies food to many people, something I find particularly attractive and beautiful. I believe we gave up something when we went from hunting and gathering of food to trying to cultivate it, particularly while trying to maintain our trophic position as meat-eaters. We began a long battle with nature and have ever since been running just a step or two ahead . . .

        OK, so that brings up the question of who gets the initial bison quota shares? Well, I guess the Indians had the longest history in the “fishery” and would have been first in line. We might as well leave them on the plains.

        Actually, I’m not sure I like the direction this is heading — my ancestors may be boarding ships and sailing east. So, I’ll leave the analogy there . . . .


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole