What Is Sustainable Fishing, Facts and Why Is It Important?

Photo by Wexor Tmg on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Thanks to the powerful Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, there has been a sea-change in how we think about the oceans. For the first time, the scope of the damage caused to aquatic animals, to marine ecosystems and habitats, and the knock-on effects to climate breakdown have been laid bare. More people than ever are now asking: is there such a thing as sustainable fishing, and if not, what can we do?

What Is Sustainable Fishing?

‘Sustainable fishing’ is an industry term that simply means not killing ALL the fish now but leaving some to kill later. It’s based on the continued exploitation of what we at Million Dollar Vegan see as a biodiverse ecosystem with intrinsic value, and what the industry sees as nothing more than a resource. ‘Sustainable fishing’ still damages the aquatic environment, adds to plastic pollution, fuels climate change, creates serious ecological imbalances, and causes billions of sentient creatures to die protracted and painful deaths. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, says:

“Sustainable fishing is a fraud. It’s a marketing term that really means ‘business as usual’.”

How To Measure Fishery Sustainability?

Scientists conduct ‘stock’ assessments to determine at what level each species can continue to be ‘harvested’. You’ll notice the industry terminology which frames the oceans and their inhabitants as exploitable commodities, and pays no regard to the individuals, communities and habitats destroyed. Fish populations are measured and assessed, and in many parts of the world are then subject to quotas. That means a specific weight of each species can be legally caught. Of course, trawler nets capture everything and everyone in their path, so can we be sure that these billion-dollar businesses abide by the rules? The UN demands that trawlers report their catch in an effort to identify bycatch, but recent research shows that millions of tonnes of fish have gone unreported in the last 50 years. At sea, anything goes.

In Seaspiracy, the CEO of a company that certifies tuna as being ‘dolphin friendly’ said they have to take the word of the ships’ captains that no dolphins were caught, and that although observers are rarely on board, when they are, they can be bribed. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the number of dolphins today may be at just 13 percent of what they were before 1980.

Sustainable Fish Stocks

In 1974, 90 percent of global fish populations were said to be ‘sustainable’. By 2017, this figure had dropped to 65.8 percent. This is because per capita global fish consumption has doubled since the 1960s and the human population has grown significantly. More people on the planet eating more fish than ever before has been a disaster for the oceans.

Today, one-third of economically valued fish populations are overexploited, and along the way we are driving non-target species to extinction. Fishing nets do not discriminate – they kill rare species alongside the plentiful.

And when we remove vast numbers of fish from the complex and intricate aquatic ecosystem, we trigger significant changes in the populations of those species who feed on them, or are food to them. Because of this, the oceans are collapsing, and it is why there is no such thing as a sustainable fishing industry.

Minimizing Environmental Impact

All around the world, fishing methods wreak havoc on the environment. Bottom trawling is the most common method used by the industry and it is also the most destructive. Most of the commonly eaten species – cod, haddock, plaice, sole and whiting – are caught this way.

Vast nets – some big enough to fit ten 747 Boeing jumbo jets inside – are dragged along the ocean floor. The weights on the nets carve scars along the seabed that take centuries to heal, if they recover at all. Moreover, a 2012 study found that bottom trawling fundamentally alters the chemistry and geology of soft sediment habitats, changing them forever. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to trawlers. Researcher Jason Hall-Spencer of Plymouth University says: “It doesn’t matter what ocean you go to, these habitats are being trashed by international fishing fleets.”

Given that globally, around one-quarter of wild-caught seafood comes from bottom trawling, the best thing we can do to minimize damage to the ocean is to stop eating fish.

What’s Wrong With Fishing?

Commercial fishing causes immense damage to the environment, kills wildlife on an unimaginable scale, and is a key contributor to climate breakdown. It’s an industry that we desperately need to curb. Governments are failing to take action on this vital issue, and so it is down to us as consumers to choose wisely.

Avoid Habitat Modification

Bottom trawlers not only destroy coral reefs, they destroy the whole underwater landscape. The ocean floor is not flat. There are an estimated 50,000 seamounts – submerged mountains that rise a kilometer or more above the seabed – as well as hills and knolls. Trawlers carve through these, destroying these habitats and changing the landscape forever.

Changing The Ecosystem Balance

When large numbers of fish are removed from an area, it has a knock-on effect that changes the entire ecosystem. The large predators that relied on those fish disappear while their prey become more numerous. This in turn decimates the smaller fish populations further down the chain. The oceans pay a heavy price for our greed.

Combat Climate Change

The ocean is vital to our future as we try to slow down the climate catastrophe that is already underway. In 2019, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated how much carbon dioxide was absorbed by microorganisms in the sea. Their report stated: “We calculate that this is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) captured by 1.70 trillion trees – four Amazon forests’ worth.” The study also found that protecting whales, dolphins, sharks and other large sea creatures is more important than planting trees because these animals accumulate carbon in their bodies throughout their long lives. When they die, they take that carbon to the bottom of the ocean, where it is stored for centuries. But the fishing industry kills millions of these animals “accidentally” as by-catch every year. And trawlers destroying the ecosystem release still more carbon – as much as the entire aviation industry, according to a 2021 study.

Control Ocean Pollution

We have all seen those terrible images of ocean mammals, fish and seabirds killed by plastic – either through eating it and it becoming impacted inside them, or becoming entangled in it.

We listened to those who tell us that plastic straws are the problem and we changed our behavior. But plastic straws are not the biggest problem, not by a very long way. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is mostly lost or dumped fishing gear.

Reduce Diseases And Toxins

Around half the fish eaten now comes from fish farms but aquaculture is not the answer to the environmental damage caused by ocean trawling. According to Tommy Leung of the University of New England: “The environment of intensive culture – stressed, genetically homogenous animals packed in high density conditions – is practically a recipe for cultivating highly virulent parasites.” Some ecologists believe that fish farming may have unintentionally created a global experiment on pathogen evolution.

The toxins administered to try to combat disease outbreaks also cause serious pollution in the wild. In Scotland, one of the largest producers of farmed Atlantic salmon in the world, pollution from fish farms causes widespread harm to wildlife. In 2020, a report found that pollution of Scotland’s lochs from a toxic pesticide used by fish farms had risen by 72 percent in a year. The chemical is known to kill marine wildlife.

Sustainable Fish Farming, Is It Possible?

No. Fish on farms are fed fish caught from the wild, and so aquaculture is a key cause of the collapse of the oceans.

Sustainable Fishing Facts And Statistics

  • There are 4.6 million commercial fishing vessels in the world
  • 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of by-catch
  • About 40 percent of fish caught worldwide are captured unintentionally and are either thrown back dying or left to die on board
  • Six of the seven species of turtles are either threatened or endangered because of fishing
  • 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of fishing nets
  • Just five percent of the world’s oceans are marine protected but in almost all these “protected” areas, fishing is still permitted
  • As much as 38 percent of mangrove deforestation is caused by shrimp farming
  • The ocean is the biggest carbon sink on the planet
  • In some parts of the world, dynamite is still used to catch fish despite it destroying coral reefs
  • The global fishing industry receives $35 billion in subsidies
  • When it comes to preventing mass extinctions, biodiversity loss, catastrophic climate breakdown and environmental degradation, there is no such thing as a sustainable commercial fishing industry

What Can You Do?

There is just one thing we need to do to prevent this damage and to protect our oceans: We need to stop eating fish. Thankfully, there are many faux fish products that have the same taste as fish but without the ecological and ethical implications. Switching to these is simple, but it has a truly significant impact.


The commercial fishing industry is out of control. It is recklessly emptying the oceans of fish, destroying irreplaceable habitats and ecosystems, polluting the world’s waters with plastic, and driving climate change. And all of this is paid for by us when we buy fish, and indirectly through our taxes which subsidize this industry.

Governments must act, and we must hold them to account, but the real power lies with us. All of us who have the choice about what we buy and eat, can end this destruction by choosing plant-based foods.

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