Have we run out of fish?

Have we run out of fish?

To answer this title: it’s complicated. There are many species of fish that are on the brink of being extinct: salmon, cod and tuna. The main reason for this is overfishing (Note: it was interesting to find this statement mostly true, salmon were removed from the endangered species list worldwide recently as it was discovered that habitat changes have shifted thier thriving populations).

Overfishing happens when we fish or remove fish from seas and oceans at a rate that is faster than fish’s ability to reproduce. For example, if it takes the Patagonian Toothfish up to 9 years from birth, before it can start reproducing and we are fishing at a rate that is faster than that, the percentage of species will drop and it could risk that species becoming extinct.

According to World WildLife almost one-third of all freshwater fish are threatened to be extinct. This means that almost one-third of millions of people’s food source across the world is threatened due to unsustainable fishing practices.

Now you may be asking yourself why? Why would we and how could we let our seas and oceans get to point, where we are actually questioning whether we will have any fish left – at least in certain parts of our world.

The causes of overfishing

Well, many reasons drive people to overfish. For centuries, fish have been a valuable food source for communities and a way for communities to support themselves economically. For example, communities across West Africa and Asia have built entire food and economic frameworks around fishing, whilst maintaining sustainable practices such as spearfishing and fishing seasonally, so species can reproduce and replenish themselves.

However, due to the development of modern industrial fishing (which is part of a larger conversation of industrial agriculture), high consumer demands, competition has increased and forced fishers from smaller communities to fish more dangerously and unsustainably, and for more large scale fishing to haul all types of species (including the unwanted creatures) from sea and ocean depths, at rates and quantities that are too fast and too grand for nature to naturally replenish itself.

Where is this happening?

It is important to understand that the issue of overfishing is not limited to a faraway place in the Mediterranean. Despite the Mediterranean being one of the most heavily overfished areas in the world, overfishing is an issue that impacts anywhere that fishing occurs and the area around it too. For example in 2022, a study showed that the habitats of many species in the reefs in South Florida were being threatened due to overfishing. The amount of seafood consumed by Americans has increased by approximately 75% since the 1960s, with the domestic seafood production being 5.3 billion metric tonnes in 2019. Despite the state of USA fisheries being better in comparison with others across the globe, instances in South Florida still occur – and not just in the USA. The UK consumes approximately £5.7 billion worth of fish and seafood products every year, 6 out of 10 of their fish stocks are overfished and over the twenty years, Britain has been responsible for the highest quantity of overfishing in Europe.

Consumerism and overfishing

It is difficult to talk about overfishing, without touching on the influence that drives it. The majority of fish is used for human consumption – food. This means that it is our desire to consume certain types of species that helps drive the issues of overfishing. Now, the consumer is not solely to blame, and our taste for fish is not the sole cause of this problem. 

Other causes of overfishing come from the remaining fish products that aren’t used for direct human consumption. For example, fish liver oil (used in supplements, animal feed and soap making), fish body oil (used in cosmetics, fungicides, preservation of boats and use in the steel industry) fishmeal (used as food for aquaculture) and fish flour (used as a supplement and in baking) to name a few.

However, the high and unsustainable demand for a certain type of food is a driving force and it needs to be addressed. Many of us have grown up in convenience. If we want a certain item, service or food, it has become increasingly easier to get it. The cost of this convenience and ‘fast life’ will inevitably mean that the means to gaining will become blurrier and less ethical.

This is because nature does not work on those terms. Things come in seasons. Certain foods aren’t always available, and having that desire for constant availability means that there is pressure to constantly produce. This is not possible.

What is the impact on us?

When overfishing happens, there is a depletion in biodiversity and a destruction of habitats. This is because species aren’t just being taken from the ocean faster than they can reproduce, but bycatch (creatures that weren’t meant to be caught – such as dolphins)  and injured, along with crucial habitats that support the life of many types of marine life.

This depletion and destruction then impacts the productivity of our oceans and seas. For example, coral reefs are habitats and food sources for many fish and the destruction of those leads to further loss of other fish species.

We also see the impact on food security for millions of people across the world. According to the FAO, fish provide over 7 billion people with almost 15 percent or more of their animal protein. The scarcity of types of fish increases the price for fish and also forces fishers – particularly in the Global South – to practise illegal or dangerous fishing practices that put themselves at risk.

For example, Amnesty International reported that overfishing from organisations and industrial trawlers in Gambian waters (particularly from Western countries) has caused food insecurity in Gambia. Many local fishers (particularly in Sanyang) are not involved in industrial fishing, yet they bear the negative consequences of it. In the report, Amnesty International highlighted that according to the native fishermen, industrial vessels fish so regularly that they empty the waters, which forces them to fish for longer and further into the sea, which is more dangerous.

What we can do

It may feel that an issue like this can only be treated at a governmental level, or if you are working directly in the fishing industry. However, if we go back to think about how our influence is a large driver of this, we can see that collective habitual changes can impact the direction the fish in our world are going:

  • Buy from sustainable fish sources – i.e. wild not farmed.
  • Manage your fish and seafood intake.
  • Support initiatives that promote sustainable management of fisheries.
  • Shop locally.
  • Learn more about the issue – read the articles below to learn more about the issue and how it connects to other large social, economic and environmental issues.


  1. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing
  2. https://www.edf.org/oceans/overfishing-most-serious-threat-our-oceans
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2022/02/how-overfishing-threatens-the-worlds-oceans-and-why-it-could-end-in-catastrophe
  4. https://eartheclipse.com/environment/causes-and-effects-overfishing.html
  5. https://ideas4development.org/en/overfishing-developing-countries/
  6. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/oceans-fisheries-and-coastal-economies
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YACTNvuijQY
  8. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/9-ways-food-systems-are-failing-humanity
  9. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food
  10. https://www.specialityfoodmagazine.com/news/food-and-drink-biggest-sustainability-problems
  11. https://www.genevaenvironmentnetwork.org/resources/updates/food-systems-and-the-environment/b
  12. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/overfishing-significant-environmental-factors-cause-sardine-fishery-collapse
  13. https://ourworldindata.org/fish-and-overfishing#how-much-fish-do-people-eat
  14. https://inews.co.uk/news/britain-highest-level-overfishing-europe-defra-investigation-423274
  15. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/04/brexit-overfishing-uk-waters
  16. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr27/6644/2023/en/
  17. https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/how-many-fisheries-are-overfished/
  18. https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/news-views/fixing-overfishing/
  19. https://therevolutionmovie.com/index.php/open-your-eyes/overfishing/resources/
  20. https://www.easyfish.net/en/blog/fish-by-products-and-their-industrial-uses/
  21. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-011-7933-1_9#:~:text=Fish%20and%20fish%20processing%20waste%20are%20also%20used%20to%20produce,fish%20leather%20and%20pearl%20essence.

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