The open-water fishing industry provides employment and economic benefits to a large number of people. The industry uses a wide variety of methods of catching that can range from hand picking to highly sophisticated fish harvesting systems. Half of the world’s seafood is caught or collected by small-scale fishermen operating millions of fishing crafts using traps and pots, hook and line, and a wide variety of nets (Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 2006).

Through the years, traditional fishing gears have been modified and newer more efficient fishing systems have been introduced. Some of the more significant systems, as shown in Figure 1, are fish harvesting systems like trawls, seines, lines, gill nets and entangling nets and traps (Montgomerie, 2005).

Figure 1: Basic Commercial Fishing Methods (Montgomerie, 2005)

Benefits and Challenges of Open Water Fishing

The benefit of modern commercial open-water fishing techniques is that they are a well-tested, proven and relatively low cost method for collecting large amounts of fish. They have provided food and jobs in many communities. For many people fishing is not just a job but an identity and sometimes the identity of an entire coastal town.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, innovations in fishing and improvements in transportation helped fishers boost their catches and consequently their sales of seafood. Large-scale or “industrial” fishing can be traced back to the 1870s and 1880s. During that time, fishers started trawling with steam-powered vessels in British and European waters, such as the North Sea. At about the same time, railroads connected fishing ports to interior towns, increasing markets for fish. As near-shore fishing grounds became depleted, steam trawlers fished far from their home ports by the 1920s and 1930s. Steam-powered trawlers came to dominate Canadian and American cod fisheries, and the introduction of fast-freezing techniques, enhanced operations. Expansion and significant increases in global fishing occurred in the decades following the Second World War. New, long-distance fishing and processing vessels were able to stay at sea for months at a time. People believed that the oceans would provide an endless source of protein at reasonable costs. In the 1950s and 1960s, some scientists estimated that the oceans and seas could sustain an annual seafood catch of 200-350 million metric tons (or tonnes) per year, more than twice as much as was ever actually achieved. A metric ton (or tonne) is 1,000 kilograms or 2,204 pounds (Blackford, 2008).

Figure 2 shows the power of modern open water fishing techniques. From 1950 to 1990, the open water fish catch has more than quadrupled. As human population has increased, better fishing technology has been applied and allowed many millions of people to have good nutrition through the harvest from the sea.

Figure 2: Worldwide Fish Harvest From Open-water Fishing (UN FAO, 2012)

Figure 2 also shows, however, that the benefits of modern open water fishing has its limits. As the catch has continued to increase over the years, the fish population in many areas has started to become stressed, or even begun to collapse. The stress in these fish communities has meant that since about 1990, despite huge efforts at trying to increase the fish catch, the overall world capture of wild-caught fish has been stagnant at about 90 metric tonnes per year.

There are two parts to understanding the overfishing problem. The first is that the newer, more aggressive industrial fishing techniques, while efficient from an economic standpoint, are inefficient from an environmental impact standpoint. Figure 3 shows the various ways in which commercial fishing boats with large cast nets captures much more than just the targeted fish species and cause unintended mortality to different marine species.

Figure 3: The Inefficiencies of Industrial Fishing ( University of Waikato, 2012)

The second part of the problem is the overfishing itself. As the population grows and increased affluence drives an increased demand for seafood, commercial fisherman are simply capturing too many fish and driving down populations to the point of collapse. Collapse is defined as the point at which a fish population is so low that it cannot regenerate its numbers fast enough to sustain further commercial fishing. The problem is illustrated below. Figure 4 shows that between 1950 and 2003, about 30% of the world’s seafood species have collapsed. If we do not make significant changes to our overfishing, the UN projects that by 2050 the world could face the collapse of almost 100% of commercially important open-water fish populations. The Northwest Atlantic Cod provides a good example of what could happen. Figure 5 shows that the catch of this popular fish crashed from 1.8 million tonnes in the 1960’s to essentially zero today.

Figure 4: Collapse of Seafood Species 1950 to 2003 (UN FAO, 2011a)
Figure 5: Collapse of Northwest Atlantic Cod (UN FAO, 2012)

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