Commercial fishing refers to a range of activities, using nets, lines, or traps to capture marine animals for sale. While it is a tremendously important economic activity, overfishing has led to a depletion of worldwide fish stocks, threatening the viability of the industry. Despite efforts to curb overfishing, climate change may exacerbate the problems of declining fish stocks.
The term “commercial fishing” actually refers to a range of different techniques used to capture marine life. One form involves using a hook and line to catch fish, just as in traditional, recreational fishing. A variation of this method, called “long-lining,” involves stringing together hundreds or thousands of individuals hooks along a single line, which can stretch for miles. Other methods of commercial fishing include the use of nets to dredge the water for fish, or traps, which can be used to capture fish, eels, and crustaceans, such as crabs and lobster.
The two most obvious benefits from commercial fishing are: 1) that it feeds the world’s demand for seafood, and 2) that it has a tremendous economic impact on world GDP. Worldwide demand for seafood is extremely high, especially in countries of the Pacific, where their citizens derive between 25 and 69 percent of their animal protein from fish. As a result, commercial fishing is a major economic activity, which employs more than 200 million people around the globe, generating more than $80 billion a year.
By far, the largest concern about commercial fishing stems from the major impact it has on the ecology of the oceans. The United Nations and countries around the world have grown increasingly worried about the decrease in global fish stocks. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that more than 70 percent of the world’s fish species are “depleted” or “fully exploited.” Reductions of some species, including giant bluefin tuna, swordfish, haddock, cod, and flounder, have been particularly severe. In addition to depleting targeted species, commercial fishing that utilizes nets or traps may inadvertently capture and kill other marine animals, including turtles, dolphins or sharks.
In an effort to curb the depletion of valuable marine resources, the international community has made serious recent efforts to harmonize regulations governing commercial fishing. Vessels fishing on the “high seas” (defined as more than 200 miles from any country’s shoreline) are free to fish without regulations. However, in response to escalating tensions between fishing fleets from different countries, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which gave coastal countries exclusive economic rights to waters extending 200 miles out from their coasts.
While the international community has taken steps to reduce overfishing, the future of commercial fishing remains uncertain. Proper management has allowed some fish populations to rebound, but others continue to decline. These problems could be exacerbated by global climate change, which may further alter spawning and migration patterns. Additionally, increasing levels of carbon dioxide may increase the acidity of seawater, which could inhibit the formation of coral reefs, negatively impacting fish stocks.