When the first settlers started colonizing the American West, bison were plentiful, within a hundred years their numbers had plummeted, with multiple populations hunted into extinction. Around the same time, whaling led to the collapse of several species, including the blue whale and sperm whale, whose respective populations are still reeling from the actions of the whaling era. In 1992, the Newfoundland Cod Fishery collapsed after years of continued overfishing. Overhunting and overfishing have been a trademark of human consumption for centuries, and is still happening today.
Overfishing is a simple enough concept, but one that is often times tossed to the wayside in favour of profits or to put off the death rattle of a fishing community’s livelihood. For every fish population, there is a carrying capacity, or a specific level at which fishing no longer becomes sustainable. That level represents that ability of a population to recover from population loss, such as fishing, death or disease. Essentially, a placemark that shows at which point a population can successfully replenish itself. If the population continues to lose more individuals that it can replenish, then is collapses.
In most countries, there are fisheries policies in place to ensure that their fish stocks are maintained in order to continue to fish at a sustainable level. However, cash strapped countries, like those in the Pacific or Africa have been known to sell their fishing rights to European or Asian companies, who would then overfish their stocks and move on. But overfishing doesn’t just deplete fish in a given area, it can have strong repercussions on the local socio-economic dynamic.
When the Newfoundland Cod Fishery collapsed, it put a multitude of fishermen out of business and exerted a lot of pressure on the local economy. Those fishermen had to find a new source of income, and in certain countries, the available options can be less than desirable. The collapse of Somalian fisheries stocks is a prime example of this. After selling their fishing rights and losing their stocks to European fisheries, Somalian fishermen were left with no source of income and turned to high seas pirating.
That being said, the environmental impact can also not be ignored. Continued overfishing of populations can have an impact on the rest of the foodweb — an ecological butterfly effect that can weaken an entire ecosystem. Should we continue to overfish, it isn’t just the fish that will be impacted.