Excess Harvesting of Oceanic Wildlife

“We are in the situation where 40 years down the line, we effectively are out of fish,” Pavan Sukhdev of the United Nations Environment Programme said. In recent years, scientists and conservationists much like Sukhdev have been witnessing what they call “overexploitation.” 

According to the National Wildlife Federation, overexploitation is the “over use of wildlife and plant species by people for food, clothing, pets, medicine, sport and many other purposes.” Of all the animals in existence, the most overexploited belong to the ocean.

Whales are the earliest example of overexploitation in our history. During the early 1800’s, humans began to eagerly hunt whales for their blubber. Depending on the species, a whale’s blubber can be anywhere between one and eleven inches. 

During that time period, whale blubber was considered of high value because of the oil it contains. More often than not, the oil used in oil lamps could be traced back to a whale’s blubber, however, the blubber also served as ingredients for soap, paint, and even margarine. 

Once whalers were faced with a high demand, the sadistic trend of slaughter only continued to grow. In 1970, an estimated 39,000 whales were being killed per year. According to a report published in 2011 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), over hunting has caused some whale breeds to wane to five percent of their original population number.

In an article published by the New York Times, the IWC estimates that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year due to entanglement in fishing gear alone. Although the IWC was created with the intention to protect whales from extinction, they have made little gain towards this mission. This is largely in part due to certain loopholes created in 1966. 

Once founded, the IWC allowed Japan, Norway, and Iceland to continue whaling only for scientific reasons. Unfortunately, Iceland continues to be the only country who abides by this rule. Advisor to Japanese whaling association, Shigeko Misaki, justifies his countries continuous hunting of whales by saying if it were not for the Japanese whalers, many species of whales would become overpopulated. 

Furthermore, Misaki defended his position by stating that there were “no whale stocks that had been driven to extinction in the 20th century.”

I hate to discredit any human, but Misaki’s utterance reflects only lies. In the 18th  century, there were 1.5 million humpback whales. At the end of the 19th century, the number of whales in the ocean had declined to an astonishing 100,000 humpback whales. By the end of the 20th century, the number was 20,000. While humpback whales are not technically extinct, their population is certainly diminishing. 

Fortunately, the whalers have taken note of this and have since decreased their hunting of the humpback whale, however, they have set their sights on a new whale. Only in recent decades have minke whales been hunted by whalers as before they were deemed too small to be a worthwhile catch. But as the larger whale species became depleted, the whalers began to hunt the minke as a replacement.

This overexploitation is also seen in the shark industry. According to the Ocean Conservancy, “millions of sharks are brutally killed through the practice of shark finning every year. This practice involves chopping off the shark’s fins and throwing the shark back into the sea, left to die.” 

Fishermen have found the fins of sharks to be much more valuable than the entire shark and often dump the shark back into the ocean in order to save space on their boat. Once back in the ocean, the sharks die a painful death as they are unable to swim and bleed profusely.  

One of these sharks is the oceanic whitetip. An article written by Nick Collins of the Telegraph wrote that shark finning has caused a 70 percent decline in the whitetip population between 1969 and 2003. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all 14 shark species that are hunted for their fins are considered endangered.

Overexploitation is not limited to big marine wildlife such as whales and sharks; this grim trend exists among smaller populations of fish as well. According to Save Our Seas, three-fourths of the world’s fish are being harvested faster than they can reproduce, thus placing many on the endangered species and even extinction. 

In fact, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) predicts the Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the most popular fish used in sushi, will be extinct within the next three years. Many of these smaller wildlife caught tend to be discarded and cast overboard, but not until they are dying. Save Our Seas estimates that 27 million tons of fish are dismissed annually. 

The most common industry to discard their catch is the shrimping industry. Most shrimp are caught using a bottom-trawl system. This is when the fishermen scrape the sea level floor with a net. Not only do these shrimping companies throw back most of their catches, but their bottom trawl tactic destroys the marine ecosystem. The United Nations say the damage can even be seen from space.

The question now posed is what can be done to stop overexploitation. The simplest way to save these marine species from extinction is to stop buying the products. Overfishing is a supply and demand industry; with less demand, there will be less supply. Do not think one person executing one action will neglect to make an impact. If everyone thought this way, there would be no gains in fighting overexploitation. Feel empowered and stop the demand.