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Overfishing

Overview

Docked fishing boat

Fishing is one of the most significant drivers of declines in ocean wildlife populations. Catching fish is not inherently bad for the ocean, except for when vessels catch fish faster than stocks can replenish, something called overfishing.

The number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Overfishing is closely tied to bycatch—the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species. This, too, is a serious marine threat that causes the needless loss of billions of fish, along with hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and cetaceans.

The damage done by overfishing goes beyond the marine environment. Billions of people rely on fish for protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world.

Many people who make a living catching, selling, and buying fish are working to improve how the world manages and conserves ocean resources. WWF works with a cross-section of stakeholders to reform fisheries management globally, focusing on sustainable practices that not only conserve ecosystems, but also sustain livelihoods and ensure food security.

World leaders can keep more fish in the ocean by ending this one practice

In fishing, money is a strong motivator that can incentivize people to improve practices and fund the management necessary to reduce fishing’s footprint on the natural world. But spending money in the wrong ways can also exacerbate the consequences of overfishing.

Causes

Processing tuna in Ecuador

OVERCAPACITY

Some 4 million fishing vessels of all sizes now ply the oceans, many with increasing capacity and efficiencies to catch more fish. As pressure from fishing grows, the likelihood of damage to the structure and function of the ocean ecosystem increases. Inadequate government capacity and cooperation to manage, regulate, and control fisheries and fisheries trade, especially in developing nations and on the high seas, are key factors contributing to the current problems in oceanic fisheries.

Preparing boats for salmon season

ILLEGAL FISHING

Systemic overfishing is only made worse by illegal catches and trade. In fact, some of the worst ocean impacts are caused by pervasive illegal fishing, which is estimated at up to 30% of catch or more for high-value species. Experts estimate illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing nets criminals up to $36.4 billion each year. These illegal catches move through opaque supply chains due to a lack of systems to track fish from catch to consumer—something called traceability—and import controls in much of the sector.

SUBSIDIES

Overfishing, tuna

Subsidies, or support provided to the fishing industry to offset the costs of doing business, are another key driver of overfishing. Subsidies can lead to overcapacity of fishing vessels and skewing of production costs so that fishing operations continue when they would otherwise not make economic sense. Today’s worldwide fishing fleet is estimated to be up to two-and-a-half times the capacity needed to catch what we actually need. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has called for an end to harmful subsidies.

Impacts

Pacific Bluefin Tuna

DECLINING WILDLIFE

Decades of destructive fishing has resulted in the precipitous decline of key fish stocks such as bluefin tuna and Grand Banks cod, as well as collateral impacts to other marine life. Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles are captured each year, alongside tens of millions of sharks. Many of these species are endangered and protected, while some such as the vaquita, Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle, and Maui dolphin are on the brink of extinction.

DEGRADED ECOSYSTEMS

Overfishing can impact entire ecosystems. It can change the size of fish remaining, as well as how they reproduce and the speed at which they mature. When too many fish are taken out of the ocean it creates an imbalance that can erode the food web and lead to a loss of other important marine life, including vulnerable species like sea turtles and corals.

DECREASING FOOD & ECONOMIC SECURITY

Demand for fish continues to increase around the world, and that means more businesses and jobs are dependent on dwindling stocks. Fish ranks as one of the most highly traded food commodities and fuels a $362 billion global industry. Millions of people in largely developing, coastal communities depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood and half the world’s population relies on fish as a major source of protein. When fish disappear, so do jobs and coastal economies. High demand for seafood continues to drive overexploitation and environmental degradation, exacerbating this circular problem.

What WWF Is Doing

small fishing boats from above

WWF works to end overfishing by addressing root causes and impacts at the local and commercial levels. Through collaboration with a variety of partners, we strive to transform fishing to reduce environmental impact and maintain vital sources of food and livelihoods for years to come.

SCALING FISHERY IMPROVEMENT

WWF recognizes the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as the leading program for certification of wild-caught fisheries against an environmental standard and helps drive fisheries toward MSC certification. But not all fisheries are ready for certification. A Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) draws together fishers, industry, researchers, government, and NGOs to help improve fishing practices and management in a particular fishery toward the level of the MSC standard. WWF works around the world to develop and implement FIPs, focusing on key pressure points in order to reach sustainability in greater volumes and for ecologically key species.

INFLUENCING THE GLOBAL MARKET

Sustainable Seafood

The US imports 90% of its seafood, making it the largest single country importer of fish. WWF works with 40 corporate partners in North America that source from more than 550 different fisheries. Working with the biggest buyers, traders and sellers of seafood leverages the purchasing power of the private sector to catalyze improvements in fishing practices, management and conservation. It also provides financial support and incentive for fishers looking to commit to long-term sustainability.

ENDING ILLEGAL FISHING

WWF works to stop criminals from stealing from legal fisheries, which renders good management much less effective. Together with partners worldwide, WWF aims to close borders in the major seafood importing countries to illegally and unsustainably harvested seafood through government regulatory and voluntary private sector actions.

ADDRESSING FISHING SUBSIDIES

Some of the world’s richest nations continue to pay billions to keep lagging fishing industries afloat through fishing subsidies. This scale of subsidization is a huge incentive to expand fishing fleets and overfish. WWF is advocating thorough the World Trade Organization to encourage nations to eliminate the harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing.

CREATING AND EXPANDING MARINE PROTECTED AREAS

WWF supports the creation and management of well-designed marine protected areas around the world, protecting important fish species from the Arctic to the tropics. Community managed areas, often based on traditional knowledge and customary practices, benefit people in places where fishing is such an important part of livelihoods of coastal communities.

Projects

  • Improving management in eastern Pacific tuna fisheries

    Management strategy evaluation (MSE) is a process that allows stakeholders to assess how effective different management strategies can be. WWF convened workshops on MSE in five tuna fishing nations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean: Ecuador, Panama, the United States, Mexico, and Colombia.

  • Electronic monitoring for transparency in Ghana’s tuna fleet

    Addressing the issue of overfishing in international waters requires a complete understanding of who is fishing, what they’re fishing, and where they’re catching it. Electronic monitoring is a cost-effective way to improve the transparency of fishing activities.

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Experts