Overfishing: What Sailors Should Know

The fallout from depleted fish stocks is complicated, but the path to recovery and the choices you can make aren’t. From our December 2012 issue.

December 11, 2012


A gull peruses the salmon bycatch of a Bering Sea pollock trawler. Stephanie May Joyce

Ever since my book_ Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food_ came out, I’ve found myself frequently answering the same questions over and over again about the ocean, fisheries, and seafood. Which fish should I eat? Should I eat wild or farmed fish? Should I quit eating fish altogether?

These are the standard ones. While I’m always happy to entertain questions from people who want to engage with the sea, I feel that many are missing the point about the future of fish, fishing, and seafood.

Since cruising sailors are generally a salty bunch with enough time at sea under their belts to understand that the ocean is a subtle and complex organism, I was happy to sit down with the editors of Cruising World and dig a little deeper into the issues I believe are pertinent to this topic.


CW: Let’s start with the word overfishing. A lot of us don’t really know what it is. What is overfishing?
PG: We must distinguish overfishing from the more extreme issue of outright species extinction. The ocean is a good deal healthier than the land in terms of wild-species abundance. On land, we talk about saving the last few hundred Bengal tigers or the handful of whooping cranes remaining to us. But in the ocean, the fish we eat are orders of magnitude more abundant. Even Atlantic bluefin tuna, that much-celebrated overcaught fish, still number in the millions. What we’re talking about in the ocean is the loss of abundance, the loss of the ability of the particular species in question to feed us. Overfishing quite simply is the act of catching fish quicker than the rate those fish can replace themselves. This distinctly downward trend is also a reversible trend. Many fish grow fast and are very fertile, so even an overfished fish can make a fast recovery if given the chance.

CW: How do you stop overfishing?
PG: As University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn told me, the most effective way to stop overfishing is to limit the number of people who can fish a given population of animals. It’s pretty darn obvious that if you let everybody who wants to fish onto a fishing ground, there’s going to be too much fishing pressure. The impactful change you can make, therefore, is to set up rules whereby entry into the fishery is controlled. This has started to happen in the United States. In the last few years, the United States began implementing a system called Catch Shares, which pre-allocates the amount of fish that can be caught to a predetermined number of fishermen. This has worked very well with Gulf red snapper and Alaskan halibut, which are rebuilding nicely. It’s just now being implemented with New England groundfish, like cod and haddock, although that’s a more complicated and controversial story.

CW: Then does it really matter which fish we eat?
PG: Yes, it does matter, but not in the way you think. Choosing a particular fish to eat or not eat is a little like trying to hit a moving target. Fish populations go up and down, and it’s very hard to identify a fish in the marketplace by its provenance. It’s better to think about the fishermen from whom you’re buying than about the fish themselves. My inclination is to buy from small-scale fishermen who use gear that doesn’t harm the bottom and that doesn’t kill untargeted species.
The fishermen who most often fall into this category are hook-and-line fishers, and many of them have bonded together into a new phenomenon called community supported fisheries, or CSFs. CSF members pre-buy a share in a local fishery and get a certain poundage per week. In the process, consumers get to know their fishermen and learn a lot about their immediate marine environments. Most coastal states now have CSFs, and their numbers are increasing.


CW: Does that mean that you’re against farmed fish?
PG: No, there are many good farmed-fish options. Arctic char and barramundi are a couple of good ones. But if your community has a solid, well-managed fishery, why not support it? This leads to a larger point about the American seafood diet. About 80 percent of the seafood that Americans consume is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I think Americans would do well to eat American fish because they’re usually well managed and because it builds relationships in our local ports between consumers and producers.

CW: Speaking of local ports, if I own a sailboat, what can I do in my home port to help fish populations?
PG: Onboard toilets should be up to code and in good working order. Poorly operating heads and sewage overflows introduce nitrogen into the water column. This in turn causes algal blooms, which in turn deoxygenate the water and cause fish kills. Stemming the tide of nitrogen into the marine environment is key.
In addition to reducing nitrogen and other wastes in the water, we need to encourage the revival of ecosystems that can actually do a lot of waste management for us. As competition for coastal resources gets more and more intense, I find there are increasing conflicts between yachtsmen and shellfish farmers.
Throughout New England, I heard many stories from oyster farmers saying that they had great difficulty getting leases for good bottom and that many shore owners, particularly boat owners, resented the presence of oyster farms in their view. I think this is ludicrous. Oysters—and, indeed, all bivalves, such as clams and mussels—filter the water and make it cleaner. The more shellfish farms, the better, in my opinion, and sailors need to understand that and to work with shellfish farmers over coastal mooring rights.


CW: So we should eat a lot more farmed oysters and mussels?
PG: Absolutely. Mussels actually have massive amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids—nearly as much as salmon. And they’re very good for the environment. And a dozen oysters have fewer calories than a single large banana.

CW: Is there anything we can do differently to help the ocean? **
As I said earlier, the key to good fisheries management is keeping fishing limited to a defined number of licensed vessels. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of unsanctioned fishing going on out there. If you’re on board your boat and a log freak, it’s not a bad idea to note the locations and times that you see commercial fishermen on the water and perhaps informally provide that information to your local fisheries officers. This isn’t as big a problem in the United States as it is elsewhere. If you’re an adventure sailor who plies the Roaring 40s, it’s probably even more important to keep an eye out for fishing vessels out there.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU, in the parlance of the United Nations) causes a huge amount of damage to fish stocks around the world. A lot of that takes place on the high seas, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of nations and outside of the capacity of most nations to monitor. If you’re a cruising sailor, you’re another pair of eyes and ears on the water. Helping to keep officials informed on vessel location could be useful.


CW: But is it still OK for me to throw out a line while under sail and catch fish for dinner?
PG: It all depends on the regulations. Remember that inside of three nautical miles, waters are generally state regulated and that you need to check state fish-and-game rules before you go.

Beyond three nautical miles, you’re often in federal waters, and you need to check federal laws. Striped bass, for example, may not be killed in federal waters.
Over and above regulations, though, be mindful in your fishing techniques. Replace treble hooks on your lures with single hooks. Use a needle-nose pliers and pinch down the barbs on your hooks to make them barbless. Better yet, ask tackle-shop dealers for circle hooks, which are specially shaped hooks that lodge in the jaws of fish instead of in their guts. Barbless and circle hooks allow for easy release of undersized or unwanted fish, and that means a lot more healthy fish go back into the water.

Also try to figure out before you fish how many fish you’ll need. A friend of mine, the great naturalist, avid fisherman, and author Carl Safina, once said to me, “Sometimes ‘kill and go home’ is better than ‘catch and release.’ Knowing when to stop fishing is the most important and mindful thing a fisherman can do.”

CW: With overfishing, global warming, ocean acidification, energy and mineral mining of the ocean floor—is the ocean doomed?
PG: The ocean isn’t doomed. The living ocean is profoundly dynamic, and it’s been around far longer than we have. I’m pretty sure that it’ll outlast us. But our ocean—the one we evolved with—is at risk. Species are stressed, the environment is changing, things are shifting. The best we can do is to change along with it. Winter flounder and lobster are declining in Long Island Sound, but crabs and summer flounder are increasing. So it stands to reason that we should probably not take so many lobsters and winter flounder from that body of water and shift our eating preferences.

But the worst thing we can do, I think, is turn our backs on the sea. We should eat seafood, but we should keep an eye out for the sea that provides it. And, of course, if you have a choice between a motor or a sail, the sail, environmentally speaking, is the better choice.

Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food_ (The Penguin Press) is the recipient of the 2011 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature and a 2012 Grantham award of special merit; it’s also a New York Times bestseller. For additional details about the book and the author, log on to Four Fish ( or follow Greenberg on Twitter (@4fishgreenberg)._

• Buy seafood from small-scale fishermen who use gear that does not harm the bottom and that doesn’t kill untargeted species.
• Find a community-supported fishery near you. Start your CSF search with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and Local Catch.
• If you eat farmed fish, choose Arctic char and barramundi.
• Cooperate with shellfish farmers in coastal waters near you.
• Eat more farmed oysters and mussels.
• If you’re sailing in remote areas, report illegal fishing.
• If you’re sailing in state-regulated waters, check first with state fish-and-game authorities so you know the regulations. When in federal waters, be sure to check the federal regulations.
• When you fish, make use of barbless and circle hooks.

• Don’t dump raw sewage overboard.
It contributes to an overabundance of nutrients, and this deoxygenate the marine environment.
• If you’re fishing from your boat, don’t use treble hooks.
• If you have a choice between a motor and a sail, sail.


More Uncategorized