Big Government and the Problem of Overfishing

by Coty Perry

There are many issues that plague our oceans and marine life: pollution, plastic waste, natural disasters, and more. One other prominent problem is that of overfishing.

Many would see overfishing as the fishing industry’s response to the market’s need for more fish. We are consuming twice as much fish as we did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people now, so overfishing seems inevitable, right? 

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Overfishing doesn’t simply mean that we’re catching too many fish; it means that unethical practices are in play as large fleets of commercial fishing boats haphazardly eradicate marine life. 

While you do hear many stories of fish stock replenishment and improvements, the results are skewed and they leave out a variety of other factors. Bycatch, destruction of communities, ghost fishing, and waste are not discussed in many of the studies done by government organizations.

Bycatch alone contributes to the death of at least 300,000 whales and dolphins per year. This doesn’t factor in the deaths of turtles, seals, and other aquatic mammals. This happens because large fishing ships use trawling nets that span for hundreds of yards and scoop up everything along the way. Most of the time, the only people who know about this are the fishermen themselves. 

Trawling leads to ghost fishing, which is when fish and sea mammals become entangled in nets that were discarded or left behind. 

As previously mentioned, overfishing isn’t just about catching “too many” fish; it’s about the practices in play by large fishing companies.

The Negative Impact of Government Subsidies 

Our first instinct would be to turn to the government for guidance. They are the ones responsible for enforcing the laws and regulations in place to protect our environment. Unfortunately, they are the main offenders because they are the ones financially backing these unethical practices

The governments of the world pay out more than 22 billion dollars a year in capacity-enhancing subsidies to help offset the costs of maintenance, fuel, and gear. While these subsidies help keep fishermen employed, they lead to overexploitation because the small fishing communities can’t compete with these megaship operations. Rather than support the industry, the subsidies undermine the regulations put in place to protect our environment. 

Interestingly enough, you would think that overfishing would in turn harm the industry because it would make it more challenging for them to catch enough fish. Science says that removing the subsidies would increase the overall availability, thus making it easier and less expensive for fishermen to meet their quotas. So, why is the government still supporting this practice?

Who Are the Offenders? 

The problem is that the main offenders of overfishing aren’t always the governments with regulations in place such as the United States, Canada, and most of Europe. It’s in fact the Eastern world and countries like China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, most of which appear on a “shame list” known as the “Pacific 6.” Although, you will still find the U.S. on that list. 

China is the biggest offender, pumping out approximately $7.2 billion in 2018 and with as many as 17,000 ships illegally trawling the Pacific Ocean.

What Can We Do? 

Preventing overfishing is a challenge, but the ultimate way to slow it down is to rely more on technology than government to pull us out of a problem. Technology is paired with ethics in a variety of ways, from ethical clothing practices to ethical fishing practices. This path of technological innovation rather than top-down decision-making may set the incentives right for a better fishing – and environmental – future.

Coty Perry is the Managing Editor at Anglers.com. He’s a lifelong fisherman, committed to spreading the word on the importance of marine conservation to fellow anglers.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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