Fishing and the environment

From Blue Planet to Seaspiracy, it's clear our oceans are in trouble. We explore the threats they face and what we can do about them.
  Published:  09 Apr 2021    |      3 minute read

The ocean is critical for life on earth. It regulates our climate and is home to an incredible diversity of animal and plant species. But our seas are facing multiple threats...

The threats to our oceans


Fishing is an integral part of island nations like the UK. But according to the UN, almost 90% of global marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.

Industrial fisheries are devastating wild species and the wider marine environment through destructive measures:

  • Bottom trawling, the practice of dragging weighted nets across the sea floor to capture fish. Researchers have recently found that bottom trawling also releases as much carbon as the entire aviation industry.
  • Dynamite fishing, which uses explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection, damages coral reefs.
  • Some forms of prawn or shrimp farming that destroy coastal mangrove forests.
Coral reef damaged by dynamite fishing
Credit: Pixabay

Plastic pollution

There’s also a plastic pollution crisis in our seas, with fishing nets and other loose plastic causing horrific injuries and slow, painful deaths to wildlife.

Research has found that 100% of marine turtle species, 67% of seals, 31% of whales and 25% of seabird species have been entangled or succumb to starvation, drowning or predators they can no longer evade.

Climate breakdown

Climate breakdown, and specifically the warming of our planet, is a major threat. Among other things, a rise in carbon dioxide causes ocean acidification which destroys corals and the rich wildlife they support, as well as the shells of animals like oysters, mussels and sea urchins. Acidification of our seas also affects animal behaviour, like the ability of some fish to detect predators, causing a knock-on impact to the food chains in our oceans.

Perhaps the obvious solution is to stop eating fish, but that's not necessarily the answer.

Fish provide more than four billion people with an important source of protein, particularly in the poorest and least developed countries, where over a quarter of people depend on fish for their primary source of protein.

The ocean is also key to livelihoods around the world, with an estimated 200 million jobs directly or indirectly connected with fisheries. It’s critical to manage these sustainably, for the ecosystems themselves as well as the livelihoods of billions of people in the coastal communities of developing countries, where 97% of fishers live.

Fisher with fishing rod and basket
Credit: Image by Phuong Nguyen from Pixabay


Sustainable fishing

We need to switch away from damaging industrial fishing methods and champion sustainable and agroecological solutions both in the UK and globally.

In Malaysia, Friends of the Earth is supporting a project where fishers are planting and restoring mangrove forests – helping to stabilise the soil, protecting the coastline from storms, provide breeding grounds for sustainable fishing, and producing fruit which can be made into tea and jam.

In the UK, we need to scale up the protection of fisheries and marine ecosystems through a strong network of Marine Protected Areas, including a ban on the most damaging fishing methods. In Sussex, trawling has been banned along a stretch of coastline in order to restore precious kelp forests – but a coordinated national approach is needed.

Reduce emissions

We urgently need stronger action to reduce climate-wrecking emissions and prevent further increases in global temperatures. This includes stopping fossil fuel extraction, ending UK support for dirty fossil fuel projects around the world, and switching to clean energy and industry while creating good green jobs.

Tackle plastic

We need to drastically reduce the plastic pollution that's pouring into our oceans. No one knows exactly how long it will take to disappear, but it's at least hundreds of years. Find out more about the damage plastic does and what you can do to tackle it.

Consumer choices

And when it comes to what to eat, think about cutting down the overall amount of fish you eat. Try plant proteins like lentils, peas and beans as alternatives to meat. When you do buy fish, choose only certified sustainable fish. Look out for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council  (MSC) or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

For help choosing sustainable seafood (and fish to avoid), see the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide.

In order to tackle the climate and nature crises and restore our seas for the future, environmental organisations are calling on the government to deliver a transformational ocean recovery agenda that protects people, nature and our climate. Find out more.