Let's Catch And Reel In The Ugly Reality Of Commercial Fishing...

It was about 5 a.m. on a Saturday, and the day was just about to begin. We awoke to what sounded like a roaring engine from our little four corner bedroom, but it was just our dad starting up the 4-seater boat, per usual, as he routinely conducts the safety and equipment checks. As a kid, going fishing was normal and something I look forward to during the weekend. Our usual trip consisted of us going to our local spots throughout the island, anchoring, and spearfishing along the reef or further out in the dark blue depths. It was a recollection that resonates with me till this day, and as I’m writing this, emotions are stirring. We get to the beach to launch our boat, and we’re off. Heading into the darkness of the morning, I can’t help but feel a sense of calmness and peace. As the ocean mist sprayed my face as our little boat clashed against the rough waters, nostalgia runs through my mind, even as a child. This was a feeling and emotion I was far too familiar with, and I love everything about that feeling. It was nostalgia and remains that way each time I reflect.

I tend to be caught up as the sun begins to rise from the horizon, which distracted me from slowly realizing that we were in a completely unfamiliar area. As the sun starts to shine, I jump off the boat to kiss the ocean blue for the first time that morning. Just as the sun begins to wake up, so does life underneath the sea; it is a spectacular sight. The current flow was pushing and pulling sea anemones, and it was quiet enough that I swear you can hear the force of the current go in-between different types of colorful coral reefs. This was my element; this moment was what I look forward to each weekend. Solitude.

As an avid fisherman growing up, fishing is a part of my culture, identity, and way of life. There is an unspoken rule that what, where, and how we fish impacts our entire community. Or in other words, because of how ingrained fishing is within our culture, securing safe and sustainable fishing practices is necessary. As a kid growing up, I’ve unfortunately witnessed the ugly reality of overfishing even on a small scale within an island community. You have areas that were once thriving with diverse fish species and pristine marine ecosystems to an underwater desert with a fish that I could literally count with my hands. It was shocking…

Through strategic planning such as Marine Preserved Areas, we have slowly allowed fish species to regenerate, but there is larger destruction at play, industrial fisheries. Now, how we fish on a small island community is night and day to commercial fishing, and even at that, how we fish has a detrimental impact on the fish population. I’m familiar with spearfishing, trolling, and rod-n-reel methods; industrial fisheries, commonly known as commercial fishing, are a completely different practice. Commercial fishing is cruelty to animals on a massive scale, killing nearly a trillion animals worldwide every year. Have you ever been to a football game? These ships are the same size as those fields, except that they’re equipped with technology capable of giant catches. The common methods used for commercial fishing are longlining or gill nets, and I can break that down for you more. Longlining is how it sounds; these massive vessels unreel up to 50 miles of long lines, each with hundreds or thousands of baited hooks. Although this method is used to target specific species in the ocean, more times than not, high numbers of other unwanted species are indirectly caught as by-catch. Those species include turtles, dolphins, and even certain types of whales. Give me a moment, because just writing this is difficult…

Sigh. Okay.

Now, the commercial fishing method of gillnets is another damaging practice. The way this method works is that vessels lay netting vertically in the water, think of a wall-like concept, which lures fish by getting only their heads through the netting but not the entire body. As the fish catch frantically tries to escape, it ends up getting more tangled in the net….

Okay, this was just a difficult sight to think about. But this is the reality of commercial fishing. What’s even worse is that this billion-dollar industry is only anticipated to grow well into 2026. There are a couple of things that I want to address. First, fishing alone is not bad for the ocean, especially if it’s in a context such as subsistence fishing which is small-scale fishing done by a person to feed themselves, their family, or community. However, if you’re using specific methods on large scales, that’s when it becomes unsustainable. As a result, these practices impact entire ecosystems and creates imbalances in the ocean. When you completely wipe out or alter the presence of fish species, you erode the food web. You may think that taking out even one type of fish species wouldn’t create an imbalance; you’re wrong. All life underneath the ocean plays a role in the balance of the various ecosystems around. With higher demand for fish types and a greater presence of commercial fishing comes a higher rate of loss of important species, leading to a loss of other marine life, including our coral reef ecosystems.

So, you’re probably wondering what solutions exist? Or maybe, what can you do? The reality of the situation can be addressed both on large and small scales. Let’s begin with the small-scale things you can do right now, daily. Even if you are not actually participating in commercial fishing practices, you play a role as a consumer. Commercial fishing is fueled by the growing demand for these vessels to catch as much and as quickly as possible to meet the need of an increasing population. As consumers, the immediate and most logical thing we can do is completely change our diet. If we don’t demand, it won’t be supplied! If completely changing your diet is not an idea right now, you can still ethically source your items. Look or ask about the items you’re purchasing to determine whether it was caught using sustainable fishing practices and didn’t negatively impact the ocean environment. I think the one thing to remember is that consumers ultimately control the market.

Working towards shifting an industry requires implementing regulations, encouraging change, and impacting large scales. Just as much money this fishing industry brings so does the support and backing of its continued presence. There needs to be a cooperative effort among the private, public, and government sectors to implement strategic strategies and effective management protocols for commercial fishing. Policies that target the monitoring of this practice, including caps on how much a vessel can catch at a time, should be recommended to ensure sustainable practices. Recommended policies should be guided by science-based facts and enforced through fishing management plans that consist of international agreements because, well, the ocean doesn’t have physical boundaries.

If we make intelligent and conscious food decisions, educate ourselves and others, and voice our concerns, change will occur. Our oceans and all marine life play a pivotal role in our fight against climate change and the support it provides to all life.

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