Wild fisheries

Wild fisheries
Crab boat from the North Frisian Islands working in the North Sea
Global harvest of aquatic organisms in million tonnes, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO [1]

A fishery is an area with an associated fish or aquatic population which is harvested for its commercial value. Fisheries can be marine (saltwater) or freshwater. They can also be wild or farmed.

Wild fisheries are sometimes called capture fisheries. The aquatic life they support is not controlled in any meaningful way and needs to be "captured" or fished. Wild fisheries exist primarily in the oceans, and particularly around coasts and continental shelves. They also exist in lakes and rivers. Issues with wild fisheries are overfishing and pollution. Significant wild fisheries have collapsed or are in danger of collapsing, due to overfishing and pollution. Overall, production from the world's wild fisheries has levelled out, and may be starting to decline.

As a contrast to wild fisheries, farmed fisheries can operate in sheltered coastal waters, in rivers, lakes and ponds, or in enclosed bodies of water such as tanks. Farmed fisheries are technological in nature, and revolve around developments in aquaculture. Farmed fisheries are expanding, and Chinese aquaculture in particular is making many advances. Nevertheless, the majority of fish consumed by humans continues to be sourced from wild fisheries. As of the early 21st century, fish is humanity's only significant wild food source.

Marine and inland production

Main article: World fish production
Global wild fish capture in million tonnes, 2010, as reported by the FAO [1]
Global wild fish capture in million tonnes, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO [1]

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world harvest by commercial fisheries in 2010 consisted of 88.6 million tonnes of aquatic animals captured in wild fisheries, plus another 0.9 million tons of aquatic plants (seaweed etc.). This can be contrasted with 59.9 million tonnes produced in fish farms, plus another 19.0 million tons of aquatic plants harvested in aquaculture.[1]

Marine fisheries


Map of underwater topography. (1995, NOAA)

The productivity of marine fisheries is largely determined by marine topography, including its interaction with ocean currents and the diminishment of sunlight with depth.

Fishing activities extracted from Automatic Identification Data of EU trawlers over the continental shelf,[2] highlighting the correlation with the bathymetry over the area (bottom-left, from the GEBCO world map 2014).

Marine topography is defined by various coastal and oceanic landforms, ranging from coastal estuaries and shorelines; to continental shelves and coral reefs; to underwater and deep sea features such as ocean rises and seamounts.

Ocean currents

Major ocean surface currents. NOAA map.

An ocean current is continuous, directed movement of ocean water. Ocean currents are rivers of relatively warm or cold water within the ocean. The currents are generated from the forces acting upon the water like the planet rotation, the wind, the temperature and salinity (hence isopycnal) differences and the gravitation of the moon. The depth contours, the shoreline and other currents influence the current's direction and strength.

Gyres and upwelling

Map of Ocean Gyres
Map of regions of upwelling

Oceanic gyres are large-scale ocean currents caused by the Coriolis effect. Wind-driven surface currents interact with these gyres and the underwater topography, such as seamounts and the edge of continental shelves, to produce downwellings and upwellings.[3] These can transport nutrients and provide feeding grounds for plankton eating forage fish. This in turn draws larger fish that prey on the forage fish, and can result in productive fishing grounds. Most upwellings are coastal, and many of them support some of the most productive fisheries in the world, such as small pelagics (sardines, anchovies, etc.). Regions of upwelling include coastal Peru, Chile, Arabian Sea, western South Africa, eastern New Zealand and the California coast.

External image
Animation of the upwelling process.


Estimate of biomass produced by photosynthesis from September 1997 to August 2000. This is a rough indicator of the primary production potential in the oceans. Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.

In the ocean, the food chain typically follows the course:

  • Phytoplankton → zooplankton → predatory zooplankton → filter feeders → predatory fish

Phytoplankton is usually the primary producer (the first level in the food chain or the first trophic level). Phytoplankton converts inorganic carbon into protoplasm. Phytoplankton is consumed by microscopic animals called zooplankton. These are the second level in the food chain, and include krill, the larva of fish, squid, lobsters and crabs–as well as the small crustaceans called copepods, and many other types. Zooplankton is consumed both by other, larger predatory zooplankters and by fish (the third level in the food chain). Fish that eat zooplankton could constitute the fourth trophic level, while seals consuming the fish are the fifth. Alternatively, for example, whales may consume zooplankton directly - leading to an environment with one less trophic level.

External image
Animation of global primary production[5]


External image
Conservation status map of the global 200

Aquatic habitats have been classified into marine and freshwater ecoregions by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). An ecoregion is defined as a "relatively large unit of land or water containing a characteristic set of natural communities that share a large majority of their species, dynamics, and environmental conditions (Dinerstein et al. 1995, TNC 1997).[10]

Coastal waters

Estuary of Klamath River
  • Estuaries are semi-enclosed coastal bodies of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into them, and with a free connection to the open sea.[11] Estuaries are often associated with high rates of biological productivity. They are small, in demand, impacted by events far upstream or out at sea, and concentrate materials such as pollutants and sediments.[12][13]
  • Lagoons are bodies of comparatively shallow salt or brackish water separated from the deeper sea by a shallow or exposed sandbank, coral reef, or similar feature. Lagoon refers to both coastal lagoons formed by the build-up of sandbanks or reefs along shallow coastal waters, and the lagoons in atolls, formed by the growth of coral reefs on slowly sinking central islands. Lagoons that are fed by freshwater streams are estuaries.
  • The intertidal zone (foreshore) is the area that is exposed to the air at low tide and submerged at high tide, for example, the area between tide marks. This area can include many different types of habitats, including steep rocky cliffs, sandy beaches or vast mudflats. The area can be a narrow strip, as in Pacific islands that have only a narrow tidal range, or can include many meters of shoreline where shallow beach slope interacts with high tidal excursion.
Fixed-net fishing on the littoral zone along the Suhua Highway on the East coast of Taiwan
  • The littoral zone is the part of the ocean closest to the shore. The word littoral comes from the Latin litoralis, which means seashore.[14] The littoral zone extends from the high-water mark to near shore areas that are permanently submerged, and includes the intertidal zone. Definitions vary. Encyclopædia Britannica defines the littoral zone in a thoroughly vague way as the "marine ecological realm that experiences the effects of tidal and longshore currents and breaking waves to a depth of 5 to 10 metres (16 to 33 feet) below the low-tide level, depending on the intensity of storm waves".[15] The US Navy defines it as extending "from the shoreline to 600 feet (183 meters) out into the water"[16]
  • The sublittoral zone is the part of the ocean extending from the seaward edge of the littoral zone to the edge of the continental shelf.[17] It is sometimes called the neritic zone. Websters defines the neritic zone as the region of shallow water adjoining the seacoast. The word neritic perhaps comes from the new Latin nerita, which refers to a genus of marine snails, 1891.[18] The sublittoral zone is relatively shallow, extending to about 200 meters (100 fathoms), and generally has well-oxygenated water, low water pressure, and relatively stable temperature and salinity levels. These, combined with presence of light and the resulting photosynthetic life, such as phytoplankton and floating sargassum,[19] make the sublittoral zone the location of the majority of sea life.
  • Voigt, Brian (1998) Glossary of Coastal Terminology Washington State Department of Ecology, publication 98-105
  • Pawson, M G; Pickett, G D and Walker, P (2002) The coastal fisheries of England and Wales, Part IV: A review of their status 1999–2001 Science Series, Technical Report 116.

Continental shelves

  The global continental shelf, highlighted in cyan

Continental shelves are the extended perimeters of each continent and associated coastal plain, which is covered during interglacial periods such as the current epoch by relatively shallow seas (known as shelf seas) and gulfs.

The shelf usually ends at a point of decreasing slope (called the shelf break). The sea floor below the break is the continental slope. Below the slope is the continental rise, which finally merges into the deep ocean floor, the abyssal plain. The continental shelf and the slope are part of the continental margin.

Continental shelves are shallow (averaging 140 metres or 460 feet), and the sunlight available means they can teem with life. The shallowest parts of the continental shelf are called fishing banks.[20] There the sunlight penetrates to the seafloor and the plankton, on which fish feed, thrive.

Coral reefs

Locations of coral reefs.

Coral reefs are aragonite structures produced by living organisms, found in shallow, tropical marine waters with little to no nutrients in the water. High nutrient levels such as those found in runoff from agricultural areas can harm the reef by encouraging the growth of algae.[24] Although corals are found both in temperate and tropical waters, reefs are formed only in a zone extending at most from 30°N to 30°S of the equator.

Open sea

In the deep ocean, much of the ocean floor is a flat, featureless underwater desert called the abyssal plain. Many pelagic fish migrate across these plains in search of spawning or different feeding grounds. Smaller migratory fish are followed by larger predator fish and can provide rich, if temporary, fishing grounds.


The locations of the world's major seamounts

A seamount is an underwater mountain, rising from the seafloor that does not reach to the water's surface (sea level), and thus is not an island. They are defined by oceanographers as independent features that rise to at least 1,000 meters above the seafloor. Seamounts are common in the Pacific Ocean. Recent studies suggest there may be 30,000 seamounts in the Pacific, about 1,000 in the Atlantic Ocean and an unknown number in the Indian Ocean.[38]

Maritime species














Important marine wild fisheries

Freshwater fisheries


Worldwide, freshwater lakes have an area of 1.5 million square kilometres.[43] Saline inland seas add another 1.0 million square kilometres.[44] There are 28 freshwater lakes with an area greater than 5,000 square kilometres, totalling 1.18 million square kilometres or 79 percent of the total.[45]



Main article: Marine pollution

Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into an environment. Wild fisheries flourish in oceans, lakes, and rivers, and the introduction of contaminants is an issue of concern, especially as regards plastics, pesticides, heavy metals, and other industrial and agricultural pollutants which do not disintegrate rapidly in the environment. Land run-off and industrial, agricultural, and domestic waste enter rivers and are discharged into the sea. Pollution from ships is also a problem.

Plastic waste

Main article: Marine debris

Marine debris is human-created waste that ends up floating in the sea. Oceanic debris tends to accumulate at the centre of gyres and coastlines, frequently washing aground where it is known as beach litter. Eighty percent of all known marine debris is plastic - a component that has been rapidly accumulating since the end of World War II.[46] Plastics accumulate because they don't biodegrade as many other substances do; while they will photodegrade on exposure to the sun, they do so only under dry conditions, as water inhibits this process.[47]

Discarded plastic bags, six pack rings and other forms of plastic waste which finish up in the ocean present dangers to wildlife and fisheries.[48] Aquatic life can be threatened through entanglement, suffocation, and ingestion.[49][50][51]

Nurdles, also known as mermaids' tears, are plastic pellets typically under five millimetres in diameter, and are a major contributor to marine debris. They are used as a raw material in plastics manufacturing, and are thought to enter the natural environment after accidental spillages. Nurdles are also created through the physical weathering of larger plastic debris. They strongly resemble fish eggs, only instead of finding a nutritious meal, any marine wildlife that ingests them will likely starve, be poisoned and die.[52]

Many animals that live on or in the sea consume flotsam by mistake, as it often looks similar to their natural prey.[53] Plastic debris, when bulky or tangled, is difficult to pass, and may become permanently lodged in the digestive tracts of these animals, blocking the passage of food and causing death through starvation or infection.[54] Tiny floating particles also resemble zooplankton, which can lead filter feeders to consume them and cause them to enter the ocean food chain. In samples taken from the North Pacific Gyre in 1999 by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the mass of plastic exceeded that of zooplankton by a factor of six.[46][55] More recently, reports have surfaced that there may now be 30 times more plastic than plankton, the most abundant form of life in the ocean.[56]

Toxic additives used in the manufacture of plastic materials can leech out into their surroundings when exposed to water. Waterborne hydrophobic pollutants collect and magnify on the surface of plastic debris,[57] thus making plastic far more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land.[46] Hydrophobic contaminants are also known to bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, biomagnifying up the food chain and putting great pressure on apex predators. Some plastic additives are known to disrupt the endocrine system when consumed, others can suppress the immune system or decrease reproductive rates.[55]


Septic river.
Polluted lagoon.
See also: Mercury in fish

Apart from plastics, there are particular problems with other toxins which do not disintegrate rapidly in the marine environment. Heavy metals are metallic chemical elements that have a relatively high density and are toxic or poisonous at low concentrations. Examples are mercury, lead, nickel, arsenic and cadmium. Other persistent toxins are PCBs, DDT, pesticides, furans, dioxins and phenols.

Such toxins can accumulate in the tissues of many species of aquatic life in a process called bioaccumulation. They are also known to accumulate in benthic environments, such as estuaries and bay muds: a geological record of human activities of the last century.

Some specific examples are


Main article: Eutrophication
Effect of eutrophication on marine benthic life

Eutrophication is an increase in chemical nutrients, typically compounds containing nitrogen or phosphorus, in an ecosystem. It can result in an increase in the ecosystem's primary productivity (excessive plant growth and decay), and further effects including lack of oxygen and severe reductions in water quality, fish, and other animal populations.

The biggest culprit are rivers that empty into the ocean, and with it the many chemicals used as fertilizers in agriculture as well as waste from livestock and humans. An excess of oxygen depleting chemicals in the water can lead to hypoxia and the creation of a dead zone.[70]

Surveys have shown that 54% of lakes in Asia are eutrophic; in Europe, 53%; in North America, 48%; in South America, 41%; and in Africa, 28%.[71] Estuaries also tend to be naturally eutrophic because land-derived nutrients are concentrated where run-off enters the marine environment in a confined channel. The World Resources Institute has identified 375 hypoxic coastal zones around the world, concentrated in coastal areas in Western Europe, the Eastern and Southern coasts of the US, and East Asia, particularly in Japan.[72] In the ocean, there are frequent red tide algae blooms[73] that kill fish and marine mammals and cause respiratory problems in humans and some domestic animals when the blooms reach close to shore.

In addition to land runoff, atmospheric anthropogenic fixed nitrogen can enter the open ocean. A study in 2008 found that this could account for around one third of the ocean’s external (non-recycled) nitrogen supply and up to three per cent of the annual new marine biological production.[74] It has been suggested that accumulating reactive nitrogen in the environment may have consequences as serious as putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[75]


Main article: Ocean acidification

The oceans are normally a natural carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are increasing, the oceans are becoming more acidic.[76][77] The potential consequences of ocean acidification are not fully understood, but there are concerns that structures made of calcium carbonate may become vulnerable to dissolution, affecting corals and the ability of shellfish to form shells.[78]

A report from NOAA scientists published in the journal Science in May 2008 found that large amounts of relatively acidified water are upwelling to within four miles of the Pacific continental shelf area of North America. This area is a critical zone where most local marine life lives or is born. While the paper dealt only with areas from Vancouver to northern California, other continental shelf areas may be experiencing similar effects.[79]

Effects of fishing

Habitat destruction

Fishing nets that have been left or lost in the ocean by fishermen are called ghost nets, and can entangle fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures. Acting as designed, these nets restrict movement, causing starvation, laceration and infection, and—in those that need to return to the surface to breathe—suffocation.[80]


Main article: Overfishing

Some specific examples of overfishing.

Loss of biodiversity

Main article: Biodiversity

Each species in an ecosystem is affected by the other species in that ecosystem. There are very few single prey-single predator relationships. Most prey are consumed by more than one predator, and most predators have more than one prey. Their relationships are also influenced by other environmental factors. In most cases, if one species is removed from an ecosystem, other species will most likely be affected, up to the point of extinction.

Species biodiversity is a major contributor to the stability of ecosystems. When an organism exploits a wide range of resources, a decrease in biodiversity is less likely to have an impact. However, for an organism which exploit only limited resources, a decrease in biodiversity is more likely to have a strong effect.

Reduction of habitat, hunting and fishing of some species to extinction or near extinction, and pollution tend to tip the balance of biodiversity. For a systematic treatment of biodiversity within a trophic level, see unified neutral theory of biodiversity.

Threatened species

The global standard for recording threatened marine species is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.[85] This list is the foundation for marine conservation priorities worldwide. A species is listed in the threatened category if it is considered to be critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Other categories are near threatened and data deficient.


Many marine species are under increasing risk of extinction and marine biodiversity is undergoing potentially irreversible loss due to threats such as overfishing, bycatch, climate change, invasive species and coastal development.

By 2008, the IUCN had assessed about 3,000 marine species. This includes assessments of known species of shark, ray, chimaera, reef-building coral, grouper, marine turtle, seabird, and marine mammal. Almost one-quarter (22%) of these groups have been listed as threatened.[86]

Group Species Threatened Near threatened Data deficient
Sharks, rays, and chimaeras 17% 13% 47%
Groupers 12% 14% 30%
Reef-building corals 845 27% 20% 17%
Marine mammals 25%
Seabirds 27%
Marine turtles 7 86%

An ambitious project, called the Global Marine Species Assessment, is under way to make IUCN Red List assessments for another 17,000 marine species by 2012. Groups targeted include the approximately 15,000 known marine fishes, and important habitat-forming primary producers such mangroves, seagrasses, certain seaweeds and the remaining corals; and important invertebrate groups including molluscs and echinoderms.[86]


Freshwater fisheries have a disproportionately high diversity of species compared to other ecosystems. Although freshwater habitats cover less than 1% of the world’s surface, they provide a home for over 25% of known vertebrates, more than 126,000 known animal species, about 24,800 species of freshwater fish, molluscs, crabs and dragonflies, and about 2,600 macrophytes.[86] Continuing industrial and agricultural developments place huge strain on these freshwater systems. Waters are polluted or extracted at high levels, wetlands are drained, rivers channelled, forests deforestated leading to sedimentation, invasive species are introduced, and over-harvesting occurs.

In the 2008 IUCN Red List, about 6,000 or 22% of the known freshwater species have been assessed at a global scale, leaving about 21,000 species still to be assessed. This makes clear that, worldwide, freshwater species are highly threatened, possibly more so than species in marine fisheries.[87] However, a significant proportion of freshwater species are listed as data deficient, and more field surveys are needed.[86]

Fisheries management

Main article: Fisheries management

A recent paper published by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA warns that: "Synergistic effects of habitat destruction, overfishing, introduced species, warming, acidification, toxins, and massive runoff of nutrients are transforming once complex ecosystems like coral reefs and kelp forests into monotonous level bottoms, transforming clear and productive coastal seas into anoxic dead zones, and transforming complex food webs topped by big animals into simplified, microbially dominated ecosystems with boom and bust cycles of toxic dinoflagellate blooms, jellyfish, and disease".[88]

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