Commercial Fishing and Its History with Environmental Racism

Written by Aronya Waller

“Racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement.”

—Dr. Benjamin Chavis

Photo from Travel + Leisure

As we continue to enjoy our summer and start to visit our favorite beaches again, we are excited to introduce our new summer series. We will start by discussing commercial fishing and how it relates to environmental racism. Commercial fishing is categorized as “for-profit fishing.” It aims to convert marine life into food for humans and animals, fish meal for aquaculture (also known as aquafarming), and other products. Commercial fishing relates to the harvesting of wild fish, whereas aquaculture focuses on the cultivation of freshwater and saltwater marine life in a controlled environment. In this article, we will be referencing marine life often. Our definition will include fish, crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic plants, algae, and other microorganisms.

Photo from Lifegate

Commercial fishing should not be confused with subsistence fishing, which is seen in Indigenous communities and is a part of some ancestral traditions. Subsistence fishing is only harvesting the number of fish to feed themselves, their family, and their community. In contrast, commercial fishing is done on a global scale. It seeks to feed the masses and provides resources for markets around the world. According to Sentient Media, commercial fishing continues to increase its profits. One analysis valued the global market for commercial fishing at around $240.99 billion in 2017, and it anticipated its growth by 2026 to $438.59 billion.

The types of ships used in commercial fishing vary by size and method. One of the most harmful ones is industrial fishing ships that can be the size of a cruise ship and use massive drift nets, large metal doors, and chains over the seafloor to catch fish. These industrial ships are called supertrawlers and can process and store hundreds of tons of fish every day. They can remain out at sea for months at a time. Due to their technology, these ships do not have to stop fishing to process and freeze the catch since everything can be done on the boat. This technology significantly contributes to the global decline of our oceans and environmental pollution. Trawling is harmful to oceans and marine life because the large nets used to catch fish strip the entire environment of all living things, including coral reefs.

Commercial fishing ships also can use longlines to catch fish. Longlines can be used near the surface to catch open-water fish, such as tuna and swordfish, or near the seafloor to catch bottom-dwelling fish, such as cod or halibut. Longlines consist of one long mainline, which can be up to 60 miles long dragging behind a boat. The mainline has thousands of attached branchlines, each containing baited hooks used to lure and capture fish. Unfortunately, it attracts and easily snags non-target marine life, such as sea turtles, sharks, seals, seabirds, and marine mammals. This results in injury or death when they get caught on the hook or wrapped up in the lines.

Graphic from oceanbites

Another popular method for capturing live reef fish for seafood and aquariums is cyanide fishing. Commercial fishers spray sodium cyanide into coral reefs where the fish hide. The spray stuns them so that they are easier to catch. Cyanide poisons the reefs and kills other marine life. Cyanide fishing is popular in Southeast Asia, but it is growing in other parts of the world as the demand for live reef fish increases.

The commercial fishing industry is steadily destroying our oceans and killing our marine life, whether intentionally or not. As technology has improved to catch the most fish, the industry has become more destructive. It is well known within the commercial fishing industry that many of the caught fish will never be sold or eaten, no matter which method is used. The continual use of supertrawlers may cause the extinction of some species. According to Greenpeace, “we have already removed at least two-thirds of the large fish in the ocean, and one in three fish populations have collapsed since 1950.” Overfishing, which is primarily from commercial fishing, is threatening food security for hundreds of millions of people and destroying ocean ecosystems worldwide. 

Consider the amount of waste that comes from these industrial fishing ships due to the cutting of fishing nets and lines, as well as losing or dumping significant quantities of waste on long trips. Lost and abandoned fishing gear accounts for most of the plastic pollution in the oceans. According to The Guardian, “more than 640,000 tons of nets, lines, pots, and traps used in commercial fishing are dumped and discarded in the sea every year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses.” This waste is not only destructive to marine life, but it has produced a new effect in all our oceans.

Picture from National Geographic

There are some interesting islands floating around the world, but you probably would not want to visit them. They are called Garbage Patches or gyres, which are slow-moving whirlpools of marine debris. There are five gyres in the world―the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre. The most infamous one is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (in the North Pacific Gyre), which is between California and Hawaii. In 2018, it was more than twice the size of Texas. The 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than eight million tons, come from various sources, such as landfills, drains, toilets, and factories. It also comes from fishing boats.

Graphic from Kanelstrand

As with many social injustices, commercial fishing and its effects on communities result from a power imbalance. The rich versus the poor. Powerful countries versus small communities. Large foreign industrial ships from rich countries can overtake local people and deplete the fish supply. For example, transnational stealing is one of the biggest problems in commercial fishing. It is also illegal and very poorly regulated. Transnational stealing is when foreign fishing boats enter other countries’ exclusive fishing zones and fish without permission and/or compensation. This is a serious environmental justice issue. In most instances of transnational stealing, the commercial fishing boats are from wealthy countries, and they steal from poorer countries that lack the ability for enforcement. More than 40 percent of the world’s illegal fishing happens off the coast of Western Africa from primarily Asian and European boats. 

Civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis created the phrase environmental racism, which is referenced at the beginning of this article, to describe the toxic and harmful disparities that were directly affecting the land, air, and water for communities of color. The World Economic Forum expanded Chavis’ definition of environmental racism as “systemic racism whereby communities of colour are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads, and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants.”

Although Chavis coined this term in 1982, nearly 40 years later, we continue to see this systemic racism occur not only in the United States but globally. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation, formerly known as Chippewas of Sarnia First Nation, is located on reserve land by the St. Clair River in Ontario, Canada. Just three miles south of the tip of Lake Huron, their land is now known as Chemical Valley. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in 2010, 700 pounds of mercury were released into the air, 25 pounds were disposed into the water, and 93 thousand pounds were discarded in the land. These communities still see releases of mercury to this day. Since the early 19th century, this First Nation has dealt with pollutants from industrial factories and coal-powered plants from Canada and the United States. Indigenous people worldwide, including Native American and First Nations populations, are particularly susceptible to chemical exposure given their reliance on the foods of the land and the sea.

We saw in Flint, Michigan how the government knowingly used contaminated water from the Flint River. The river had been used as a waste disposal site for multiple industries, such as car factories and meat-packing plants. It also received raw sewage from the city’s waste treatment plant and toxins from landfills. The government tried to save money cleaning the water supply, but it could not hide all its dirty practices when the town’s water turned brown. Residents were exposed to lead, and more than 100 people were infected with Legionnaires’ disease. 

Earlier this year, David Valentine, a UC Santa Barbara professor of microbiology, published a study that reported more than 25,000 barrels of toxic waste in the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California shore. Industrial companies used the ocean as their dumping ground until 1972. Before then, the ocean was the world’s trash can. Governments and companies used the ocean for all types of disposal, including chemical and industrial wastes, radioactive wastes, trash, munitions, sewage sludge, and contaminated dredged material. It is alarming because the size is larger than Manhattan, and it is unknown how much waste has been released. Valentine stated that some barrels were eroded completely, while others still were intact. While the chemicals have already affected marine life in the Pacific Ocean, it is unknown how they may affect humans in the future.

It is interesting to note that the commercial fishing industry did not grow large on its own. As the governments internationally continue to focus on climate change and saving our land, it seems they must have forgotten about the sea. Many governments provide huge subsidies to the fishing industry because of the profits generated. These subsidies allow commercial fishing companies to increase the capacity of their fleets through the purchase of new vessels, improvements to existing ones, fuel subsidies, tax benefits, and job support. For example, China spends billions of Yuan on commercial fishing subsidies, including ones for diesel fuel. Though China receives a lot of backlash for its commercial fishing activity, its government is not the only country to provide subsidies to large commercial fishing fleets. Japan is the largest subsidizer of its fishing industry, providing the equivalent of two to three billion dollars (USD) annually. Japan provides 20 percent of the global subsidies and Spain provides 14 percent. They are followed by China, South Korea, and the United States. 

Instead of shaming consumers for their food choices, we should shame the people at the top. Look at the companies that are profiting. Find out how they are assisting the local communities. Are they keeping ancestral lands and traditions sacred? How are they preventing toxins and debris from entering communities’ water supply? Are they assisting in the cleanup of the garbage patches throughout the world? What fishing techniques are being used? In addition, contact your government representatives. Find out what subsidies are being given to these large commercial fishing companies. Speak to them about the need to clean our waters so there will not be another Chemical Valley or Flint. Work with them to clear out these garbage patches because we do not know what the long-term effects will be. 

Commercial fishing has not only impacted marine life. It has created a bevy of problems for communities living near and far from the oceans. Unfortunately, BIPOC communities normally deal with the brunt of these issues. Our communities are the victims of food insecurity due to policies that protect and prioritize profits over people. They deal with water pollution, the disposal of chemicals leaking into their land, toxic chemicals in the air, and the effects of overfishing. We must change our mindset when it comes to saving our oceans. Changing how we treat our oceans is not just about the fish, the marine life, and the reefs. It is also about every person who depends on them to live. 

Our rivers, lakes, and ponds depend on our oceans. The health of our ocean determines the health of our communities. The health of our communities determines the health of our planet. We are all interconnected.


Commercial Fishing: How Global Food Choices Negatively Impact the Oceans

Dumped fishing gear is biggest plastic polluter in ocean, finds report 

An Ecological and Human Biomonitoring Investigation of Mercury Contamination at the Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know 

Great Pacific Garbage Patch 

How can we destroy the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

How China’s Expanding Fishing Fleet Is Depleting the World’s Oceans 

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

Learn about Ocean Dumping 

Ocean Justice: Where Social Equity and the Climate Fight Intersect

Overfishing & Destructive Fishing

Seaspiracy Call to Action

"Staggering": 25,000 barrels found at toxic dump site in Pacific Ocean off Los Angeles coast

Sustainable Fisheries

Toxic waste dump site more than twice the size of Manhattan discovered in Pacific Ocean

Untangling the issues with longline fishing

We Need Both Ocean Conservation and Social Justice to Save Our Oceans 

What is environmental racism?

Using Format