The Oceans: Pollution and Exploitation (Overfishing/Fisheries Mismanagement)

What is it and what’s wrong with it? 


The impact of human behavior on the ocean is vast. We dump everything in our oceans, including plastic bags and other plastic debris, garbage, military munitions and toxic chemicals, crude oil, sewage and nuclear waste.

Carbon dioxide pollution causes ocean acidification and this is of tremendous concern to scientists. Kat. J. McAlpine in Scientific American writes that, "Rising ocean acidity is now considered to be just as much of a formidable threat to the health of Earth’s environment as the atmospheric climate changes brought on by pumping out greenhouse gases." Oceans absorb CO2, decreasing the water's pH levels. The lower, or more acidic, the pH of the world's oceans, the more stress is put on marine organisms, including sensitive-to-change coral reefs.

Eutrophication occurs after there have been assorted nutrients from chemical pollution added to the oceanic system. Algae use up these nutrients and bloom so much that they use up most or all of the ocean's oxygen, killing fish and other organisms. 

Plastic debris is broken down into small pieces that fish confuse for small plants and animals and are later consumed by humans when we eat fish. Plastic and other trash in the world's oceans can entangle marine animals like fish and sea turtles, causing permanent disfiguration or death. The Pacific Ocean is home to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a mass of plastic waste and other debris trapped in a circulating ocean current called a "gyre" in the Pacific Ocean.

Toxins and radiation biomagnify as they move up the food chain—meaning bigger fish have the highest concentration of toxic tissues in their bodies. Those highest on the food chain are less healthy to consume (this includes mammals and birds). Humans are at the top of the food chain, thus toxins that we ingest readily accumulate in our bodies, which can cause illness and disease, such as so-called Minimata Disease

In regard to fish, tunas’ bodies in particular contain very high levels of mercury. Large fish, in general, contain high amounts of toxins. It is best to eat lower on the food chain whenever possible; which means incorporating flat white fish such as flounder or fluke (which eat small crustaceans, shrimps and fish whose bodies contain lower levels of toxins) into your diet, and removing larger carnivorous species like swordfish, which feed on large fish like mackerel, herring, and hake, in addition to large cephalopods (octopi and squids). 

Oil spills from tankers and deep-sea wells leak into our seas, oiling flora, fauna, and our shores with toxic crude. Some spills, like the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (the largest marine oil spill in history) are well known and notorious for their myriad negative environmental impacts.

 Overfishing/Fisheries Mismanagement: 

Another issue is overfishing. Our oceans seem abundant, but we overfish the more “desirable” fish species. Bluefin Tuna and other large species are fished more quickly than they are able to reproduce. This results in “fishing down the food web,” where we have to fish smaller and smaller fish species because that is all that is left. The depletion of these smaller “forage fish” have enormous ecological consequences and can upend entire food chains and the very chemistry of the seas. The loss of forage fish often accelerates the decline of larger fish species that are caught en masse by humans.

In addition to overfishing, the mismanagement of the world’s fisheries is to blame for the depletion of fish species. There are negative consequences to both wild and farmed fish. When commercial fisheries target wild fish, other sea creatures not intended to be caught (including marine mammals, sea turtles, non-targeted fish species, and even sea birds) can become entangled in nets and lines. Most of these non-targeted creatures—called “bycatch”—die or sustain disfiguring injuries. Fish farms often pollute the seas with excess fish waste, parasites, disease, antibiotics, and chemicals, which can lead to the death of nearby sea creatures, spreading disease to other fish, impacting human health, and forming harmful algal blooms.


What’s been done?


There is legislation that has been enacted to stop ocean pollution such as the London Convention, London Protocol, and 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC). In 2008, President George W Bush signed the Maritime Pollution Prevention Act of 2008, which made the US part of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. However, despite such American rules and international laws to regulate dumping, it still occurs illegally—with individuals as well as large corporations dumping—every day.

In regard to oil spills, under the 1973 Clean Water Act, the EPA created so-called “Oil Pollution Prevention regulation,” which sets forth requirements for the prevention of, preparedness for, and response to oil discharges at some potential spill locations. Oil spill response techniques/technologies have improved over the years, with recent advances being made in the study of naturally occurring and engineered oil-eating bacteria. However, there are no oil spill responses which completely clean up a marine area after a spill. 

Carl Safina of the Safina Center at Stony Brook University (formerly the Blue Ocean Institute) is an ecologist and environmental writer who works to find ways to stop ocean pollution and exploitation by bringing together scientists, citizens and industry. Other groups concerned with the waste and pollution contaminating our seas include: Blue Frontier Campaign, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, The PEW Charitable Trusts, The Plastic Oceans Foundation, United by Blue, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, among others.

 Overfishing/Fisheries Mismanagement:

Efforts to stop overfishing have been to set up “marine protected areas” where fishing is illegal. Fish farms have been established to reduce pressure on wild species, but this often leads to environmental waste and food safety and health problems. Carnivorous fish species are fed wild fish, for example, and this pressures both the marine environment and the fishing industry. Activist groups such as Stripers Forever and the Gulf Restoration Network advocate for fishing bans and/or quotas, as well as environmentally benign sustainable fish farms to help preserve imperiled fish species from overfishing without polluting the planet. Carl Safina’s Safina Center (see above) also does much work to help stop overfishing.


What can you do? 

Reduce CO2 emissions:

-Walking, biking, carpooling, or using public transportation

-Turning off lights, computers, and other electronic products

-Stop using fertilizer – garden organically!


Reduce the amount of plastic you use/dispose of:

-Carry a reusable water bottle

-Carry and use your own reusable bamboo utensils

-Buy in bulk/avoid individually packaged products

-Use a reusable shopping bag

-Avoid buying plastic products whenever possible.


Stop ocean exploitation:

-Be conscious of what you are eating and where it comes from:

Check out: Seafood Watch from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium

-Text FISH followed by the type of fish you want to eat to 30644 to find out more information on the type of fish you want to eat

-(In general) farmed fish that are not carnivorous wield the lowest environmental impact on the planet and contain the least amount of toxins

-Eat smaller fish

-Don't eat fish

-Check out mercury levels in your dinner!


Learn more here:



5 Gyres: environmental advocacy group fighting plastic pollution in the ocean

Blue Ocean Institute (Carl Safina) works to educate, inspire, and bring people to action to help save our seas)

Center for Biological Diversity: campaign against ocean plastics pollution

National Smart Seafood Guide from Food and Water Watch

Natural Resources Defense Council fact sheet: “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem”

Information about overfishing from

Save Our Shores: tips to prevent and clean up plastic pollution in waterways

The Seafood Watch Program at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium



12 Most Toxic Fish (For Humans and the Planet) by Kiera Butler (Mother Jones, 2010)

8 Sustainable Sources of Farmed Fish & Seafood by Collin Dunn (Treehugger, 2009)

Danger in the Deep: Chemical Weapons Lie Off Our Coasts by Nicole Branan, (Earth, 2009)

Marine Debris Pollution: Five Lessons Learned This Year by Dylan Gasperik (2013)

Marine Pollution: How the Ocean Became a Toxic Waste Dump (Mother Jones, 2006)

Ocean Dumping—What’s Allowed (US EPA, 2013)

Organic Standards for Farm-Raised Fish Come Slowly by Jenny Hopkinson (Politico, 2013)

Rate of Ocean Acidification due to Carbon Emissions is at Highest for 300m Years by Fiona Harvey (The Guardian, 2013)

SoBe Bottle Ad Campaign Throws Away All Environmental Conscientiousness by Gabriela Aoun (Huffington Post, 2013)

Spanish Sperm Whale Death Linked to UK Supermarket Supplier’s Plastic by Giles Tremlett (2013)

Study: Oil-Eating Bacteria Mitigated Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill by Jason Koebler (2013)



Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg (2011) –Consumerism, Earth, Economics, Health, Lifestyle, & Politics

I’m Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison (2012)

Ocean: The World’s Last Wilderness Revealed by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, Sue Scott, Michael Scott, Kim Bryan, David Burnie, Frances Dipper, Richard Beatty, and Fabien Cousteau (American Museum of Natural History, 2008) –Climate, Earth, Ocean, Wildlife

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel (2011)

Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell (2012)

Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina (1999)

The Empty Ocean by Richard Ellis (2003)

The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover (2006) –Earth, Economics, Food, Health, Lifestyle, & Politics

The Sea Around Us (Oxford First Edition) by Rachel Carson (1951)



Aqua Seafoam Shame: A Film About the Plastic Islands of Floating Garbage (2012)

Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez (2009)

Empty Oceans, Empty Nets (PBS, 2002)

Farming the Seas (PBS, 2004)

Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (2013)

Sandgrains (Tentative 2013)

The Blue Planet: Seas of Life (2007)

The End of the Line (2010)


video clips

Background to Minimata Disease (, 2011)

Carl Safina: The Oil Spill’s Unseen Culprits, Victims (TED Talk, 2010)

Ending Overfishing (Ocean2012EU, 2012)

Fishmeat: Choose Your Farm Wisely (CollectiveEye, 2013)

Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic (2008)

Part I                          Part II                         Part III

Plastic Oceans (Catalyst ABC TV, 2012)

Plastic Swallowed by Albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean-Hawaii: Message in the Waves (BBC Earth, 2013)

Polluted Fish Farms (David Goyet, 2013)

Squandering Our Seas (WWF International, 2009)The BP Oil Spill: Three Years Later (“Bryanoutside,” 2013)