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Is Wild-Catch Fishing Sustainable?

Aug 25th, 2022

Who doesn’t love some good seafood? 

Fish and seafood are a large part of our diets, especially in cities along the coast, and the industry as a whole supports communities and economies all over the world.
But, as with anything, there are downsides to any industry that relies on natural resources, and the fishing industry is no exception. Here’s a glimpse into wild-catch fishing, its environmental issues and how we can choose sustainable options that will support a healthier industry.

All you need to know about wild-caught fish

What is wild-caught fish?

To put it simply, wild-caught seafood is done by catching the fish and seafood directly from their natural habitats, whether that be rivers, lakes or oceans. This is how humans have been fishing since the dawn of time all over the world, and it can be accomplished in many different ways. 

Like most industries focused on harvesting natural resources, there are pros and cons. There are some aspects of wild-caught fishing that put immense strain on the environment, and there are some that are inherently more sustainable than fish farming methods. 

What are the cons of wild-caught fishing?

There are a few major cons to wild-caught fishing practices: the methods used and the types of fish caught. All of these result in destruction to the environment and to species that aren't meant to be caught. 

Destructive fishing methods

Large-scale wild-catch fishing catches a lot of fish at once to keep up with demand, and many of these methods are unsustainable in both the short and long term. 


Gillnets are long walls of net that are lowered into the water like a giant tennis net. This net traps anything that tries to swim through it and, when the fishing boats return to collect the trap, all the creatures are hauled to the surface. However, this means that turtles, sharks, dolphins and other ocean creatures get caught, too, and they often don't survive the trip to the surface. Because these nets are left alone for long periods of time, they can also get lost or misplaced easily, which means the trap is never released and creatures will continue to get stuck. 

Dredges/bottom trawls

Trawls are nets that get dragged along the ocean floor, catching anything in its path before being hauled to the surface. Dredges operate in similar fashion, but they are large metal rakes that drag along the ocean floor to catch shellfish and shrimp, often destroying coral and plants in the way.

Purse seines

Ever seen “Finding Nemo”? That big, scary net that closes from the bottom and is pulled to the surface is called a purse seine, and it catches a lot of unintended species on the way up (like, for example, cute little clownfish). 


Longlines are, like they say, long lines trailed in the water with many smaller hooks attached to them. These lines are left unattended in order to fill all the hooks with tuna or swordfish before dragging them back aboard, but that means that many unlucky creatures like dolphins, sharks and other fish get caught, too. By the time they’re hauled aboard, it’s too late to throw them back alive. 

These methods of fishing end up killing a host of other marine species along the way — an effect which ripples down the food chain and affects the whole environment. 

The types of fish being caught

Bycatch is a major problem in large-scale wild-caught fishing methods, as all the extra marine animals caught along the way become unintended victims in vicious traps.

But these unintended victims are not the only ones that contribute to the overall environmental impact. The very species targeted by the fishing companies are often apex predators and are important parts of the food chain, and removing them en masse creates gaps in the food chain that affects all life in the area. 

What are pros to wild-catch fishing?

Though it seems bleak, there are a few ways to wild-catch fish that aren’t quite as destructive as the ones above. 

Use methods that result in less bycatch

Fishing methods that catch the intended targets will result in less destruction of other species, though they often are done at a much smaller scale. Methods like harpoon fishing allow fishers to target the exact fish they want. Rod & reel fishing allow fishers to immediately toss away fish that aren't meant to be caught. jigs and hand lines are like longlines, but just a single hook or a few hooks are reeled in immediately after they’ve caught something, allowing fishers to quickly toss back unwanted creatures. Finally, traps and pots allow fishers to gently trap shellfish and selectively return unwanted creatures to the ocean before any damage is done. 

There is no need for feed

There is no need for speed… I mean, feed, when it comes to wild-caught fish. The natural environment provides all the nutrients and sustenance the fish need to grow. This means fishers don’t have to add chemicals, hormones or nutrients to the water like they would have to in fish farms, which we will get to in another article. 

Consumer culture can influence fishing practices

Overfishing a sensitive species can cause lasting damage to entire ecosystems, so choosing to buy seafood that is from a sustainable stock is key to changing the industry as a whole. 

Avoid buying fish that are slow growing and vital to sensitive ecosystems: This includes:

Instead, go for safe species that are regulated and protected within the industry. These include:

  • Alaskan salmon
  • Atlantic mackerel
  • Mussels
  • Squid
  • Pacific sardines
  • Barramundi
  • And much more

It’s always good to buy local, too, as you’ll get the chance to find out exactly how and where the fish comes from directly from the fishers themselves.

Balancing the (fish) scales

In the end, there is no black-and-white answer to what is one-hundred percent good and one-hundred percent bad, but we can certainly choose routes that cause less harm to the environment than others might. There are pros and cons to all kinds of farming practices, including fishing, so by choosing to support more ethical and environmentally-friendly practices, we can support healthy change in the industry as a whole!

Which, we think, is o-fish-ially pretty awesome.


(the end)

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/moritz320

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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