Overharvesting is a serious threat to many species, but particularly to aquatic species. There are many examples of regulated commercial fisheries monitored by fisheries scientists that have nevertheless collapsed. The western Atlantic cod fishery is the most spectacular recent collapse. While it was a hugely productive fishery for 400 years, the introduction of modern factory trawlers in the 1980s and the pressure on the fishery led to it becoming unsustainable. The causes of fishery collapse are both economic and political in nature. Most fisheries are managed as a common (shared) resource even when the fishing territory lies within a country’s territorial waters.
Common resources are subject to an economic pressure known as the tragedy of the commons in which essentially no fisher has a motivation to exercise restraint in harvesting a fishery when it is not owned by that fisher. The natural outcome of harvests of resources held in common is their overexploitation. While large fisheries are regulated to attempt to avoid this pressure, it still exists in the background. This overexploitation is exacerbated when access to the fishery is open and unregulated and when technology gives fishers the ability to overfish. In a few fisheries, the biological growth of the resource is less than the potential growth of the profits made from fishing if that time and money were invested elsewhere. In these cases—whales are an example—economic forces will always drive toward fishing the population to extinction.
For the most part, fishery extinction is not equivalent to biological extinction—the last fish of a species is rarely fished out of the ocean. At the same time, fishery extinction is still harmful to fish species and their ecosystems. There are some instances in which true extinction is a possibility. Whales have slow-growing populations and are at risk of complete extinction through hunting. There are some species of sharks with restricted distributions that are at risk of extinction. The groupers are another population of generally slow-growing fishes that, in the Caribbean, includes a number of species that are at risk of extinction from overfishing.
Coral reefs are extremely diverse marine ecosystems that face peril from several processes. Reefs are home to 1/3 of the world’s marine fish species—about 4,000 species—despite making up only 1 percent of marine habitat. Most home marine aquaria are stocked with wild-caught organisms, not cultured organisms. Although no species is known to have been driven extinct by the pet trade in marine species, there are studies showing that populations of some species have declined in response to harvesting, indicating that the harvest is not sustainable at those levels. There are concerns about the effect of the pet trade on some terrestrial species such as turtles, amphibians, birds, plants, and even the orangutan.
View a brief video discussing the role of marine ecosystems in supporting human welfare and the decline of ocean ecosystems.
Bush meat is the generic term used for wild animals killed for food. Hunting is practiced throughout the world, but hunting practices, particularly in equatorial Africa and parts of Asia, are believed to threaten several species with extinction. Traditionally, bush meat in Africa was hunted to feed families directly; however, recent commercialization of the practice now has bush meat available in grocery stores, which has increased harvest rates to the level of unsustainability. Additionally, human population growth has increased the need for protein foods that are not being met from agriculture. Species threatened by the bush meat trade are mostly mammals including many primates living in the Congo basin.