Will the Oceans Be Empty of Fish by 2048?

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Will all fish become extinct?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

While the complete extinction of all fish species is unlikely in the near future, the current trends and contributing factors paint a concerning picture for the future of fish biodiversity. Anthropogenic stressors, size-biased extinction risks, and the vulnerability of endemic species all contribute to the heightened extinction risk faced by fish. Effective conservation strategies, including habitat protection and reevaluation of extinction risk criteria, are essential to mitigate these threats and preserve the rich diversity of fish species for future generations.

The question of whether all fish will become extinct is a pressing concern in the context of the current biodiversity crisis. Fish, both freshwater and marine, are facing unprecedented threats from human activities, leading to significant declines in populations and, in some cases, complete extinction. This article explores the various factors contributing to the extinction risk of fish species, examines current trends, and discusses the potential future of fish biodiversity.

Factors Contributing to Fish Extinction

Anthropogenic Stressors

Human activities such as overfishing, habitat fragmentation, pollution, and climate change are major drivers of fish extinction. For instance, the Yangtze River ecosystem has seen the probable extinction of the Chinese paddlefish due to overfishing and habitat fragmentation. Similarly, large-bodied marine fishes are disproportionately threatened by commercial fishing activities, while smaller-bodied marine fishes are more affected by habitat degradation and loss.

Size-Biased Extinction Risk

The risk of extinction varies with the body size of fish. Large-bodied marine fishes are under greater threat of global extinction, whereas both small- and large-bodied freshwater species are at risk. This size-biased extinction risk highlights the complex interplay between body size, ecological roles, and human impacts.

Endemic Species Vulnerability

Endemic species, which have small geographic ranges and low abundance, are particularly vulnerable to extinction. This is evident in both terrestrial and marine systems. For example, endemic marine fishes, such as those found in coral reefs, face high extinction probabilities due to their limited distribution and specialized habitat requirements.

Current Trends in Fish Extinction

Freshwater Fish Extinction Rates

Freshwater fishes have the highest extinction rate among vertebrates. In North America, the extinction rate for freshwater fishes is estimated to be 877 times greater than the background extinction rate, with significant increases observed since the 1950s. This alarming trend underscores the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect freshwater ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Global Patterns of Extinction

Recent extinction rates are 100 to 1000 times higher than pre-human levels across various taxa, including fish. If current trends continue, future extinction rates could be ten times higher than recent rates, with many species not currently deemed threatened likely to succumb. This highlights the importance of proactive conservation measures to mitigate the ongoing biodiversity crisis.

Conservation Challenges and Strategies

Misconceptions About Marine Fish Resilience

There is a common perception that marine fishes are less vulnerable to extinction due to their high fecundity and rapid population growth. However, empirical evidence suggests that marine fishes are not necessarily more resilient to population declines than nonmarine fishes. Existing criteria for assessing extinction risk may overestimate the resilience of marine fishes, necessitating a reevaluation of conservation strategies.

Importance of Habitat Protection

Protecting habitats is crucial for the survival of fish species. Habitat loss and degradation are significant threats to both freshwater and marine fishes. Conservation efforts must focus on preserving critical habitats, such as coral reefs and river ecosystems, to ensure the long-term survival of fish populations.


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Wayne Bennett has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University of West Florida in Ichthyology, Ecophysiology, Physiology

While I do believe that there may well be fewer fish in our oceans, the claim that there will be no more fish in the oceans by 2048 is very unlikely. Fish are the longest lived vertebrate lineage, reaching back nearly 500 million years, and surviving several major extinction events. Their persistence is due to the fact that fish are extremely malleable and capable of surviving and adapting to, a wide range of environmental conditions. In the United States alone, over 4,500 species have established reproducing populations of exotic fish species – often in habitats that are nothing like their home range. So, while there may be fewer fish in the oceans by 2048 (due to overfishing, loss of habitat, pollution, extinctions, etc.) our great grand children will still be able to go to lakes streams and oceans and see fish.


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Holden Harris has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University of Florida in Fisheries Sciences, Ecology

The overwhelming consensus in fisheries scientists is that this is not true. It is true that overfishing is an issue for the global environment and food security. Since the mid-1990s, it has been recognized that many fisheries were overexploiting stocks and in decline, and there was near-universal agreement that fishery management systems in almost all countries needed reform. Today, it’s likely that 1/3 of the world’s fish stocks worldwide are overexploited or depleted [1, 2]. This is certainly an issue that deserves widespread concern.

However, many stocks are also well managed and improving. Hilborn and Ovando (2014) [3] summarize this very well and evidence a few key points we should remember:

  1. Stocks that are managed are improving, while stocks that are not managed are not
  2. Stocks that are scientifically assessed are in better shape and indeed are not typically declining but rebuilding
  3. Large stocks appear to be in better shape than small stocks,
  4. Fisheries management as currently practiced can (and often does) lead to sustainable fisheries

It is unfortunate that #Seaspiracy missed an opportunity to make real progress on the important issue of overfishing by disregarding the science on the issue and spreading misinformation. The convenient oversite of not including the many, many success stories of good management guided by science and community (e.g., U.S. fisheries) provides an extremist view of the issue. I also personally know some of the interviewees in the film, who have spent their life work in ocean conservation, and do not deserve the false light cast on to them. This is not how progress is made. I agree with the synopsis of the film by Professor Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s leading experts on the issue [5]: “Seaspiracy does more harm than good. It takes the very serious issue of the devastating impact of industrial fisheries on life in the ocean and then undermines it with an avalanche of falsehoods. It also employs questionable interviewing techniques, uses anti-Asian tropes, and blames the ocean conservation community, i.e., the very NGOs trying to fix things, rather than the industrial companies actually causing the problem.”

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAO Yearbook: Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2007 (FAO, 2009)

[2] Worm, B. et al. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science 325, 578–585 (2009).

[3] Hilborn R. and D. Ovando. Reflections on the success of traditional fisheries management, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 71, Issue 5, July/August 2014, Pages 1040–1046, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsu034

[5] https://www.vox.com/2021/4/13/22380637/seaspiracy-netflix-fact-check-fishing-ocean-plastic-veganism-vegetarianism


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Scott Creel has answered Uncertain

An expert from Montana State University in Ecology, Conservation Science, Behavioural Science

There is no doubt that past trends in per-capita human offtake from the oceans cannot be sustained. What will happen over the next 27 years is more difficult to predict, but there is currently little reason to believe that we will adjust our habits quickly or strongly enough to dramatically reduce unsustainable over-fishing until the problem has become severe.


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Michael Melnychuk has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University of Washington in Fisheries Sciences, Marine Ecology, Marine Science

This claim is based on a paper from 2006 (Worm et al., Science). The authors extrapolated trends in fisheries catches about 50 years into the future, until they reached their definition of ‘100% collapsed taxa’. There are many reasons why such an extrapolation is not appropriate:

– This assumes that our hands are tied and these trends will continue indefinitely. In reality, we can react when we observe problems. Our fisheries management systems are designed to adjust fishing pressure or catch limits when we detect the abundance of a fish population declining below some undesirable level, so that those trends can be reversed.

– The benchmarks used by the authors are misleading. They defined a 50% decline in relative abundance from unfished levels of a fished population as “depleted”. But this is actually a main objective of fisheries management! Fish populations are typically most productive when their relative abundance is at around 40% of unfished levels, and fisheries managers aim to maintain populations at abundances near or slightly greater than those levels on average. In other words, the authors would classify the world’s best-managed fisheries as “depleted”.

– The definitions of “collapsed” by the authors are based on catch data, but these do not necessarily reflect abundances of fish populations. The authors were suggesting that nearly 70% of taxa were “collapsed” by the date of publication. This is at great odds with what regional fisheries experts have estimated since the 1970s. Perhaps the most well-known figure in fisheries science is FAO’s “Global trends in the state of the world’s marine fish stocks”, which is updated every two years or so, and is based on estimated abundances of major fish populations around the world. (For example, see Figure 19 in the report, http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/ca9229en/ ).

In the early 2000s approximately 1/4 of the world’s major fish stocks were fished at unsustainable levels, and it is now closer to about 1/3 today. This is unquestionably a major issue that we need to reverse as a global community. However, it is also quite different from claiming that over 2/3 of global fish populations were already collapsed by 2006.

– In extrapolating trends, the authors chose to use a power function, in which depletion accelerates over time and, by definition, will inevitably reach “100% collapsed” at some point. A more realistic assumption would be to use a form that decelerates over time during the extrapolated period. Such a trend could continue downward, but would gradually level out over time rather than steepen over time (predicting >100% “collapses” in year 2048+1). 

For the above reasons and others, that paper has been heavily criticised within the scientific community. Unfortunately, the ‘2048 prediction’ has persisted ever since. Some more thoughts are written by others about that 2048 prediction: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/fisheries-2048/

and about other contentious claims in the “documentary” Seaspiracy: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/science-of-seaspiracy/


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Alec Christie has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University of Cambridge in Marine Biology, Conservation Science, Zoology, Ecology, Marine Ecology

Unfortunately, the movie ‘Seaspiracy’ is a great example of poor science communication. Certainly some species of fish will go extinct by 2048 and massive ecological damage is being done by bad fisheries management practices – these do need to be fixed urgently, but there will still be fish in the oceans by 2048. Many top fisheries scientists have come out against this movie with the same message – Seaspiracy tries to deal with serious issue of damage of industrial fisheries on ocean life and throws in lots of falsehoods – e.g., see. A brilliant claim-by-claim assessment of this movie can be found here – which exposes the truths and falsehoods presented.

As other experts have commented here, the way this movie used data from scientific papers was a good example of questionable research practices – cherry-picking and unjustifiable and opaquely extrapolating data beyond the bounds of the study. Ironically, this movie has united a lot of scientists against the makers of this movie – we all agree that its message of the ecological harm of industrial fisheries is a major urgent issue, but we need to present facts not fiction and unite, build consensus, and use rational arguments to convince people to change. This movie only creates division and misinformation – if they had only consulted more with the research community, this could have been a real scientific communication success story.


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Simon Allen has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Bristol University in Marine Science

No, the seas will not be empty of fish by 2048. This prophecy of doom was based on some outdated projections and is one of a number of statements/claims made in Seaspiracy that are not supported by the most recent scientific research and monitoring. Despite a number of valid criticisms (further details below), the core message of Seaspiracy is nonetheless sound.

This is an excerpt from social media (my Facebook page) that, like the documentary itself, stimulated quite a lot of thoughtful discussion:

Quite a few scientists (and a few humans) are having a proper old moan about Seaspiracy on Netflix. Sure, some of the criticism might be well-founded: the presentation is a bit of a dog’s breakfast and it could be argued that it’s a poorly constructed story; in places, it belittles some folks trying to do some good; it is an over-simplification of a complex issue; it isn’t suitably diverse/equitable in who presents what; and “it’s all a conspiracy that I’ve uncovered” is a bit over the top (in my opinion)…

…BUT claims of “it does more harm than good”? Come on. That reeks of “I’m worried about my next grant from the fisheries department or industry.” And “it’s vegan propaganda”? Eh? You need to watch it again if that is all you got from it.

Several take home messages can be drawn from the show:

  1. Overfishing is still the biggest problem on the global high seas;
  2. Destroying habitat and killing marine wildlife is rampant, not sustainable, a biodiversity crisis and an animal welfare travesty;
  3. Fisheries eco-labelling (like MSC certification) was dubious a decade ago, so not much has changed there*;
  4. Government management agencies are beholden to big business and powerful lobby groups (as are some eNGOs);
  5. If we don’t choose what we eat from the sea wisely, we are indirectly supporting a global industry rife with corruption and duplicity – and throw in a bit of murder on top of physical and psychological abuse.
  6. Eating less fish and more plants will help your health and that of the ocean and its inhabitants and humanity (granted not everyone has the luxury of choice, but 99% of the people who bother reading this WILL be able to choose)**.
  7. Prof. Callum Roberts and Dr. Sylvia Earle are astoundingly qualified legends of marine science and conservation, so at the very least you might heed their words.

*MSC certification can cost a lot of money but mean little in terms of ‘green-ness’. See Exmouth Gulf and Shark Bay prawn fisheries, for example: For every 1 kg of prawns caught, 4-8 kgs of other marine wildlife is injured or killed. In what universe is that logical/acceptable/ethical, let alone worthy of a nice blue tick eco-label and a bigger market share? Would you eat 1 cow if you knew 4-8 cows were killed and thrown away in the process?

**I know people who fish commercially in ways that target particular species, do not destroy habitat or kill other species. They have absolutely nothing to worry about from Seaspiracy.

If you care to, you can even do your own research, either by watching, arguably, better-constructed narratives (see: “The End of Line” documentary, for example), or just good ol’ fashioned youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTJ1H0Zp6zQ), or read the book The Outlaw Ocean by the (very brave) investigative journalist, Ian Urbina.

And if science is your gig (you dislike emotive drama?), how about the latest Nature paper on sharks and rays and extinction risk: “since 1970, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71% owing to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure. This depletion has increased the global extinction risk to the point at which three-quarters of the species comprising this functionally important assemblage are threatened with extinction. Strict prohibitions and precautionary science-based catch limits are urgently needed to avert population collapse”.

At the end of the day, love it or loathe it, Seaspiracy has got some tongues wagging and people asking questions. That’s okay, isn’t it? So did other shows on Netflix, like Tiger King and Seven Worlds, One Planet.


Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?

Robert  Steneck has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University of Maine in Oceanography, Marine Biology

The date was mentioned once in Worm et al 2006 which was a paper about loss of ecosystem services. Their data showed declines among harvested fishes over time and if they extrapolate from that rate of decline AND if nothing else was done to slow the decline, of those HARVESTED FISHES they will have “collapsed” by 2048 (the exact paragraph from their conclusions is copied below)..

The bigger point of the paper is that as fish stocks decline, ecosystem services they provide and we humans value declines. 

However, three years after the initial publication Worm et al 2009 (also published in Science) pointed out that many fish stocks are rebuilding globally (see abstract below). So, anyone who was alarmed by the one reference to 2048 in the 2006 paper should breath a sigh of relief from the 2009 paper. So, the question: :Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?” was rather explicitly answered in one of the worlds most prestigious scientific journals more than a decade ago.

FYI: I am a Pew Fellow of Marine Conservation so scientifically supported marine conservation is what I’ve dedicated my life to. I was not part of either of the papers I just highlighted. I think alarmist rants that do not have scientific support (eg empty oceans in 2048) undermine the credibility of science. Outlets that promote such unsubstantiated claims in the long run do more harm than good towards the goals they want to achieve.

The paper refuting the notion that all harvested species are collapsing was in:

Worm, B., Hilborn, R., Baum, J.K., Branch, T.A., Collie, J.S., Costello, C., Fogarty, M.J., Fulton, E.A., Hutchings, J.A., Jennings, S. and Jensen, O.P., 2009. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science, 325(5940), pp.578-585.

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