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10.4: Overexploitation

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    Overexploitation (overharvesting) involves hunting, fishing, or otherwise collecting organisms at a faster rate than they can be replenished.

    Terrestrial Animals

    Terrestrial animals may be overexploited as sources of food, garments, jewelry, medicine, or pets. For example, the poaching of elephants for their valuable ivory and rhinos for their horns, which are used in traditional medicine, is a major threat to these species. There are also concerns about the effect of the pet trade on some terrestrial species such as turtles, amphibians, birds, plants, and even the orangutans. Harvesting of pangolins for their scales and meat, and as curiosities, has led to a drastic decline in population size (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). 

    A pangolin features dark brown scales and narrow head
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Pangolins are threatened by overexploitation. This work by David Brossard is licensed under CC-BY.

    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 monkeys and the great apes living in the Congo basin.

    Aquatic Animals

    Aquatic species are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation, which is more specifically called overfishing in this case. For about one billion people, aquatic resources provide the main source of animal protein (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)), but since 1990, production from global fisheries (areas for catching wild or farmed fish or other aquatic animals) has declined. Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\) illustrates the extent of overfishing in the U.S. Despite considerable effort, few fisheries are managed sustainability. For example, the western Atlantic cod fishery was a hugely productive fishery for 400 years, but the introduction of modern fishing vessels in the 1980s and the pressure on the fishery led to it becoming unsustainable. Bluefin tuna are in danger of extinction. The once-abundant Mediterranean swordfish fishery have been depleted to commercial and biological exhaustion.

    Many fishing boats are docked with a snowy mountain in the background.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): Fishing boats at marine fishers. Alaskan waters have been fished by people for thousands of years, but they are under pressure from modern fishing technologies and large-scale extraction. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
    Map shows stocks in the U.S. by region as of March 2020. Forty-eight stocks are on the overfished list, and 23 are on the overfishing list.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Map of overfishing and overfished stocks in the U.S. by region. Stocks on the overfishing list are being harvested too quickly, and those on the overfished list have population sizes that are too low. For example, stocks of Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, and Pacific sardines are overfished in the Pacific. Some species, including stocks of Pacific bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod, are on both the overfishing and overfished lists. Image by NOAA (public domain).

    Most fisheries are managed as a common resource, available to anyone willing to fish, 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 fishers have little motivation to exercise restraint in harvesting a fishery when they do not own the fishery. This results on overexploitation. 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 drive toward fishing the population to extinction.

    Overfishing can result in a radical restructuring of the marine ecosystem in which a dominant species is so overexploited that it no longer serves its ecological function. For example, overfishing a tertiary consumer could causes populations of secondary consumers to increase. Secondary consumers would then feed on primary consumes (like zooplankton), decreasing their population size. With fewer zooplankton, populations of primary producers (phytoplankton, or photosynthetic microorganisms) would be unregulated (see Food Chains). The collapse of fisheries has dramatic and long-lasting effects on local human populations that work in the fishery. In addition, the loss of an inexpensive protein source to populations that cannot afford to replace it will increase the cost of living and limit societies in other ways. In general, the fish taken from fisheries have shifted to smaller species, and the larger species are overfished. The ultimate outcome could clearly be the loss of aquatic systems as food sources.

    A related consequence of fishing practices is "bycatch," animals that fishers sometimes catch and discard because they do not want them, cannot sell them, or are not allowed to keep them. Bycatch can be fish, but also includes other animals such as dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and seabirds that become hooked or entangled in fishing gear.

    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 one percent of marine habitat. Most home marine aquaria house coral reef species that are wild-caught organisms—not cultured organisms. Although no marine species is known to have been driven extinct by the pet trade, 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.

    Plants and Fungi

    Some plant and fungal species are also overexploited, particularly if they are slow-growing. For example, stocks of wild ginseng, which is valued for its health benefits, are dwindling. Peyote cactus, which causes hallucinations and is used in sacred ceremonies, is also declining. Yarsagumba, dead moth larvae that were infected by fungal parasites (caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis), is overexploited because it is highly valued in traditional medicine and used as an aphrodisiac (figure \(\PageIndex{d}\)).

    A dried, yellow caterpillar with a dark fungal fruiting body protruding from its head
    Figure \(\PageIndex{d}\): Yarsagumba is a combination of moth larvae and the fungus that infected and killed it. Image by Punya (CC-BY-SA).


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 10.4: Overexploitation is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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