The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Public Perception of the Ocean Differs from Actual Ocean Status

Here at CFOOD, we work to correct misconceptions about fishing and sustainable seafood (check out our myths page). Recently, fishery scientist Trevor Branch polled his twitter followers and exposed some misperceptions that people have on the state of the ocean.

Comment by Trevor A. Branch, University of Washington

Recently on Twitter I posed three polls1 about the status of the oceans to gauge people’s perceptions. Here are the three questions, the correct answers, and the results of each poll.

Correct answer: One marine fish species has gone extinct in the last 100 years.

A 2003 review found three extinct marine species: green wrasse (Anampses viridis) off Mauritius; Galapagos damsel (Azurina eupalama); and New Zealand grayling (Protoctes oxyrhynchus). However, the extinct New Zealand grayling was amphidromous, spending more than half of its life in freshwater and is here excluded as a marine species. Additionally, green wrasse, known only from the three original specimens collected in the 1800s, is now considered to be a case of mistaken identity of another widespread species. This leaves the Galapagos damsel, which has not been sighted since the 1982 El Niño and is almost certainly extinct.

We should not be complacent though: the same 2003 review found 59 local population extinctions from small areas of habitat, and two regional extinctions from substantial parts of an ocean basin. In addition, many species of fish are listed as critically endangered or endangered. For instance, although no sawfishes are globally extinct, at least 43 countries have lost one or more species in this charismatic group. Freshwater fish species are far more prone to extinction: the IUCN estimates that 69 freshwater fish species are extinct or extinct in the wild. It is also possible that known extinctions may under-represent true extinctions, and that some species may have gone extinct before they were formally described. For instance, extrapolations of U.S. data suggest as many as 410 freshwater fish species may have gone extinct worldwide.
A striking finding of the poll is that only 11% of respondents (out of 237) selected the correct choice. Most respondents believed that more than 100 marine species had gone extinct, which is wrong by two orders of magnitude.

Correct answer: Most large whale populations have increased in the last 40 years.

Commercial whaling substantially depleted most populations of large whales. For example Antarctic blue whales were reduced from 239,000 to a low of 360 individuals. But by the early 1970s, whaling had ended on the most threatened species such as blue whales, gray whales, right whales, and humpback whales. This time point also marked the end of the illegal whaling program run by the Soviet Union, which killed hundreds of thousands of whales. Since then, nearly all populations have increased. A review in 1993 found increasing trends in 77% of the large whale populations that were feasible to monitor, and a review in 2009 found 20 populations that were increasing, 18 of which had increase rates statistically higher than zero. Although trends for many populations cannot be feasibly obtained, of those that can be monitored, few are declining.

The correct answer to the poll was “most have increased”, which was the most chosen option, but 56% of respondents incorrectly thought that most populations have declined or remained stable over the last 40 years. Once again, there was a disconnect between public perceptions of ocean status and actual ocean status.

Correct answer: 17% of US marine fisheries are currently overfished.

Every quarter, the U.S. government agency tasked with assessing and managing marine fisheries (NOAA) releases a report on their status. For the quarter ending June 30, 2016, there were 29 overfished marine fish stocks out of the 170 that had been assessed, or 17% of the total. Many other U.S. fish stocks are not assessed, usually those that are small, lightly fished, and of little commercial value.

The U.S. does better than the world as a whole. For large fisheries worldwide, the most authoritative report from the United Nations in 2016 found that 31.4% of marine fisheries are overfished, 58.1% sustainably fished, and 10.5% lightly fished. Smaller fisheries are less well studied but may be worse off. Thus, while the U.S. is doing better than most countries in managing their fisheries, the U.S. is still far from ensuring 100% sustainable fisheries.

Fully 63% of respondents to the poll believed, incorrectly, that more than 20% of U.S. fisheries were overfished, compared to 16% that under-estimated the true percentage. Yet again, poll respondents demonstrated a belief that ocean status is worse than the truth. One caveat to the poll: since the poll did not specify marine fisheries, it is possible that respondents were thinking about freshwater and recreational fisheries, which may have greater percentages of overfished stocks.


For all three questions asked, most respondents believed that ocean status was worse than the truth. While the recovery of large whale populations after whaling ended is certainly a reason to be optimistic about the ocean, we should all be concerned about the many local extinctions of fish species, and the high number of overfished species in the US (17%) and worldwide (31%), never mind additional issues such as climate change, ocean acidification and pollution. The truth is hardly optimistic, but people’s beliefs are still more pessimistic than the truth.

I don’t have a good answer for why there is an apparent disconnect between perceptions and reality regarding ocean health. Reasons may include the unscientific poll design, the notion that bad news is spread faster than good news, or the success of campaigns like Save the Whales in educating the public about dangers to ocean health. Regardless of the reason for these perceptions, we need to realize that the public is already more than aware of threats to ocean health. What is needed now is action to reverse overfishing, prevent extinctions, and allow the continued rebuilding of whale populations.

Trevor Branch is an Associate Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter @TrevorABranch
1Many of my twitter followers (@TrevorABranch) are fisheries scientists, conservationists, and fishers, and might be expected to be better informed about ocean status than the general public. Nevertheless, the polls are unscientific and likely differ from a poll conducted by a reputable polling agency on a large, random sample of people.

Share this story:


Subscribe to our newsletter:

Read more:

7 Responses

  1. Despite all the caveats about the scientific value of the poll that you well describe at the end of the article, bad news are NEWS while good news aren’t, as you pointed out. That does mean that it is bad that the perception from the public is worse than reality, because despite all that, many things still get wrong by the lack of consumer demand and market response to certain questions related to sustainability in fisheries. The question remains on certainty about sustainable fish sales when you go to markets.That is another bussinees!!!

  2. Interesting. Regarding the footnote, would your guess be for a more optimistic perception if the followers had been mostly members of a fishing association? And, conversely, more pessimistic if conducted amongst followers of an eNGO?

    Anyway, what matters is that there is an underlying baseline to compare perception against reality. Unfortunately, some conservation campaigns are conducted on the basis of perception, without any attention to reality.

  3. exactly. The data are biased. Like fishing with dip net in shoreline and interring lake level relative frequencies. Data are no good I think.

  4. Trevor, I’d enjoy interviewing you about your public perception findings for my print/broadcast outlets. Is there a time we can connect this week? Tx, Laine Welch/Kodiak, AK

  5. Unfortunately, using the ICN as a source seems highly questionable.
    . They made the ridiculous claim that American eel is in danger of extinction, complete with no available peer review of thi idea. (See http://cfooduw.org/iucn-red-lists-the-american-eel/)
    Similarly, the claim that 17% of US stocks are overfished is unreliable. In the case of marine fishery stock assessment, overfishing is in the eye of the beholder. These findings are frequently biased, and based on some criteria that assumes constant M and erroneously ascribes increases in M to F, and usually has no concept of compensatory ability be fish populations. The use of an SPR “proxy” for MSY which is so common here, allows for no compensation and assumes low constant M.

  6. Considering that several very large “charitable” foundations have been spending tens of millions of dollars annually to convince the public (and the pols) that fishing is the ruination of the world’s oceans (see http://www.fishtruth.net/PDF/PewMedia.pdf and http://fishtruth.net/PDF/Num1_Antis_Updated.pdf for a brief intro to this campaign, which is still ongoing. A more recent effort from October 2015 is at http://fisherynation.com/whos-really-in-charge-of-u-s-fisheries-nils-stolpe-fishnetusa) your results aren’t at all surprising.

Leave a Reply

Ray Hilborn's every-so-often newsletter

The best way to keep up with our stories.