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Oceana Magazine Fall 2008: CEO's Note: Betting on Blue

In an article titled Betting on Green, the Wall Street Journal reported that "venture capitalists are pouring money into clean energy companies." These investors have concluded that there are jobs to be created and money to be made from an economy that sustainably manages the earth's atmosphere. 

What would it take to catalyze the same insight about our commercial ocean fisheries?

Science (December 7, 2007) published a paper showing that fishing sustainably increases profits to the commercial fishing industry. In other words, what we marine conservationists want is actually terrific for business. 

Economists working at the Australian National University and at the University of Washington modeled tuna, prawn, and orange roughy fisheries and discovered that abundant fisheries are more profitable in every case. The reason is simple: The faster you catch your quota, the less money you spend on fuel and expenses, and the more money you take to the bank.

In other words, there is no conflict between marine conservation and a good strong commercial fishing industry.

Unfortunately, some commercial fishing companies are not actually fishing for fish - they're fishing for taxpayer subsidies. Incentives are heavily distorted by the payment of more than $20 billion in capacity-promoting subsidies to the global commercial fishing industry. Given the depleted state of the world's oceans - nearly a third of all commercial fisheries have already collapsed - many of these companies would not be profitable at all without the money they take in from taxpayers.

In February, researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis unveiled a world map that demonstrated the extent of human activity in the oceans. By overlaying 17 different activities - including fishing - the researchers demonstrated that more than 40 percent of the world's oceans are heavily affected by human activity, and that virtually no waters are still pristine.

Taxpayer-supported fishing is a major factor in the decimation of the world's oceans. The good news is that this tragic situation may be on the verge of being fixed. And the heroism comes from an unlikely source - the World Trade Organization (WTO). This body sets the rules for international trade, and late in 2007 it published a draft text which would prohibit the subsidies that are driving ocean collapse. 

Oceana praised the WTO's proposed text as an essential step in restoring and protecting abundant oceans. Together with allies in the international science community and a broad coalition of environmental, consumer, and business interests, we are working to support a WTO outcome that stops paying companies to overfish. It seems possible that when the conservation history of this decade is written, the most important conservation victory for the oceans will have been written by scientifically-grounded diplomats and free traders in Geneva.

If the WTO carries through on eliminating the subsidies for overfishing, they will not only put more fish back into the sea, but they will put more profits into the pockets of the commercial fishing industry.

Not a bad picture, is it? It's time to bet on blue at the WTO.