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Oceana Magazine Spring 2012: CEO’s Note: How saving the oceans can feed the world

On terra firma, conservation and agriculture are at war. To optimize food production,we usually minimize biodiversity. The imperatives to steward life and to end hunger collide. We cut down forests to plant cornfields.

This moral dilemma will become ever more acute in the coming decades. There will be 9 billion of us by 2050, give or take a billion. Rising general standards of living will generate a disproportionately large increase in the demand for animal protein. To put it simply, the better off people get, the more they want chicken, steak and lobster.

Livestock production is an intensive user of increasingly scarce natural inputs. Feeding cattle, for example, requires huge quantities of arable land and fresh water. On a global basis, arable land per capita has already been steadily declining for decades.

The oceans can be a big part of the solution. If we save the oceans, we can help feed the world.

Ocean protein has huge advantages over terrestrial livestock. It is cheaper to produce per pound. It requires no land. It is much more CO2 efficient. It uses only trivial amounts of fresh water. And of course it is healthier for us – switching diets to fish from red meat has been shown to lower rates of heart disease and even cancer.

On a global basis, a fully productive ocean could provide the entire animal protein diet for a billion people, or 13 to 15 percent of the animal protein produced on the entire planet. However, almost no one is planning for the oceans to play this vital role in feeding humanity. Why? Because the world’s oceans’ productivity is already in decline. Starting in the late 1980s, the total weight of the world’s wild fish catch peaked. This long-term decline is even more serious because it is happening in the face of ever more sophisticated and aggressive commercial fishing techniques.

At first thought, this seems like a marine reprise of the terrestrial war between biodiversity and food production. To feed people, we’ve overfished the oceans, just like we’ve cut down the rainforests.

But think again. In the ocean, food production and biodiversity need not be at war – indeed, in a healthy ocean, they are allies. The measures we need to take to protect biodiversity – setting scientific catch quotas, protecting nursery habitat, reducing bycatch – are the same steps that will increase productivity.

Restoring ocean productivity and biodiversity is a surprisingly manageable task given that 61 percent of the world’s wild ocean fish are caught in the ocean territory of just 10 countries, and 86 percent in 25 countries.

Yet many of these countries lack an effective ocean policy advocate. A recent study showed that ocean philanthropists are spending nearly six times more per pound of fish in protecting biodiverse places rather than productive ones.

This creates a huge opportunity for strategic philanthropy. Oceana has shown that we can win sensible ocean policies at the national level. With more resources, we will go to the most productive parts of the world’s oceans and win the policies that will feed the planet while restoring and protecting their biodiversity.