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Oceana Magazine Spring 2012: Save the Oceans and Feed the World

By Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans

What food requires no fresh water to produce? Produces little carbon dioxide? Doesn’t use up any arable land? And provides healthy, lean protein at a cost per pound lower than beef, chicken, lamb or pork, making it accessible to the world’s poor?

The answer: wild fish. And the humble fish will be critical to feeding the world in the coming decades as the human population continues to grow, passing 9 billion by 2050.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that the world must produce 70 percent more food to meet the coming hunger needs, from 270 million metric tons in 2009 to 470 million metric tons in 2050. But the resources needed to create that additional food are increasingly scarce or involve developing lands that have irreplaceable natural value, like rainforests. More frequent droughts due to climate change and the transfer of arable lands from agriculture to biofuels will also contribute to the declining land space available to grow crops and graze livestock.

Meanwhile, the poorest billion people on earth already depend upon fish as their primary source of animal protein. Cheap and accessible to anyone with a hook or net, fish – along with shellfish, octopi, sea cucumbers and more – have provided sustenance for humanity since the dawn of time.

And these creatures from the sea can play a critical role in feeding the world in the next decades, too. Most importantly, unlike farm-raised crops or livestock, wild seafood can feed the world sustainably while also shoring up the health of the oceans themselves.

It means that we’ve got an opportunity to protect the oceans while helping combat hunger around the world.

Wild fish is fundamentally different from many other natural resources in one important way: Unlike coal, gemstones, or natural gas, seafood is truly renewable. Most food fish reproduce at astonishing rates, with a female Atlantic bluefin tuna, for example, producing as many as 30 million eggs in one spawning season. Despite this fecundity, Atlantic bluefin tuna has become a posterchild for overfishing. But if that bluefin tuna were given the opportunity to reproduce and grow to maturity, its population could maintain healthy levels even as commercial fishing takes place.

Unfortunately, the global fishing fleet doesn’t, in general, fish sustainably. The historical record is packed with examples of fishing fleets decimating one fish population after another, moving on to the next species or region while leaving empty waters behind. Atlantic cod, salmon, roughy and Chesapeake Bay oysters are just a few famous examples. And thanks to $16 billion a year in government subsidies, the global fleet is an estimated 250 percent larger than needed to fish responsibly.

Despite all these boats on the water, many featuring high-tech methods for finding fish, the global fish catch peaked in the late 1980s and has been declining ever since. Some parts of the ocean are so overfished that jellyfish are now the largest biomass, moving in as their predators disappear.

So we have two diverging lines: World population, on a steady ascent, and global fish catch, on a bumpy but dogged decline.

Assuming per capita consumption of seafood stays the same, wild fish will no longer be a viable source of food and protein for much of the world in 2050. But if we apply sustainable fishing programs around the world, the trend is reversed dramatically – and we could have enough fish to feed more than 12 billion people, well above the 9.1 billion projected by the FAO. Looking at it another way, if we enact sustainable fishing and rebuild fish populations, per capita seafood consumption could rise by as much as 34 percent per person at a population of 9 billion, while still protecting wild fish, and the oceans, from collapse.

How do we save the oceans to feed the world? International action through the United Nations and other global bureaucratic bodies is difficult, expensive and time-consuming, and ultimately, many of those entities are essentially powerless. Instead, we can focus on the countries which control the world’s fish catch, as well as those countries which control the largest ocean territories, or “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs). Each country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles from shore, and those relatively shallow waters contain the vast majority of marine life: 99 percent of coral reefs and 88 percent of the global fish catch.

Individual nations have made great strides toward ocean conservation. A few examples from just the last couple of years: Belize banned all forms of trawling, the most devastating method of commercial fishing; the United States outlawed shark finning, which decimates the slow-growing top predators; Chile reduced the quota for jack mackerel, one of the country’s most important fisheries, to science-based levels. Chile and the U.S. are two of the largest fishing nations in the world, while Belize is home to a large portion of the world’s second-largest coral reef system, so these single-nation actions had huge benefits to the ocean.

Scientists know what steps need to be taken in order to protect wild seafood stocks: avoid overfishing by setting responsible catch limits; minimize bycatch, or the accidental killing of untargeted marine life; and protect habitat in the process of catching fish. Just as we have historical examples of fishing fleets driving fish populations past the brink of collapse, we also have seen fish rebound under science-based management.

Haddock, a white fish often used in fish and chips and other popular recipes, faced collapse along the Georges Bank in New England, one of the U.S.’s historic fishing regions. Under rampant overfishing, haddock catches began to drop precipitously in the 1960s until catch restrictions were imposed in 1994, leading to a rebound. Later, fishery managers imposed bottom trawling bans during spawning season, and established hard caps on haddock bycatch. As a result, haddock populations in the Georges Bank have returned to their pre-1960s levels. And with continued care, haddock will thrive, safeguarding a food source and fishing jobs.

In January, the U.S. announced it had set catch limits to prevent overfishing for every federally-managed fishery, both commercial and recreational, for the first time. The U.S. controls the largest amount of ocean of any nation, and ranks fourth in wild fish catch and third in total seafood consumption. This historic step, which confirms the U.S. as a world leader in sustainability, underscores the importance of national action to save the oceans to feed the world.