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Oceana Magazine Winter 2013: CEO's Note: Why Being “Sustainable” Is Not Enough

If you follow ocean conservation, you probably hear a lot of talk about “sustainable fishing.” Everyone from nonprofits to fisheries managers uses the term to describe leaving enough fish in the sea to reproduce and keep populations stable. To, at least, maintain the status quo.

But there’s a problem with sustainable fishing and the status quo—it all depends on the baseline. With the wrong baseline, we can fish “sustainably” and still take too many fish out of the sea, because we are failing to allow populations to rebuild from what is actually a historically depleted level. Dr. Daniel Pauly, an Oceana board member, one of the world’s leading fisheries scientists and a contributor to our magazine, has written extensively about this phenomenon, which he has memorably described as “shifting baselines.”

Here at Oceana, our goal is to rebuild ocean abundance. What do we mean by ocean abundance? We mean returning populations of fish and other marine species to their full potential, instead of just accepting the status quo. When you look at past accounts of our oceans, you find that the size and numbers of the fish in the sea were much, much larger. Lobsters, for example, were so plentiful in colonial America that it was forbidden to feed them to prisoners and indentured servants more than three times a week. Cod were so plentiful that early fisherman described the sea as literally bubbling with life. And, the fish caught in the early 20th century were sometimes so large that they sometimes dwarfed the fisherman proudly standing next to them in photos.

At Oceana, we want to see populations of marine creatures flourish once again, not just hold steady around a diminished baseline. We want to rebuild our oceans so they are once again healthy, diverse

ecosystems brimming with food and life. The oceans offer us a rare opportunity to return to a more plentiful past, because unlike many land-based ecosystems the habitat and animals are still there. And we know we can get there with better-managed fisheries, because fish have a remarkable ability to reproduce quickly. By putting in place science-based quotas, reducing bycatch, and protecting habitat in just nine countries and the EU, which catch two-thirds of the world’s seafood, we can bring the oceans back to abundance.

And, restoring this abundance in our oceans will be a critical step in safeguarding food security and our terrestrial environment for future generations. The world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and we’ll need to take dramatic steps to feed two billon more people. Our oceans can help meet this gap and provide one billion healthy seafood meals every day. This will lessen the need to rip up forests and prairies for agriculture, and drain aquifers to water our crops and livestock.

With better-managed fisheries, our oceans are guaranteed to rebound and provide a renewable source of protein for the world. But to get there we need to set goals that rebuild ocean abundance and do more than simply sustain a depleted status quo and oceans. It’s ambitious, but eminently possible with your help.

For the oceans,






Oceana is grateful for the grants, contributions, and support it has received from dozens of foundations and companies and thousands of individuals. Oceana wishes to thank all of its supporters, especially its founding funders as well as foundations that in 2012 awarded Oceana grants of $500,000 or more: Adessium Foundation, Arcadia Fund, Oak Foundation, Robertson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Sandler Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, and VELUX Foundations.