Want to feed the world? Save oceans first

Andrew Sharpless
Sustainable fishing can help feed the more than 9 billion people expected to populate the Earth in 2050

Imagine a world with empty oceans. Gone are the glittering shoals of sardines, delicious lobsters, and agile tuna. Hook after hook comes up empty, leaving millions of fishermen with no way to earn a living and millions more people without food. 

Our oceans aren’t empty quite yet, but overfishing is already decimating many ecosystems, leaving fishermen with empty nets and people with empty plates.

Commercial species are being caught at unsustainable rates, leaving many once robust fishing areas overfished – including 75% of fishing grounds in the Philippines, a nation of more than 7,000 islands where fish is the main source of animal protein for the majority of the population. This decline is worrisome for both the oceans and for us, because fish and food security go hand in hand. (READ: Saving Nemo: The truth about the marine aquarium trade)

There are already 7 billion people on Earth, and this figure is expected to grow to a staggering 9 billion people by 2050. Although that’s only a 30% increase in population from current levels, the United Nations predicts that our demand for food for will actually grow by 70%, as rising incomes increase the demand for a meat-heavy, Western diet.

Right now one billion people on this planet suffer from hunger, and we don’t have enough arable land and freshwater to feed two billion more without incurring severe losses to the natural world. Agriculture is the largest driver of biodiversity loss on the planet. Grasslands and forests are being razed to plant crops that are used to feed livestock, not humans.

But there is another way – a source of healthy protein that can feed millions of people without further degrading the environment: wild seafood.

DEPLETED RESOURCES. Overfishing is endangering the abundance of oceans and ultimately food security for humans. Photo courtesy of Oceana

Studies show that with better management measures we can potentially increase the global fish catch by up to 40% from current levels. If we can halt the decline and rebuild ocean abundance we will be able to feed nearly a billion people a healthy seafood meal each day.

And it’s not just about food security. Seafood requires no land, little to no fresh water, and is much healthier for us than red meat. Studies show that switching to seafood from beef reduces the prevalence of cancer, heart disease and obesity. It’s also healthier for the planet, too, because seafood generates little to no toxic emissions, unlike the vast amounts of methane created by cows and other livestock.

But for seafood to be a viable food source for the future, we need to fix how we fish and reverse decades of decline and poor fisheries management. Rebuilding fish populations will also restore biodiversity to our seas.

We don’t just need more fish — we need more sharks and other top predators to help restore balance to marine ecosystems. How often do we have a chance to protect the environment and help people?

Not only is this a rare opportunity, but it’s something that we can accomplish without sweeping international agreements. The European Union and 25 countries control more than 90% of all the fish caught in the world. If they implement better management, the oceans will rebound.

Funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Oceana will work with governments in the Philippines, Chile, and Brazil to strengthen the 3 pillars of good fisheries management: setting sensible catch levels, reducing waste and protecting the natural habitat. We also hope to protect juvenile fish, deter illegal fishing, and ensure access to fishing grounds for traditional fishermen and their communities.

We want to see our oceans restored to their past abundance, able to provide food and livelihoods for the millions of people who rely on them. And we can’t wait to get started. – Rappler.com

Andrew Sharpless is the Chief Executive Officer of Oceana, an international conservation organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. Oceana, the largest organization in the world dedicated solely to marine conservation, is soon opening its first office in Asia in the Philippines, supported by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. This piece was republished with permission from Devex.