06/05/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Redefining "Sustainability" as More, More and, Well, More


Since its birth in 1987, for many, the term "sustainable development" has become synonymous with "less."

"Sustainability" seemed to lock us into a static, zero-sum game of painful sacrifices. Facing finite or shrinking ecological limits, we felt forced to: ensure future food security only by inhibiting demands today; increase jobs and revenues only at the expense of wild nature; and restore wildness only by crimping economic growth.

But this week, groundbreaking research redefines sustainability more positively. Two years' collaboration with university scientists revealed that, through a transition to sustainable fishing -- harvesting smarter, not harder -- the oceans can yield far more, across the board.

Preliminary results of our "upside model" show that, within just 10 years, profits can grow 115 percent to $51 billion USD a year compared to today, if all fisheries worldwide were managed sustainably. Importantly, this economic growth doesn't come at the cost of other goals: both seafood production and fish biomass in the ocean would also increase.

However, if fishery reforms are not adopted and status quo remains, the health of the oceans will continue to decline. Under this scenario, the benefits of sustainable fishing are even more striking: globally fisheries could produce 17 MMT (or 23 percent) more wild seafood and generate $90 billion USD (or 315 percent) more in profits each year. The biomass of fish in the water would be 112 percent greater, making our oceans healthier and enabling them to deliver more food and profits for the long-term.

Sounds too good to be true? Experience from around the world shows the powerful, regenerative force of the oceans. Countries including Australia, Chile, Denmark, Namibia, Norway, and the United States are reversing overfishing, reviving coastal communities, and bringing their oceans back to life.

We've examined hundreds of fisheries around the world and found that a key to recovery is providing fishermen with secure, long-term rights to the resource in exchange for requirements to adhere to science-based limits on catch. This unlocks an important stewardship incentive: fishermen benefit financially as fish populations rebound.

After decades of decline in the U.S., this rights-based approach, called "catch shares", was adopted in many of the biggest commercial fisheries. Fish populations are now rebounding while the number of fishing jobs has increased 23% and fishing revenues are up 30%. Even fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, hard hit by the BP oil disaster, are doing better: red snapper catches have more than doubled, revenues have increased by 108%, and today there are three times more red snapper in the ocean. Last month, with two-thirds of fish caught in federal under catch shares, the U.S. government announced that overfishing is at an all-time low.

This kind of progress can also be found in fishing villages in the developing world.

Consider Belize, which suffered sharp declines in reef fish and conch; spiny lobster harvests shrank from 200 to 20 per day for many fishermen. Then two communities tried a new approach called "managed access", granting them secure rights to their historical fishing areas, and everything changed. Early adopters saw a dramatic decline in illegal fishing, fish populations rebounded, and fishing businesses grew. Fishermen became champions of nearby marine protected areas. Word spread up the coast until nearly all 3,000 fishermen wanted the same opportunities. Last week, Belize voted to take the approach nationwide in the next year.

The world's fisheries face real threats. But experience and science show that we can have a dramatically better future. Done right, fishing can be a positive force in a world that needs it, generating more prosperity, more food, and more abundance for all.

Amanda Leland is Senior Vice President, Oceans, at Environmental Defense Fund.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.