We Can Save the Oceans and Feed the World

06/08/2015 07:19 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016
© Steve De Neef

World Oceans Day can provide a moment to pause and reflect on the beauty of the oceans or the wonder of the wild creatures that inhabit it. But as we reminisce about moments we've spent by the sea, we should also stop to think about the millions of hungry people that depend on our oceans as a primary source of food. A recent study showed that ocean philanthropists are spending nearly six times more to protect biodiverse places rather than productive ones, and poor management practices are putting the essential food resource of wild seafood in jeopardy. With a fishing industry supported by $16 billion a year in government subsidies, it's no wonder our oceans are subject to overfishing: scientists report that the amount of fish caught began declining for the first time in recorded history just a few decades ago. That's bad news, but it is recent news, too. If we take action quickly, we can have a huge effect on helping ocean abundance rebound.

We have no time to waste. The UN predicts the world population will grow from seven billion to more than nine and a half billion by 2050 -- and the world must produce 70 percent more food to keep pace. Seafood can be a huge part of the answer to feeding the world. Wild seafood requires minimal fresh water to produce, emits 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. It turns out our oceans can, if properly tended, provide a nutritious meal every day for 700 million people [Oceana calculation].

So how do we stop overfishing, and encourage fish populations to rebound? It's an achievable goal, when tackled with a country-by-country approach. As it turns out, 25 countries and the European Union produce and control 90 percent of the world's wild seafood. By putting in place science-based fisheries management in these places first, we can have a huge impact on allowing fish stocks to recover. Many fish reproduce at astonishing rates, with some producing millions of eggs in one spawning season. Fish populations can bounce back quickly when responsible ocean policies are put into place and they are given a break.

Protecting and replenishing wild-seafood stocks is best achieved by tackling three key issues: avoiding overfishing by setting responsible catch limits; minimizing bycatch, or accidental harm to marine life; and protecting key fisheries habitat. There are many examples of fish rebounding once science-based management is implemented. For example, since a discard ban was imposed for cod in Norway in 1987, the stock has increased to nearly nine times its previous level. In Japan, protecting habitat from bottom trawling increased the snow crab catch by 240 percent. In Kenya, a ban on fine-mesh nets boosted income 60 percent by providing more fish for poor fishing families. The United States in 2002 had 86 overfished stocks, representing 36% of the country's fisheries. By 2014, this was down to 37 overfished stocks or 16% of the total.

One way we all can help fisheries rebound is to make better seafood choices. Instead of eating from the top of the food chain and consuming predator fish, like tuna and salmon, opt for smaller, shorter-lived species, which can make for some of the most sustainable selections. Fish like anchovies, sardines, mackerel and herring are known as "forage" fish, because they play a crucial role in food webs in some of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. They are the main prey and pathway for energy transfer from creatures with very low trophic levels -- plankton -- to those with higher trophic levels -- predatory fish, birds, and mammals.

Forage fish form massive shoals that are targeted by some of the largest fisheries on earth, but they are rarely seen on restaurant menus. Instead, they are mainly used to make fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish like salmon, as well as chickens, pigs and other livestock. These "reduction" fisheries account for an enormous 20% of all the marine fish caught worldwide according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Peruvian anchoveta alone account for 6 to 8% of all fish -- by weight -- caught in the oceans. Yet more than 95% of all of these anchovies are "reduced" into fishmeal and fish oil. Simply eating more forage fish and reducing our reliance on protein from livestock -- along with scientific management of the world's fisheries -- will enable us to put less pressure on the planet in the form of demand for fresh water, use of arable land, and emission of climate changing gases: a win for the planet, for the oceans, and for millions of hungry people. Let's work together to save the oceans and feed the world.

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.