03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WTO And the Future of Fish

There are many fronts in the fight to protect the oceans. Last month, Ted Danson and I took the campaign to Geneva, Switzerland where we helped global trade negotiators connect their work with the health of the oceans.

International talks about trade and tariffs can seem far removed from the fate of fish and ocean wildlife. Yet the actions of the World Trade Organization have a direct impact on the oceans. Many nations subsidize their fishing fleets -- helping fishermen buy new or larger boats, or underwriting the fuel they use at sea. One study estimates the subsidy at up to $30 billion a year. The money translates into too many boats chasing too few fish, and helps those fleets travel far from home in a relentless hunt for fish to bring to market.

Either way, subsidies contribute to the disastrous decline in fish and threaten the future of the oceans.

We highlighted this problem in the new Monterey Bay Aquarium report, Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood. I joined Ted Danson, an award-winning actor and board member of the conservation group Oceana, to share that message in Geneva. In meetings with trade negotiators, we connected financial subsidies for commercial fishing with the destructive impacts that subsidies have on our living oceans.

The message was well received, and I'm hopeful our trip will make a difference.

Ted and I, along with Oceana's chief scientist, Michael Hirschfield, highlighted the state of the world's fisheries and the rise of the global sustainable seafood movement -- a movement in which the aquarium has played a major role through our Seafood Watch program.

Over the past decade, tens of millions of consumers have begun asking for sustainably caught seafood. That, in turn, has helped convince corporate giants, such as Walmart, Compass Group, Unilever and ARAMARK, to commit to buying sustainable seafood. This represents an enormous shift of buying power -- one that will affect how fish are caught and farmed worldwide.

Using trade policy to discourage subsidies that aggravate global overfishing will be an important step if we are going to turn the tide. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that more than 80 percent of the world's fisheries are overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted, or recovering from depletion. The pressure on our living oceans is driven by rising global demand for seafood in developed countries and increasing affluence in developing nations.

Progress on a comprehensive global trade agreement can be glacially slow, and fisheries subsidies are caught in the mix. There's also hope on another front: international climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Negotiators there may push to limit fuel subsidies for fishing fleets, as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

One thing is for sure: Solving our global fisheries crisis will require global solutions, and involvement from everyone. Making good choices about the seafood we eat is a great way for each of us to do our part.