02/26/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

$53 Million for Fish

Recently, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the enormous charitable foundation of New York City's former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced its Vibrant Oceans Initiative, a $53 million, five-year effort to boost fish populations in Brazil, the Philippines and Chile. Reforming fishing practices in these countries will revitalize 7 percent of the world's fisheries.

According to the Foundation website:

Proper management of fisheries can increase the number of fish in the ocean by 50%. Most of the world's fisheries are within national boundaries, allowing countries to implement management policies that can protect against harmful over-fishing. But we need a comprehensive approach that helps replenish fish populations more quickly, and creates a more sustainable and fruitful environment for all fishers.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is applying a groundbreaking approach to fisheries management that for the first time will focus on reforming both industrial and local fishing simultaneously. Reforming both in the same place at the same time will have a much larger impact than targeting one or the other because local fishers and industrial vessels catch roughly equal amounts of fish for food. To put this bold approach into motion, the Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative brings together three world-class partners with distinct areas of expertise:

1. OCEANA: INDUSTRIAL FISHING More than 80% of the world's fisheries are either over-exploited, at risk of becoming so, or recovering from over-exploitation. Oceana is advocating for national policies that help reform large-scale, industrial fishing practices. These policies include working with governments to set and enforce science-based limits on the amount of fish that can be caught, and reduce the amount of sea life that is unintentionally caught and killed then discarded back into the ocean.

2. RARE: LOCAL FISHING There are 12 million small-scale fishers that operate within 15 km from shore. Rare is working with local governments, organizations and residents in coastal communities to implement more sustainable fishing management systems with local fishers in mind. Reforms include exclusive fishing rights for coastal fishers in exchange for creating protected areas where fish are able to reproduce unharmed.

3. EKO ASSET MANAGEMENT PARTNERS: FINANCING Both local and industrial fishers tend to over-fish for basic survival, or due to the short-term economic benefits. As an alternative to harmful over-fishing, EKO Asset Management Partners is developing investment blueprints that will let private capital create financial incentives and rewards for fishers who transition to more sustainable fishing practices.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative is the largest philanthropic commitment to internationally reform fisheries management. This effort will help Brazil, Chile and the Philippines sustainably manage their fisheries, enhance food security, and strengthen local communities. Vibrant Oceans' groundbreaking approach to fisheries reform has the potential to be scaled to other parts of the world, and to substantially change the way coastal communities and the fishing industry operate. By encouraging more responsible fishing globally, we can protect our oceans and a vital source of food and income for future generations."

This is a huge initiative in concept, in strategy, and in dollars. It might make a powerful difference. But it is based on logic, transparency, compelling economic persuasion, and broad-based cooperation between industry, local fishers, governments, and the organizations selected to implement. So: big idea, best intentions. I wish it well. But I also wish some small amount of those funds might first be devoted to a quiet, perhaps more cynical, less lofty strategy of investigation of the status quo, applying the formidable legal and forensic skills required to understand precisely how a complicated, corrupt system works now. Find the worst case and show it to the world. The use of flags of convenience, inter-locking directorates, international management agreements, off-shore tax havens, and every other trick in the book of how to get around any existing law or regulatory control is the common, corrupt practice that has brought the fishing industry to a crisis of such magnitude that it drives species and communities toward extinction and demands reform of comparable scale. There has been (and one would expect to remain) massive, invisible, significant intentional illegality at work here, corruption so pervasive and at so many levels, as surely in Brazil, Chile, and the Philippines as elsewhere worldwide. How are we to reform such a system, if we do not know exactly how it works, exactly who is involved, and exactly how they will be neutralized by the new strategies? This is organized crime, perhaps not so many perpetrators, but enormous profits at stake. Indeed, so vast that $53 million seems but a drop in the ocean.