It's World Oceans Day. Let's Talk About Food

06/08/2016 08:36 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2017
Black Striped Salema fish (Xenocys jessiae) in shoal, low angle view
Black Striped Salema fish (Xenocys jessiae) in shoal, low angle view

World Oceans Day might seem like an unusual time to talk about food. But in fact, our oceans are unique: they are the one place where two competing imperatives -- protecting our environment and feeding people -- can coexist. The same things we do to help restore healthy, vibrant oceans also help wild fish populations thrive, providing food to hundreds of millions of people.

This World Oceans Day, this exciting feature of our seas is especially important. The world population is now forecasted to grow by more than 2 billion people by 2050. That's the equivalent of adding another China and India to a global headcount that already includes some 795 million people without enough to eat. The UN has said that food production will have to increase by roughly 70 percent to keep up with the growing population. Ocean abundance has never been more vital.

Unfortunately, because of overfishing, scientific reports have shown that we are catching less than we have in the past. The global catch hit peak fish in 1996 and has declined ever since. This decline is a problem because wild ocean fish is already a vital source of protein worldwide, accounting for eight percent of all animal protein consumed by humans. For purposes of comparison, that's essentially equivalent to the amount of eggs eaten around the world.

Finding, catching and raising fish provides critical income to between 660 and 820 million people -- breadwinners who fish, work in a processing facility, or sell seafood and the families they support. And right now, in major fishing countries, there are at least 460 million hungry people and 1.7 billion people living in poverty. Put simply, more wild fish means more food and more jobs for many people already living on the edge.

It turns out that eating wild fish is also good for our health and the health of the planet. Studies have found that switching from red meat to seafood reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity. And, especially in comparison to land-based agriculture, wild fisheries produce modest amounts of greenhouse gas and require virtually no fresh water or arable land.

For all these reasons and more, wild fish is really the perfect protein. That's why it can be a critical part of how we feed our hungry planet. And, we can do more than reverse the decline in the world's fisheries; we have the ability to go beyond peak fish to a new level of catch, helping feed more people while protecting ocean biodiversity.

Fortunately, unlike rainforests or glaciers, study after study has shown that wild fish can recover remarkably quickly when we put in place science-based fisheries management. Many fish species spawn in large numbers, allowing them to bounce back in relatively few years when fisheries are properly managed. The United States has been a global leader in science-based fisheries management, and our experience is instructive. In 2000, 38 percent of U.S. fishing stocks were overfished. An amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006 helped establish science-based catch limits that would prevent fishers from taking more fish than the population could afford to lose. And last year, only 16 percent of our fisheries were considered overfished. While there is still work to do, it is clear that what we've started to do in the U.S. -- setting science-based catch limits, protecting key habitats, and reducing bycatch - are three principles that can help wild fish populations recover and endure.

If we embrace these principles around the world, the potential is breathtaking. It is estimated that rebuilding global fish stocks and managing them wisely could result in a catch of nearly 100 million metric tons of wild fish each year -- enough to feed 1.1 billion people a healthy meal every day. And enacting policies to make that happen doesn't require the level of global coordination you might expect. Just 29 countries and the European Union control 90 percent of the world's wild fish catch. If we establish science-based fisheries management in these countries, we can dramatically increase the global fish catch, delivering over 250 million more meals than if the current downward trend is allowed to continue.

And, at the same time, these same policies would help ensure that ocean ecosystems are more resilient and biodiverse. Preserving the environment and feeding people can and should coexist in our seas.

Today, on World Oceans Day, I encourage you think differently about the oceans. Full of vibrant, exciting life and natural beauty, the seas are also vast economic engines and a source of nourishment for our own future generations. With the right policies in place, we can help save the oceans and feed the world.