05/08/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Bigger Fish to Fry: How About Saving the Oceans?

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Most people no longer hunt and gather to fulfill basic nutritional needs. But for thousands of years, the rigors of hunting and gathering kept the human population in check. Gradual mastery of agriculture and livestock husbandry over the last few centuries has enabled our kind to grow exponentially.

However, when it comes to ocean resources, we continue to pretty much follow our forebears' methods -- with one significant difference. Today's maritime hunter-gatherers use sophisticated technologies to vacuum whole sections of ocean, inhaling resources at rates that in many cases exceed the capacity of marine ecosystems to replenish populations of fish, crustaceans and other valuable marine life.

A growing human population, coupled with rising purchasing power in rapidly developing middle-income countries, is inflating demand at a time when many of the world's fisheries have reached their maximum potential, or are declining. Close to 90 percent of all fish stocks have been fully exploited or overexploited, and all too often, the damage is permanent.

Fish provide 3 billion people with 20 percent of their intake of animal protein, according to FAO. In developing countries, 116 million jobs are linked to fishery value chains. The reduction in yields disproportionally affects the poor, both at table and in their pocket. What's more, when fish supplies decline -- for example, along the coast of West Africa -- sharp reductions are also seen in terrestrial wildlife populations. As the impact of unsustainable fishing washes ashore, it promotes bush meat hunting and spreads ecological havoc, further magnifying food security risks for already vulnerable populations.

The main drivers of overfishing remain largely unchanged. Uncertain governance and dubious rights of access to fisheries prevent effective management. Fishery administrations tend to focus on expanding capacity rather than effectively managing marine resources. Government subsidies exacerbate this situation by promoting overcapacity of fishing fleets and masking the declining returns from unsustainable fisheries. The annual global economic loss from unsustainable fishing has risen to an estimated $50 billion.

But promising action is taking place focusing on small-scale fisheries. Somewhat overlooked in the grand scheme of ocean things, this sector employs 90 percent of all fishermen and is responsible for 50 percent of total fish catch by volume. Small-scale fisheries management builds on scientific evidence which points to marine life being a stubborn bunch. If you treat them well for a little while, populations can return to healthier conditions, provided that the ecosystems have not been damaged by biodiversity and marine habitat abuses.

Pilot initiatives have therefore focused on community-based management approaches, tailored to the needs of fish populations, to implement governance systems. Marine protected areas and no-take zones (where no extractive activity is allowed) have delivered positive results as fishery management tools -- with the former able to harbor twice as many large fish species, five times more biomass and fourteen times more shark biomass than fished areas. These gains spill over to areas where fishing can take place on a more sustainable basis.

Growing awareness to the plight of the oceans presents an opportunity to change our ways. The World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the FAO and a range of non-traditional organizations are focusing renewed attention to the importance of fisheries.

Likewise, the "50in10" coalition is bringing together public and private partners in a campaign to restore 50 percent of the world's fisheries in 10 years. And Bloomberg Philanthropies has provided $53 million to the "Vibrant Oceans Initiative" through which Rare, Oceana and EKO Asset Management will concentrate efforts to return fisheries to sustainability in the Philippines and Brazil. Another initiative, "Fish Forever", led by Rare and partners, is scaling up a proven fisheries co-management approach for near-shore artisanal fishery communities in five tropical developing countries.

What happens at sea significantly impacts the livelihoods of billions of people on land. As this realization sinks in, the world community is finally coming together to secure the needed financial resources and build the political will necessary for the adoption, dissemination, and boosting sustainable practices. At last, the globally agreed target that "by 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem based approaches," has a glimmer of a chance of being achieved.

Let's rally around it to make it happen.