10/16/2013 08:43 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

World Food Day - Save the Oceans, Feed the World

In 1614, Captain John Smith arrived off the coast of Maine searching for minerals, whales, and wealth. But the greatest bounty he discovered was actually fish. Smith and his crew stumbled upon vast schools of cod, a valuable commercial fish and a kitchen staple in Europe. Dried or salted, the nourishment from North America's rich seas paved the way for colonization of a vast new continent.

Inevitably, these deep-water fish became an economic centerpiece of the New World. Cities like Boston transformed from basic settlements into thriving cities by trading cod for European goods and Caribbean sugar. But in the 1600s the world was a much less crowded place. Today, with the human population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, we have many more hungry mouths to feed. But like Smith, we sit on the edge of a potentially vast resource for fighting hunger: fish.

In the late 1980s -- more than 350 years after Smith boasted of endless bounty -- the Atlantic cod fishery collapsed. In a now-familiar story, overfishing, habitat destruction, and bycatch combined to decimate the once-robust cod schools. Tens of thousands of fishermen were out of work, and an affordable culinary staple since the 1600s all but disappeared from kitchens.

Unfortunately, we still haven't learned our lesson. We move from one species to another, ruthlessly fishing until all our hooks come up empty. When fisheries collapse, something more is lost besides one species in a sea of others. We lose an opportunity to feed needy people a source of healthy, wild protein.

No one wants to see seafood disappear from our dinner plates as fisheries collapse. But others won't survive these losses: 1 billion of the world's poorest people rely on seafood as their main source of animal protein. Until now, we've fed our increasingly crowded world by clearing more forest, planting more crops, and dumping more water and more fertilizer on the fields. But this cycle can't continue.

Thankfully, we have a rare opportunity to feed millions of people and restore the abundant oceans that John Smith encountered centuries ago. It's not a radical idea, but one backed by sound science and experience. Fish stocks can and will bounce back -- if we let them.

The formula is simple: set science-backed quotas, reduce bycatch, and protect habitats that foster marine life. It won't be as hard as you might think. Just 25 countries control 76 percent of the world's coastal oceans, and a mere 10 countries control 51 percent. We don't need an international treaty to resuscitate our oceans -- we just need to convince these key governments to better manage their fisheries.

This year, World Food Day is centered around sustainable food systems and their contribution to food security and nutrition. Healthier oceans are the key to strengthening worldwide food security and providing healthy protein to hungry people. According to a recent study in Science, the oceans could yield up to 40 percent more seafood if the world's fisheries are better managed. That means our oceans could feed 700 million people a healthy, wild seafood meal every day, forever. By saving the oceans we can feed the world.