On Earth Day, Reasons for Optimism About Ocean Health

Environment

On Earth Day, Reasons for Optimism About Ocean Health

Author Barry Gold
Barry Gold

Environment Program Director

At the Our Oceans conference last September in Washington, Rob Walton sounded an optimistic note about the future for fishing.

“We believe fishing can be the sustainability success story of the 21st century,” he said.  

That optimism is based on success stories achieved through hard work – and it is tempered by realism about the challenges to change in the industry. It has been 20 years now since the idea of “sustainable seafood” first took hold and about a decade since major retailers committed to sourcing sustainable seafood.

As the appetite for sustainable seafood has grown, the question has turned to supply: Can the world catch and sustainably grow sustainable seafood at a scale sufficient to meet that rising demand?

We believe it can – and it must.

There is not any one magic answer to improving how an industry as complex as fishing improves its practices.

Success comes when we take a systems approach – working on both the supply and demand side. That includes:

  • Empowering fishermen and local communities through rights-based management approaches that provide them with secure tenure rights. 
  • Making science-based decisions about annual catch limits, habitat protection and timelines for rebuilding fish stocks. 
  • Harnessing the market for sustainable seafood to build demand for healthy fisheries practices. 
  • Building capacity for fishermen, governments and civil society. 
  • Reforming public policies to create positive incentives that encourage responsible fishing. 

Fisheries play a key role in maintaining the health of our oceans. But overfishing can significantly alter that overall dynamic, impacting the health of fish populations, ocean biodiversity and the structure and function of ecosystems. 

We have seen that when the incentives are aligned, and fisheries are properly managed, they provide increased income and stability for coastal communities and the fishing industry. And they improve ocean health.


Two regions in the world demonstrate how this theory of change is actually working for fishermen and fish.


The first is Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1,500 small islands in Indonesia.

For the past 11 years, the Walton Family Foundation has worked together with Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and many other partners to create a network of marine protected areas in the Bird’s Head region.

Why Indonesia?

It is the world’s second largest fishing nation, a nation of 238 million people who depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. 

Nine million fishing jobs – many of which are in the small-scale fisheries sector – depend on healthy fisheries. 

Overall, Indonesia exported nearly $5 billion in seafood in 2013. A recent study indicates that, if Indonesia’s fisheries are managed sustainably, fishing communities could, by 2050, be earning nearly $2.3 billion more each year.

This is a clear example of how economic and social well-being are linked to environmental health.

I visited the Bird’s Head region in February to see our work firsthand. Leaders from across the region came together during the visit to sign an agreement to fish sustainably. They have built trust in each other and with those of us from the outside. They see the benefits of a network of protected areas.

The rate of illegal fishing in the region is now declining dramatically. There are more fish and they are bigger. Fishermen are fishing smarter, not harder, with greater food security for their families and communities.

A similar success story is happening closer to home – in the Gulf of Mexico, where fishing has been in decline for decades.

In 2006, Congress reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The law laid the groundwork for a new approach by requiring that the best available science be used to establish annual catch limits and rigorous time lines for rebuilding fish stocks. 

A year later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration introduced a new management system in the Gulf of Mexico for the red snapper fishery, which strengthened monitoring and gave participants the right to catch a set percentage of total catch.

As the number of red snapper increased, so did each fisherman’s share of the pie. This gave them an incentive to think about long-term, rather than immediate, profits.

Fishermen pushed for a 40% reduction in annual catch limits so the stock could recover. As a result, red snapper have rebounded so strongly that, overall, Gulf snapper fishermen can land nearly three times more snapper today than they could in 2008. Revenues are up 70% and commercial fishing has become safer.

Other parts of the U.S. are seeing similar benefits.

Since 2000, the number of fish stocks declared “overfished” has dropped, from 92 to 38. Forty-one stocks have been rebuilt to healthy populations. American jobs supported by domestic fisheries now number 1.83 million, up 15% since 2011. 

It’s true that recovery is not happening in every fishery or in every fishing community. There is much more work to do and we cannot afford to go backwards. 

But we know what works. 

The opportunity we see is in creating new partnerships among conservation, business and communities to restore the health of oceans and rivers.

There is momentum for a new, coordinated approach that expands the network of players involved, coordinates around shared goals and shares the tools and approaches that work.

Our challenge is to come together— as individuals, as organizations, as governments — to learn from the success stories and take the actions necessary to leave a healthy environment for the future.

Adapted from remarks to the Smithsonian Earth Optimism summit.

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