fin whales

Restoring Ocean Pastures and Fish Is A Win For Business, Community, and Environment

The oceans which make up 70% of this Blue Planet are candidates for being the world’s largest scale, human-made disaster and the world’s best opportunity to restore.

According to Seafood Watch more than 85 percent of fisheries are “fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed.”  While there are future concerns about other food supplies, the seafood industry’s worst nightmares have been with us for many years. This makes restoring ocean pastures and fisheries an interesting and likely lucrative investment opportunity, says a new report by the EKO Asset Management Partners, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The state of the ocean is most critically tied to what are known  as “ocean pastures.”  These pastures, like those on land, are the foundation of ocean life. As the ocean pastures have declined dramatically over the past 50+ years so have the fish that depend on those pastures to survive. The cause of ocean pasture collapse is a result of high and rising CO2 in the world’s atmosphere and the impact that CO2 is shown to have in reducing the amount of vital minerals that reach the ocean pastures via dust in the wind.

rockefeller_logo“There is an emerging recognition by industry of the imminent collapse of fisheries,” says Fred Boltz, Managing Director of Ecosystems for the Rockefeller Foundation. “There is an industry appetite to move toward sustainable sourcing and that progress toward sustainability seems to be a continuing trend.  And unlike many terrestrial ecosystems and species, fisheries and marine ecosystems are extraordinarily resilient.  So even those on the verge of collapse, given a rest can rebound quite quickly.”

This has recently been seen in the restoration of a key ocean fish pasture in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012. The privately funded effort raised many a skeptical eyebrow until last fall when the largest catch of salmon in Alaska sate history swam into the nets of fishermen. Instead of the 50 million Pink salmon expected in the catch 226 million fat pasture fed salmon were caught. This brought more than half a billion dollars into the pockets of the Alaskan commercial fishery. Read the Fish Came Back.

Another part of the crisis in fisheries comes from over-fishing. Much of that over-fishing  occurs in poorer regions of the world where people are reliant upon the trade for their livelihoods.  Boltz says about half of all fish landed worldwide are caught by small-scale fishers in developing regions of the world.

“Small scale fishers are not transitioning to sustainability,” says Boltz.  For example artisanal fishers in Indonesia or Fiji for example have difficulty tapping into market channels catering to customers who care about sustainable seafood, giving them little incentive to fish sustainably.  Inevitably the focus on overfishing as a single cause of the collapse of fisheries means ideas put forward to create a sustainable fishery usually means closing off areas to fishing. This in communities that have few other options for work and that just doesn’t work.

“Fish is a critical source of protein for all of humanity,” says Boltz.  “And it is an industry that is facing imminent stock collapse while there is also increasing demand from a growing human population.  Only an ecosystem approach where first the carrying capacity of the ocean pastures must be replenished and restored so that the we can bring the fish back. This then alleviates the issue of over-fishing as fish returned to historic abundance can provide a productive and prosperous fishery.

Three factors make the seafood industry different from other parts of the food system and therefore requires unique investing.

  • Fish is the only food we still eat at scale which comes from a wild harvest.  Although farmed fish is now available around the world, almost 60 percent of the seafood we eat still comes from wild fisheries.

  • Unlike “meats” which are made up a few animals (cows, chickens, hogs), “seafood” includes thousands of species, caught in dramatically different locations and conditions.

  • While meat or produce supply chains are now controlled by very few players, the seafood industry is still made up of all scales of fishery participants from large to small-scale fishers, buyers, processors and wholesalers.

While the EKO report found that it is “too early to tell whether many existing fisheries focused investments will generate strong financial returns” there are currently enough projects in place to determine a set of “best practices” for investment.

It surely shows us that what is best for the environment and for poor communities makes good business sense for all. Our own work is far more convincing and its clear that by restoring ocean pastures billions of additional fish will become available to people around the world. This may be accomplished rapidly over the course of just a few years. Read more here on how billions in lost ocean productivity can be revived.