This is a question we need to ask ourselves but before answering we need to acknowledge the diversity of expectations and aspirations that we all have for oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface.
We all need to eat, and food does not come out of a magician’s hat. It has to be harvested on land or in water, in ways that almost always imply a level of transformation of the wild environment. Agreeing on the trade-offs so that food provision is secured for current and future generations is the panacea we all search for.
According to FAO 60 percent of all exploited fish stocks are at levels that produce their maximum yield. This is the level that countries would like all exploited fish stocks to be, as agreed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and many other international agreements. The problem is that 33 percent of fish stocks are overfished, and thus capable of producing more if they were allowed to rebuild to the appropriate biomass, while a further seven percent of those assessed are underfished—this means that just like a forest where the trees are too close together, they would need to be fished further to ensure they produce to their full potential.
Maximizing the sustainable exploitation of our fish resources has broader considerations. Thirty five percent of the planet’s land surface is already devoted to agriculture, using 70 percent of all the water humans use. Land ecosystems may bear a heavy toll if demanded alone to support the 60 percent more food required to feed our growing population by 2050. So let’s ask again, what do we want from our oceans?
Sustainability is critical. FAO notes that overexploitation of fisheries is worsening in developing regions, where poverty, hunger, and inadequate investments in fisheries management systems are making things worse. In contrast, it is dramatically improving in developed regions: 91 percent of fish stocks in the United States of America are not subject to overfishing, in Australia it is 83 percent, while the reduction in fishing pressure in Europe’s Atlantic waters since 2002 has resulted in the majority of fish stocks now being fished sustainably.
With political will to support data collection, policy development, management programs and enforcement, fisheries management can be highly effective. Without shoring these up, ocean protection will become more difficult to deliver, as will feeding the world.
We must not forget climate change, the greatest challenge of our time, and its impacts on the supply and composition of food from our ocean.
The best assessment is that maximum catch potential in the world’s fisheries are projected to decline by between 2.3 and 12.1 percent by 2050, depending on the effectiveness of greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. But that global projection obscures something we know: that the most detrimental effects are expected to happen in the tropics and in small Pacific Island states, home to some of the world’s poorest and most fish-dependent communities, and where fishing rules are patchily enforced.
As many fish species are free to migrate, ocean warming will trigger a number of distributional shifts and cause ecosystem reorganizations, some of which can lead to very negative outcomes. When lionfish moved into the Caribbean, they provoked a sharp decline in native fish populations that were the customary targets of local communities. Lionfish are now in the Mediterranean, where they prosper thanks to overfishing of a potential rival, the grouper. As species move, fisheries management systems will have to adapt and evolve. This will increasingly entail negotiations between countries to deal with resources that cross or straddle national jurisdictions, as well as adaptable fishing fleets and strategies. Hands-off initiatives such as marine-protected areas have little impact on rising temperature and acidification levels and may not boost stocks as much as hoped. We should pursue very hands-on strategies. This means more and better management, not less.
Consumers will also help make the ocean sustainable by adjusting culinary preferences. Anchovies and red mullets, beloved in the Mediterranean, are proving a hard sell in Britain, where they are increasingly available. The namesake fish of Cape Cod, an elite resort in the US, is now imported from Iceland while locally caught dogfish struggles for recognition and ends up exported—all while the main difference for customers is the name.
It is imperative to embrace—as many cultures have—an open mind about what is edible. And that too is eminently possible; consider how North American lobsters evolved from “trash” fed to prisoners to an icon of upscale dining. In particular, we should foster appreciation of smaller fish, which are particularly big sources of micronutrients that paradoxically are often in short supply in the tropical countries that export them.
One shorthand way to achieve a better and acceptable vision of the role of the oceans as a provider of food is to consider fisheries as part of the global food system and incorporate them into coherent strategies. Once again, optimizing the required trade-offs means more and better management, not less.
Beyond capture fisheries, it’s evident that aquaculture—the fastest growing food production system over the past half a century—is a strategic and promising tool. Aquaculture fosters smart use of animals lower in the food chain, and while largely an inland activity also accounts for more than one-fourth of the fish oceans provide us.
These and related issues will be discussed at a four-day high-level international symposium hosted by FAO, and lie at the core of negotiations to take place at COP25, the UN Climate Change Conference in Spain in December.
There are an estimated 821 million undernourished people in the world today, a figure that increased in the last four years. To change this trend, we will need all the tools in our toolbox. The ocean, occupying 71 percent of the planet’s surface, provides just two percent of our calorie intake. We will not make hunger history without changing this ratio. Appropriate recognition of what the ocean can do for us should help us focus our time, money and ideas with the clarity that the challenge demands.
The author is Director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations