A groundbreaking study released in the journal Nature last week underscored something many of us have long known to be true: around the world, human health is inextricably linked to the health of the oceans.  When the oceans suffer – from threats like climate change and overfishing – people suffer too.

This new study shows that a decline in fish populations poses significant risks for poor people in developing countries, where seafood is a crucial source of healthy protein and important micronutrients like iron, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and vitamins A and B12.  Lack of access to these nutrients can have dire health consequences for fish-dependent populations.  As the authors of this study note, “Deficiencies of micronutrients can increase risks of perinatal and maternal mortality, growth retardation, child mortality, cognitive deficits and reduced immune function.”  As nations figure out how to feed and sustain a growing world population, a new priority has emerged:  saving the oceans is no longer a conservation goal; it’s a critical way of ensuring food security worldwide.

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According to the United Nations, 795 million people do not have enough to eat.  460 million of these people live in major fish-dependent nations, countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mozambique.  These countries, the Nature study notes, are especially at risk from an ongoing decline in fish populations. “A perfect storm is brewing in the low-latitude developing nations,” the authors write. “This is where human nutrition is most dependent on wild fish, and where fisheries are most at risk from illegal fishing, weak governance, poor knowledge of stock status, population pressures and climate change.” The study finds as much as 10 percent of the world population, especially concentrated in these equatorial developing nations, could face micronutrient and fatty-acid deficiencies due to declines in the availability of fish.

But what’s causing the fish populations to diminish? Climate change and reckless human activity. Warmer oceans drive fish farther north, away from the hungry nations that need them most. The acidification that accompanies ocean warming also degrades coral reefs and other environments that serve as nurseries for juvenile fish. But in addition to environmental changes, we’ve also simply been taking too many fish out of the ocean. Throughout human history, we’ve fished for sustenance. But growing populations, improved technology and short-term thinking have driven us to hunt fish unsustainably. The global fish catch hit its high point in 1996 – our “peak fish” moment – and has been declining ever since.

Fortunately, the study’s authors identify a possible solution. “We believe that improvements in fisheries management and marine conservation can serve as nutritional delivery mechanisms,” the authors write. Their analysis is correct: rebuilding fish stocks around the world presents an immense opportunity. Studies have shown that healthy oceans could provide nearly 100 million metric tons of wild marine fish a year by 2050 – or enough to provide a daily fish meal every day for the 1.1 billion people who depend on fish for their number one source of animal protein.

If we save the oceans, we can feed the world and keep both our planet and populations healthy. That’s the vision our organizations share, and it’s why Rare and Oceana are working with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative on its three priority interventions: establishing science-based management of industrial fishing fleets, inspiring adoption of sustainable small-scale fishery management practices, and creating market incentives for regional governments to take advantage of products from local fishermen.   We believe that through these interventions we may protect the oceans in a way that will safeguard the wildlife we love, preserve a healthy ocean for our children and help feed hungry people around the globe.

And we’re making progress. Rare is empowering coastal communities in the developing world to better manage their fisheries through the use of rights for local fishers, while minimizing their impact on the marine environment. By 2017, 60 mayors in the Philippines will have agreed to enforce sustainable fishing in their municipalities. 20 of the sites where Rare works will be fully implementing promising new fishing management systems. As a result, Rare predicts that over 90,000 fishers and 345,000 residents will have improved livelihoods and food security. Oceana is campaigning in major fishing nations for responsible, science-based policies that will allow fish populations to recover. Just last year, Oceana convinced the Brazilian government to create Fishery Management Councils, which will develop fishery management plans with the input of environmental NGOs and artisanal fisheries representatives. And in May of this year, Oceana successfully pushed the Chilean government to adopt a management plan for its common hake fishery, one of the country’s most overfished fisheries. The historic management plan, required by a 2013 law, is the first ever adopted by the Chilean government.

Our oceans are almost inconceivably large; more than 60 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by at least a mile of ocean. It can be intimidating to imagine that human actions can have dramatic effects on something so vast. But the damage we have done is real, and the potential for recovery is genuine and essential for both human and biological health. The oceans can be a part of our future – as natural wonders and as a source of healthy food for people around the world – just as surely as they have been a part of our past. But the window for action is limited; we must act now.


Brett Jenks is the CEO of Rare. Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.