Oceans can feed our future world, if we do it right

Oceans can feed our future world, if we do it right
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COVID-19 driven impacts to the seafood trade have been nothing short of catastrophic for many fishing communities. 

In the United States, where consumers rely on restaurants for much of their seafood, fishermen have scrambled to reconnect to consumers through new pathways. Overseas, export markets have been disrupted, leaving many fishing dependent economies without needed export pathways. With increasing global population, growing climate impacts to oceans and fisheries and millions already facing food insecurity around the world, the pandemic is a good reminder of our need to look to the ocean for food security solutions.

The world’s population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 — just 30 years from now. Sustainably meeting food needs has profound implications for human health, nutrition, economic well-being and global security. How we manage food systems of the future is also critical for environmental sustainability. Food choices will even help determine carbon emissions and future atmospheric carbon levels.

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The fact is, food from the sea already feeds much of the world. Fish today are an important source of protein for more than 3 billion people and a vital source of the essential micronutrients that help children’s brains develop and stave off disease and malnourishment for nearly 1.4 billion people. For seafood to be a sustainable part of the solution, we must make progress in sustainable fisheries, enhance our management systems to address shifting ocean conditions caused by climate change and ensure sustainable marine and coastal aquaculture.   

In many parts of the world, we are off to a good start. As a former government official who has managed fishery resources for the U.S., I have seen what it takes to succeed. Thanks to improvements in science and management, and collaborations among fishing interests and governments across U.S. waters, many once-badly-depleted fish stocks are recovering.  

Yet problems remain. Overfishing and climate change are the twin “swords of Damocles” hanging over the recovery and sustainable use of our fish stocks around the world. Climate change is shifting distributions and productivities of critical species, scrambling the rules and putting successful management efforts at risk. We are stuck in outdated systems for sharing the fish, which ignores the climate driven shifts already underway; the mackerel that once swam in Europe’s waters have moved north to Iceland, and the cod that gave Cape Cod its name are steadily shifting to Canadian waters. 

Moreover, climate change impacts are far more dramatic — and inequitable — in the tropics. The powerful fishing fleets from the hungry North and East are plying the waters off Africa and the small island states of the Pacific. Now, as ocean productivity declines due to climate change and as distributions of fish in the tropics shift toward the poles in search of cooler water, they leave the world’s most fish-dependent and vulnerable people with even less of the catch.

This story does not have to end badly. Recent studies have shown that with limits to future climate-warming emissions, we can maintain our current wild fish harvests and even improve them in some places if we make a few important changes. We must continue to get basic sustainable management systems in place around the world. But that is no longer sufficient. We also must fully integrate growing marine aquaculture opportunities in a global budget of food from the sea. For wild caught fisheries, knowing that “past performance is not an indication of future results,” we cannot maintain catch limits based on how fish used to behave, before the water heated. 

We must improve climate-adjusted forecasting and build in new safety buffers while we recalibrate. We should manage fish stocks like diverse portfolios, so that we do not overinvest in catching one species or the other, only to discover its fortunes have shifted with the climate. We have to come up with new, flexible and equitable ways for protecting the fishing rights of small islands and developing states. Climate-resilient fisheries will be critical to our way forward.


Eric Schwaab served as head of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and is currently Senior Vice President, Oceans with The Environmental Defense Fund.