A Brighter Future
By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis
The day my good friend lost his fishing boat due to the dwindling catch of the sardine fishery off the coast of France is the day I realized the ocean has limits. It was at a period of my younger years that I came to understand and respect that the ocean is a dynamic system that is always in flux and there are thresholds on what we can take from nature. In one respect, these were the good ol’ days, back in the 1940s and 50s, when new advancements in fishing technology allowed us to venture further from shore to extract what seemed like limitless amounts of ocean wildlife. But today with these advancements of modern fishing techniques, there are very few places in the ocean that have not been fully exploited. There is virtually no place left where fish can hide from our technological advances in equipment. If we continue on this projection of commercial fishing, we will witness a complete collapse of global fisheries in the next thirty years. How did we ever allow this to happen?
In the last sixty-five years since my friend lost his fishing boat, researchers around the world have studied ocean systems, fisheries management, and fish biology to know there are limits to what we can take. And now, some believe that perhaps we have already approached a point of no return as our rapidly increasing human population continues to put tremendous pressure on the finite resources of our water planet. By 1989, when about ninety million metric tons of catch were taken from the ocean, the commercial fishing industry had hit its highest yet, and fish catches have declined or stagnated ever since. For some of the large, most prized open ocean species, such as Bluefin tuna, marlin, swordfish, and large shark species, their populations are down over ninety percent. This is all happening on our watch.
When managing these prized species we need to revert back to the basics of looking at nature like a business. If we want to sustainably harvest our desired species, then it is only the interest earned from nature’s capital that we should remove. On a global level, governments, commercial fisheries, and individual factory ships have taken everything – both the interest and most of the capital. Naturally over time, the systems cannot be sustained, there is not enough fish capital to produce fish interest, and so the population falls. This equates to a complete fishery collapse. This is what we are witnessing in over 70 percent of commercial fisheries today. From a report in the journal Science from back 2006, if the current fishing rates continue, most of the world’s fisheries will collapse by the year 2048. I always say I am on the side of the fisher folks – I do not want to see them go bankrupt. I do not want to see what happened to my good friend in France in the 1950s to happen to thousand of fishermen around the world.
We now have the knowledge and the educational resources, such as the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch guide and the Ocean Wise seafood program, that educate and inform us, the consumers, on how to support the fisheries that are using environmentally friendly gear that limits the amount of wasted by-catch. By-catch or the unintended wildlife caught and killed in the fishing gear is a huge problem, amounting to staggering number of even threatened and endangered animals accidently killed, including sea turtles, sea birds, and whales and dolphins. We also need to support the fisheries that are sustainably managing their targeted species and ensure that these populations are healthy and continue to produce interest for the fishermen. Most importantly, we need to support the increase of marine protected areas, special places where we give species a chance for recovery. In these protected places, we can limit fishing and the taking of marine life so species can once again flourish, and where their rising populations will spill over into other areas of the ocean to support sport and commercial fishing.
It is up to us to support those who are working hard to provide fish for people around the world within the limits of a well-managed fishery. It is through our understanding, and purchasing power of what seafood to consume, that we are choosing to drive either the success or the collapse of the world’s ocean catch. We owe it to future generations to use our knowledge and choices and to do a much better job in achieving a sustainable future.
One of the many solutions to our global fisheries crisis is to look at increasing our fish farming practices and focus on farming plant eating fish-herbivores, not carnivores. Most importantly, these fish farms must not be in floating pens in the open ocean, but instead new fish farming practices located in closed-contained systems located on land and close to the demand for people. One of my personal friends, Dr. Yonathan Zohar, Director of Center for Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, and his team of scientists and technicians have developed some of the first indoor marine aquaculture systems that can re-circulate nearly all of their water and expel zero waste. Dr. Zohar is a strong believer that in twenty years from now most seafood will be grown on land. As seafood demand increases and supply continues to dwindle, Dr. Zohar remains hopeful. “Once the first couple closed contained fish farm systems are up and running, this thing is going to spread like fire,” he told me. And I agree. I am hopeful for this future.
As we put increasing amount of pressure on the natural world, we all need to be accountable for understanding our environmental footprint, from the food we consume to the life-style choices we make on a daily basis. I think this is a very exciting time for us all. We have at our fingertips the amazing communication revolution that literally gives us access to any and all information at any given moment in time. It is exciting to know that we get to be life-long learners and continuously educate ourselves to be active participants in shaping the future of our planet, striving for a more sustainable world.