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The Natural Numbers Behind the Sardine Fishery in the Gulf of California

How many fish are in the ocean? How much water does a wild river carry? How much oxygen does a forest produce? These are the kinds of questions posed by “Natural Numbers: The Value of the Planet in Minutes.” This new project is producing a series of short – three-minute – documentaries on a range...

How many fish are in the ocean? How much water does a wild river carry? How much oxygen does a forest produce? These are the kinds of questions posed by “Natural Numbers: The Value of the Planet in Minutes.” This new project is producing a series of short – three-minute – documentaries on a range of topics from fisheries to rivers, mining to marine reserves, in an attempt to explain the value of ecosystems to humans and the planet

We use video, photography, and animation to illustrate, in a simple but visually attractive way, the value of our natural capital and the inadequate ways we use it. Simultaneously, Natural Numbers will use social media to help capture the attention of decision-makers, teachers, scientists, conservationists, and the public, in order to raise awareness of these important issues and encourage action in support of solutions.

The data that show how we impact nature are out there but rarely reach decision-makers or the public because of their complexity or difficulty to access. Yet, by not including scientific data in public policy, we exacerbate the environmental problems faced by societies around the world.

Our first production, Sardines, tackles a very controversial topic: ‘what is the best way for society to benefit from the huge schools of small pelagic fish found in the ocean?’  Far from being sustainable, the sardine fishery in the Gulf of California, Mexico, has collapsed several times resulting in serious economic crises and the loss of thousands of jobs. Shockingly, in 2010 this fishery was certified as sustainable even though it did not have a management plan or any fishery regulations.

Ten and-a-half million tons of sardines were caught in Mexico over the last 20 years. Yes, you read that right: ten and-a-half million tons of sardines!  The removal of that massive natural asset means that it could not be used to feed other commercially valuable fish, migratory seabirds, and endangered marine mammals that use the Gulf as a critical feeding ground for survival. Instead, billions of kilograms of sardines in Mexico go to feed chickens, pigs, cows, and farmed fish. It takes 10 kilograms of sardines for every kilogram of chicken or pork. Not a very efficient use of healthy ocean-generated protein.

In fact, Mexico could use all these fish to feed millions of people, which would also generate much higher revenues for fishermen, allowing them to catch fewer fish.  This is just one example of how businesses that rely on our natural capital risk misusing or even destroying the very resource they depend on.

People need to be aware of the type of decisions being made when it comes to natural capital use, because nations and societies are losing money as a result of bad decisions. Our initiative, Natural Numbers, is meant to engage decision-makers, authorities, and the public in environmental issues. We understand that the public is constantly bombarded with huge amounts of information and grabbing people’s attention calls for creative and innovative communications.

Why is our natural capital being wasted? Isn’t it time to change the approaches used in fisheries management? Isn’t it time to have a serious discussion about safeguarding the oceans’ highly valuable resources, like these sardines, that transfer energy within entire food webs?

Join us as we reflect on why the health of the oceans is important for our lives and economies. Please share this video and follow us in Facebook ( and Twitter @TNaturalNumbers


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Meet the Author

Octavio Aburto
As a research scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), and a professional photographer associated with the International League of Conservation Photographers, Octavio has been photographing marine ecosystems off the coastal waters of Mexico since 1994. His photographs have been used to illustrate outreach publications about the conservation of marine habitats, Marine Protected Areas, and commercially important species and their fisheries. As a scientist Octavio's research has focused on mangrove ecosystem services, marine reserves, and commercially exploited marine species and their fisheries off the shores of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and the U.S. Octavio obtained his PhD at the Center of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at SIO, and was awarded the Jean Fort Award by the University of California, San Diego, for his significant contribution on an issue of public concern through his doctoral research.