The Fish We Need to Feed 9 Billion People

Traditional fishing on Lake Pátzcuaro in Mexico. Photograph by Régis Lachaume, Wikimedia Commons

Smart fisheries management is a great place to start a conversation about putting the ocean at the center of the world’s biggest challenges.  This is because the most profitable type of fishing is sustainable fishing – better management helps fishermen and the ocean at the same time.

Sustainable fishing means keeping enough fish in the water to reproduce and ensure a bountiful catch in the future. It’s a balancing act, but sustainable fisheries are in everyone’s best interest – from fishermen to distributors to gear manufacturers to retailers to consumers. If you’re a fisherman and you want to pass on your traditions to the next generation, or you want to be able to make good money 10 years from now, the most profitable way to fish is sustainably.

Unfortunately, overfishing due to poor fisheries management remains a global problem that threatens ecosystem health and human survival. For example, without enough forage fish—small fish like anchovies, sardines, and squid—the larger predators, like tuna, that feed on them will start to disappear as well.

That matters because we are facing a future with 9 billion people on the planet, and with that future comes huge concerns for food security.  There is no way we can sustainably provide protein to that many people without fixing fisheries management around the world.

The benefits of good fisheries management go beyond food security.  It turns out that many fisheries produce protein much more efficiently than land – after all, fish do not have to fight gravity.  Cows, chickens, and pigs are terribly inefficient protein sources, and their production generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trains, and airplanes in the world.  So if recovering fisheries can take some of the protein production pressure off the land, that could have major implications for climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution.

The good news is that we’ve seen a real shift in the state of fishing in the world.  The United States is a shining example of this work, thanks to the success of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs marine fisheries management and has helped us turn the corner on ending overfishing and recover a record number of depleted fish populations over the past two years. Ocean Conservancy and Pew Charitable Trusts have just released a joint report about the successes fishermen are seeing thanks to these management policies.

According to a recent fisheries report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the catch by American fishermen has reached a 14-year high—and the evidence can be seen in the recovery of signature species like red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and lingcod on the Pacific Coast.

Beyond U.S. waters, more work needs to be done. Internationally managed open-ocean fisheries need to adopt and implement proven fishery management  strategies. Developing countries need to embrace modern management techniques to avoid depleting their fish populations; it simply makes economic sense.  We now have the analytical tools to apply these techniques at relatively low costs; for example, we can rely on advanced statistical techniques to get a better sense of the health of current stocks, and we can use standardized approaches to plan for their recovery.

To be successful, we need to think beyond the one fish we are trying to catch today, and instead focus on finding smart ways to sustain fish up and down the food chain, and the people who will depend on them for their lives and livelihoods.



Andreas Merkl is the President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, which educates and empowers citizens to take action on behalf of the ocean. From the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico to the halls of Congress, Andreas leads the organization’s efforts to tackle the ocean’s biggest challenges with science-based solutions. With a background in environmental science, resource economics and business, Andreas is particularly interested in determining the ocean’s rightful role in answering the central question of our time: how to meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us.