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Tackling Overfishing on Many Fronts

As the World Ocean Summit winds down in Half Moon Bay, California, this evening, much discussion among the hundreds of gathered delegates has turned to overfishing.  There were perhaps as many thoughts on the subject as members in attendance from the fishing industry, academia, conservation organizations, and the media. But, several solutions emerged that received...

The program of the World Ocean Summit
The program of the World Ocean Summit. (Photograph by Brian Clark Howard)

As the World Ocean Summit winds down in Half Moon Bay, California, this evening, much discussion among the hundreds of gathered delegates has turned to overfishing.  There were perhaps as many thoughts on the subject as members in attendance from the fishing industry, academia, conservation organizations, and the media. But, several solutions emerged that received widespread support.

There was little doubt that overfishing is a problem around much of the world. Many fish have declined by significant amounts and most fisheries are already at their maximum production capacity, despite rising demand, said Miguel Angel Jorge, the Managing Director of the new nonprofit 50-in-10, which hopes to move 50 percent of the world’s fisheries to sustainability in 10 years.

Andy Sharpless, the CEO of the advocacy group Oceana, said that at a high level, stopping overfishing is actually “relatively straightforward.” It takes reducing the amount of fish wasted as unwanted bycatch, setting science-based catch quotas and enforcing them, and protecting ocean habitat that allows fish to breed.

“If we do those three things it is understood [that overfishing will stop],” said Sharpless. “Compared to many of the world’s problems this is not so complicated.”

Sharpless pointed to the example of Chile, which is the world’s seventh largest producer of seafood. Chile recently revised its fishery rules to implement quotas based on scientific surveys, said Sharpless. The country also banned bottom trawling around 118 seamounts, to protect the biodiverse habitats from damage.

It also isn’t too difficult to switch to gear that reduces bycatch, if there is support for some upfront costs, said Sharpless.

In a video message to the summit, the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, pointed out that his country recently banned commercial fishing of sharks in its waters. “We also banned the infamous practice of finning and returning them to the sea,” said Santos.

Santos added that his government is working to strengthen protected marine areas on both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. He said he is working with Ecuador and Costa Rica to fight illegal fishing in their region.

Anibal Cavaco Silva, the president of Portugal, addresses the World Ocean Summit
Anibal Cavaco Silva (left), the president of Portugal, addresses the World Ocean Summit. (Photograph by Brian Clark Howard)

Sharpless added that he would like to see more work on traceability of seafood, so consumers can know exactly what they are buying, who caught it, where it was caught, and what gear was used. That would make it harder for illegal fishers to skirt quotas and laws and pass fish off as something it isn’t, he said.

The U.S. imports about 91 percent of its seafood, Sharpless said, so it could make a big impact on the global market if the federal government started enforcing traceabiity of all imports. The European Union imports roughly two-thirds of its fish, and Japan imports a significant amount.

“So if those three [governments] could project traceability onto fisheries that would make it harder for illegal fishing,” said Sharpless. “And it would not require the [United Nations] to do anything. It would require those nations to do something in their self interest, to provide information their customers would want. It’s not even really regulatory, it’s providing labeling information.”

Sharpless added that the approach of working with national governments to address fish imports or fishing in their territories makes a lot of sense, because more than 90 percent of the world’s fish catch is caught from the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of individual nations, not in international waters. Further, about two-thirds of the world’s fish by weight comes from just 10 countries. About 90 percent comes from just 30 countries.

“Blue Bonds” and Subsidies

Oceana is now working with the nonprofit Rare, Echo Financial Products, and Bloomberg Philanthropies to help more countries make their sectors more sustainable, said Sharpless. In an innovative model, Echo is working on bringing in private capital to pay big fishing boats for lost income in the short term, while new fishing quotas limit catch so stocks can recover. In return, Echo gets a share of the longer-term benefits that arise from greater fishing opportunities in subsequent years, after the stocks recover.

“Some people had the idea before, it’s called blue bonds, but what will be new is having a real blue bond,” said Sharpless. “It’s like grease for policies that rebuild stocks.”

Tackling what some consider the elephant in the room, subsidies that many governments pay to their fishing industry, Sharpless said, “People are paid with tax dollars to overfish…to empty the ocean.”

Subsidies represent 25 to 30 percent of the total value of the world’s fisheries, said Sharpless. He added that the European Union has recently cut its fishing subsidies by 30 percent, but that there are still many programs in place.

Barry Gold of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation said, “Let’s not do away with subsidies, let’s tell countries ‘you are already making the investment, but let’s move it from a bad investment into a productive investment.’ Then you are meeting the political issue.”

Still, Gold said that the reason advocates haven’t seen as many results as they’d like with reducing overfishing is “because we haven’t taken a holistic approach.” Gold added, “We have to really work together. It can’t just be NGOs, it also has to be fishermen, industry, investors.”

Gold said the solution “won’t be one tool or one industry, it will be using a suite of tools.”

The Metro Example

Some of those tools are being innovated by Metro Group, the biggest fish seller in Europe. The Germany-based company sells 200,000 tons of fish a year, from 170 species, to a broad base of consumers and businesses.

“We want to assure our business for the next decades, and that means we have to do something on the topic of fish,” said Hans-Jurgen Matern, Metro’s vice president for corporate sustainability and regulatory affairs. He explained that the company made a decision to stop selling shark fins and bluefin tuna, out of concern for overfishing of those products.

Metro also requires that all fish it buys be logged through a cloud-based tracking system called ftrace, which includes information about who caught it, when, where, etc. It is an important step to making its products transparent and traceable, said Matern.

“We have to ensure that stocks that are endangered are not ending up on our shelf,” he said. Many of those products also carry certification from the Marine Stewardship Council.

Still, contamination of large fish through build-up of toxins like mercury and lead remains a problem, said Matern, who noted that his company rejects one in three big fish after testing.

(See more stories from the World Ocean Summit.)

Don’t miss our live Hangout with National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Enric Sala, marine biologist Tierney Thys, and submarine pilot and diesel engineer Erika Bergman on February 28 at 5:30 p.m. EST. Click here on Friday to watch: #LetsExplore


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

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