Wild Fisheries: New Hope for the Blue Economy

By Amanda Leland

What is the blue economy? Hundreds of people from around the world are gathered this week in Cascais, Portugal at The Economist’s World Ocean Summit 2015 to answer this question and discuss ways to catalyze growth in this important sector.

Historically, capture fisheries have been the leading edge of the blue economy. Communities, businesses, and cultures have been built on fishing the abundant resources of the sea. Today fisheries contribute more than $270 billion to global GDP. But overfishing is pushing fish populations toward collapse and an emerging view is that fishing is an industry in rapid decline. If nothing is done, the doomsayers will be right: collapsing fisheries will compromise the livelihoods of some 38 million fishermen and women around the world and take away a key protein source for 3 billion people.

I see a more hopeful future in which economic growth, food production, and sustainability create a self-reinforcing upward spiral, resulting in more fish in the water, more food on the plate, and more prosperous communities around the world. This kind of triple bottom-line outcome should serve as a model for the blue economy.


Science and experience from around the world demonstrate that the oceans are resilient and can rebound when fishing is sustainable. Countries including Australia, Belize, Chile, Denmark, Namibia, Norway, and the United States are reversing overfishing, reviving coastal communities, and bringing the oceans back to life.

For example, in Belize fishermen and government officials are taking sustainable fishing nationwide. Just last week the cabinet voted to adopt “managed access”, which grants small-scale fishermen secure rights to their local fish resources in exchange for adhering to science-based limits on catch and no-fishing areas. Early adopters of the approach in Belize are already seeing a dramatic decline in illegal fishing, rebounding fish populations, and more stable fishing businesses. This is a far cry from the norm when some fishermen reported sharp declines in spiny lobster catches from 200 to 20 per day. Struggling fishermen up and down the coast led the charge in calling on the government to spread the new approach in hopes of a better future.

In April, the U.S. government announced that overfishing is at an all-time low, following adoption of secure fishing rights or “catch shares” for most of the nation’s biggest commercial fisheries. Today fish populations are rebounding while the number of fishing jobs has increased 23% and fishing revenues are up 30%. Even fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, hard hit by the BP oil disaster, are doing better. Since 2007 when catch shares were first implemented for the popular red snapper fishery, catches have more than doubled, revenues have increased by 108%, and today there are three times more red snapper in the ocean.

Such inspiring examples of progress are backed up by a suite of new research that will be unveiled at the Summit by California Environmental Associates, the Economist Intelligence Unit and others. The Ocean Prosperity Roadmap: Fisheries and Beyond is a new collection of research designed to inform decision makers, including governments and investors, on effective ocean and coastal resource management strategies to maximize economic, conservation and societal benefits.

For example, scientists and economists from the University of California Santa Barbara, Environmental Defense Fund, and the University of Washington have teamed up to evaluate the potential benefits if sustainable fishing becomes the norm. This “upside” bio-economic model, built from a database covering 77% of global catch demonstrates that, under certain approaches, the oceans can provide a hungry world with more seafood while generating significantly more revenue for fishing communities.

The transition to sustainable fishing is achievable and wild capture fisheries can be an engine of prosperity, providing lasting value and abundance for all.


Amanda Leland is Vice President, Oceans, at Environmental Defense Fund.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Tim Fitzgerald leads EDF’s global programs on fisheries finance, training and capacity building, and seafood markets and supply chain engagement in an effort to improve the sustainability of the world’s fisheries. He serves on the boards of the California Fisheries Fund, Ecofish LLC and GulfWild®, and is an advisor to Fair Trade USA and the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions. Originally trained as a shark scientist, Tim has appeared on Shark Week and National Geographic Explorer, and also been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and NPR’s Fresh Air. He also provided invited testimony to President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Follow Tim on Twitter.