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OPINION: Fish are the future for climate-resilient oceans

by Fred Krupp and Lukas Walton | Environmental Defense Fund
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 10:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If you take care of fish, you’re taking care of a world where people and nature can prosper together. It is not too late to think this way.

Fred Krupp is president of Environmental Defense Fund. Lukas Walton chairs the Environmental Committee of the Walton Family Foundation.

They are an essential source of nutrition for more than a billion people around the world, the cornerstone of the ocean’s food chain and the driver of hundreds of millions of jobs globally. Any way you slice it, fish are a key to human well-being and a thriving natural world. And, according to a report released today by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both fish and the oceans that sustain them are in trouble. But fish also represent another equally important thing: they are signs of possibility and hope. 

If you take care of fish, you’re taking care of a world where people and nature can prosper together. It is not too late to think this way. Believing we can make a difference is essential precisely because the news from today’s report on ocean climate impacts is so jarring.  

The U.N. report points out that the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled over the last few decades and warming will continue to increase. With these rising temperatures come rising seas, changing weather patterns and shifts in entire food webs that create cascading impacts at a level difficult to comprehend. In the face of this dire news, there are practical things that we can and must do to make a difference.

We know from experience and science that by taking care of the fish, we can enhance the resilience of coral reefs, marine food webs and the coastal communities dependent on fishing to pay their bills and put food on their tables. 

Scientific models show what fishing communities are seeing firsthand: the world’s fish are on the move as ocean temperatures increase. This mass migration is pushing nations to manage their fish stocks in new and strikingly different ways, requiring significantly more cooperation, data sharing and fisheries management across traditional boundaries.  

In Chile and Peru, for example, shifting fish stocks are moving rapidly into new waters, and advocates, government officials and fishermen are working together to develop new management approaches in response. Scientists from both countries are forging a partnership to understand what the future holds as the countries begin to share species traveling past their borders. Improved management within countries and enhanced collaboration across national boundaries will help us prepare for changes yet to come.  

Philanthropists and advocates, including the co-authors of this piece, have long partnered with fishermen and seafood industry leaders around the world to create and grow the sustainable seafood movement. Together, we have achieved real improvement in fishing practices. In the United States, overfishing is at historic lows, while fishing jobs and revenue have grown. Dozens of species are on the rebound, including Gulf red snapper, and chronically overfished species such as canary rockfish, Pacific ocean perch and bocaccio are now fully rebuilt, in some cases years ahead of schedule. Since 2010, the Marine Stewardship Council, a certification body for sustainably managed wild-capture fisheries, has doubled the amount of sustainably harvested seafood it certifies. That figure now stands at 12% of the global reported marine wild catch, and includes newly certified fisheries in Mexico, Chile and Indonesia.

In more and more places, we are seeing policies that can ensure that there are enough fish in the ocean to keep oceans healthy while providing livelihoods for fishermen and protein for nearly one billion people. This work is both a proof point that sustainable fishing practices matter, and a mandate for us to do more now. 

This progress can and must continue in the face of warming oceans. And while not all of the problems outlined in today’s U.N. report can be solved by smart fishery management, it can make an enormous difference. Now is the time for nations, advocates and industry leaders to work together to adopt common-sense approaches to building resilient fisheries for the good of ourselves, our children and grandchildren. The next step should be taken at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries meeting in July 2020, when nations from around the world will discuss ways to improve global seafood security.

Climate change is real—and it demands a host of rapid responses. One is to manage fisheries in ways that protect our oceans and the people who depend on them, even as the waters warm.