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Guest Editorial
by Andrew Sharpless : Oceana

Restoring Abundant Oceans

Hammerhead sharks and fish.In 2006, an international team of scientists assessed the state of the world’s oceans in an article that was published in Science.  Their findings had the ring of the apocalyptic:  nearly a third of the world’s commercial fisheries had already collapsed.  And if trends are allowed to continue, all the world’s fisheries would collapse by mid-century.

This is a serious problem for the world because a billion people turn to the seas for protein.  Hundreds of millions of people rely on an abundant ocean for their livelihoods.  Countless coastal villages, some quite remote, will become ghost towns if the oceans collapse.  And of course there are many wonderful wild ocean creatures—whales and dolphins just the celebrities among them—that do not deserve to be hunted to virtual extinction.

Practical people want to work on problems that are solvable.  And many people assume that saving the oceans is impossible.  Let me give you some very good news: restoring abundant oceans is the most solvable global ecological challenge that we face.  And we can get it done in our lifetimes.

Why?  Discouragement is rooted in several fundamental misconceptions about the causes of the problem. 

Sea turtle.First, people assume that ocean collapse is driven by pollution.  That’s discouraging, because pollution is difficult to prevent.  For example, oil and mercury pollution of the oceans is a consequence of things that people want and need—for example, gas in their cars, electricity to their homes.  The good news is that most of the collapses in ocean fisheries are not caused by pollution.  They are instead caused by short-sighted commercial fishing practices that include overfishing, habitat destruction, and high levels of bycatch.   These are fixable problems.  We know what to do.  We just need to get the government officials who set the rules for commercial fishing to do a better job.

Second, people assume that international action is required to save the oceans.  Because vast parts of the oceans are beyond the reach of any one country, one naturally assumes that ocean protection requires action by the United Nations or other international treaty bodies.  That’s discouraging too because, sadly, the track record of many such bodies is long on words and short on results.  The good news is that many of the most ecologically and commercially valuable parts of the ocean are coastal.  Shallower coastal waters produce more productive marine environments.  In the 1980s, the nations of the world took control of their coastal oceans out to a distance of 200 nautical miles.  That means that you can protect much of what is most important in the ocean by national action. 

Third, people assume that fish farming is a solution to overfishing.  The facts are that it depends what fish you are farming.  If you’re farming a fish that eats fish, then aquaculture does not reduce the pressure on the wild ocean ecosystem.  In fact, quite the reverse.  Salmon farmers need at least three pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of salmon.  With that conversion ratio, every new salmon farm is a giant new customer for the rapidly depleting supplies of wild-caught marine fish.  On the other hand, if you are farming a fish that eats vegetable protein, then with appropriate safeguards (on use of pesticides and antibiotics, for example), such a fish farm can indeed contribute to solving the problem of ocean depletion.

Dolphins.Ocean ecosystems are generally quite resilient.  While there are distressing exceptions—the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery off Canada is a vivid one—fisheries will rebound if managers enforce scientifically sound quotas, protect habitat, and reduce bycatch.  One example: during the years of World War II, when fishing in the Atlantic dropped off due to the war effort, fishery populations increased dramatically.  As a result, one can look to a near future in which abundant oceans are not just planned, but fact.

At Oceana, we make it a practice to give ourselves a limited number of policy objectives—restoring ocean fisheries, for instance—and to hold ourselves accountable for delivering results within three tor four years.  We resist the tendency to spread ourselves too thinly among too many objectives, doing just enough on everything to lose.  And by results, we mean a policy change that will deliver concrete benefits to healthy oceans.  We do not mean objectives like “raising consciousness of the problem.”  Happily, our practical approach has made us very effective in the seven years since our founding.  Here’s to an abundant future.


A graduate of Harvard, Andrew Sharpless has been CEO of Oceana since 2003. Previously, he was a founding manager of RealNetworks, vice president of the Museum of Television and Radio, and a consultant with McKinsey & Co. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with his wife and two children.
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Hammerhead shark and sea turtle photos courtesy Oceana.


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