How to Catch Fish and Save Fisheries

As first published on the NY Times Op-Ed page October 19, 2012.


This week, top environmental ministers from 168 countries descended upon Hyderabad, India. Their goal: agree on how to protect 10 percent of the world’s ocean, a target they set two years ago under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  You might be thinking, same old story —easy to agree on goals; hard to agree on how to meet them.

Photo by Carl Safina

Why it matters: The U.S. Commerce Department just declared major fisheries in New England, Alaska and Mississippi a “disaster.” A new study found that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral since 1985.ii  British and French fisherman clashed as boats from the UK sailed into French waters on the hunt for scallops.iii  But that bell tolls not just for the fishermen. Fish are the primary source of protein for an estimated one billion people around the world.

The journal Science recently published the first comprehensive analysis of more than 10,000 fisheries—roughly 80 percent of our global fish catch.iv The conclusion: fish worldwide are swiftly declining. This global analysis paints a stark new picture of a global ocean fished to exhaustion in an increasingly hungry world.

So, why are we hopeful? It’s because the analysis of global fisheries has a silver lining. We have not reached a point of no return. We have time. Solutions exist.

The good news is that many large commercial fisheries are already benefiting from the improved management of the last decade. The harder problem is with smaller-scale fisheries that local communities rely on for food and income. The fact is that small-scale fishers — who fish within 10 miles of their coast — account for nearly half of the world’s global catch and employ 33 million of the world’s 36 million fishermen, while also creating jobs for 107 million people in fish processing and selling [pdf]. Mostly poor, they live mainly in areas lacking fisheries management, monitoring and enforcement. No one is in a position to formally declare their fisheries “disasters.” They must just endure their situation. Or — take control of it.

A rising tide of local communities is doing just that. Here’s the emerging recipe proposed in that same Science study: Give local fishers exclusive access to their fishing grounds in the form of territorial use rights, or TURF.

In exchange for the privilege of exclusivity, local fishermen agree to establish and protect no-take zones. Results include increased fish populations, richer marine habitats, and coastlines less vulnerable to climate change — and more food for people.

Unleashing the self-interest of local fishermen to advance both conservation and economic development can create one of those rare win-win scenarios.

A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no-take zone can more than quadruple. Fish numbers outside the reserve can double. And, exclusive access enables investment and better management, increasing the catch’s value.

It works. We’ve visited several local fisheries in Mexico and the Philippines this year — with heads of leading research institutions, NGOs and government agencies — and in each case, we witnessed increasing fish populations, increased catch value and better-protected reefs.

TURF reserves are not a silver bullet. They might, however, be the silver buckshot. With nearly one billion people reliant on the ocean for their primary source of protein, stakes are high. If the most fish-dependent nations adopted widespread networks of TURF Reserve, they can potentially create enough fish recovery to feed hundreds of millions of people.

That’s a big if, however. The solution is not to fix a small number of fisheries. We need thousands of TURF reserves in dozens of countries just to get the ball rolling. Ultimately, we need a commitment of governments, foundations, NGOs and the private sector to forge a major investment in near shore fisheries in the developing tropics. The coastal communities themselves must unfurl the ocean’s silver lining.

Protecting 10 percent of the world’s oceans is no small task. TURF reserves offer one solution to start us down that path. But they are neither complicated nor expensive. Clearly this problem — and the opportunity — is bigger than all of us. And there are a billion reasons for us to act like it.



Carl Safina is founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University.

Brett Jenks is the President and CEO of Rare, a Virginia-based global conservation organization actively working with local communities in Latin America, Indonesia, the Philippines and China on solutions that enable both people and planet to flourish.








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