Last month, I was invited to speak at the Camden Conference in Maine. This conference brings experts from a number of disciplines together with policymakers, industry leaders and college students to discuss some of the biggest issues facing our world today. This year’s theme was “The Global Politics of Food and Water,” and I spoke about how the ocean sits at the nexus of these issues.
Right now, the ocean is in a period of uncertainty. Climate change and a growing population are changing the chemistry of the ocean and the life that calls it home. But instead of viewing the ocean’s changes in a negative light, I think we have an incredible opportunity to become better problem-solvers. We can break free from old resource management models to find new solutions for our changing ocean. We can effectively address these new complexities; it’s not too late.
Smart fisheries management is a great place to start a conversation about putting the ocean at the center of the world’s biggest challenges. This is because the most profitable type of fishing is sustainable fishing – better management helps fishermen and the ocean at the same time.
Sustainable fishing means keeping enough fish in the water to reproduce and ensure a bountiful catch in the future. It’s a balancing act, but sustainable fisheries are in everyone’s best interest – from fishermen to distributors to gear manufacturers to retailers to consumers. If you’re a fisherman and you want to pass on your traditions to the next generation, or you want to be able to make good money 10 years from now, the most profitable way to fish is sustainably.
Unfortunately, overfishing due to poor fisheries management remains a global problem that threatens ecosystem health and human survival. For example, without enough forage fish—small fish like anchovies, sardines, and squid—the larger predators, like tuna, that feed on them will start to disappear as well.
That matters because we are facing a future with 9 billion people on the planet, and with that future comes huge concerns for food security.
Our most popular tweet of the week deals with an updated report on the amount of sharks that are killed every year by humans, with the tally at a sobering 100 million. That’s 30 to 60 percent higher than sharks can sustain at their current population growth rates, which illustrates how large of a problem dwindling shark populations are becoming. With sharks being such a naturally powerful maintenance mechanism in the ocean, this is definitely a conservation issue worth looking into.
At the Ocean Conservancy, we’re working to ensure a healthy ocean because we know that the ocean sustains us. The oxygen we breathe, the protein we eat, the moderate climates we enjoy, the joys of fishing, boating, diving and surfing, the easy global transfer of goods, and even the water we drink—all of this is thanks to the ocean. If the ocean is healthy, so are we.
Keeping it healthy is not easy, however. The only thing growing faster than our population—2 billion more people by 2040—is our consumption. The world’s population is becoming richer, and our demand for protein, energy, minerals and more, is exploding. The ocean holds the key to satisfying much of that demand, and it is thus at the very center of the most pressing challenge of our time: how do we create prosperity for all without destroying the natural world that sustains us?
We can do this, but we must first awaken to what is truly needed. In the old days, being an environmentalist meant that we sought to clean up very specific messes. As a child, I witnessed this when the first attempts were made to clean up the Rhine River, which was a cesspool at the time—and, against all odds, we succeeded to the point that salmon were re-introduced.
But now our job is much bigger, because the distinctions we once had in the environmental movement—among people working on the ocean, on air pollution, on biodiversity, on climate change, on land use, on natural resources—are increasingly meaningless. We know that the ocean sustains us at a very existential level and that all of these natural systems are interconnected.
As is the case with many career paths, my journey toward joining Ocean Conservancy as President and CEO is a long and circuitous one, and it begins with a childhood spent playing along the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany. Inspired by the post-war environmental awakening in industrial northern Germany, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to conservation.
When I graduated from high school, my father gave me 3,000 Deutsche Marks and told me to leave out of the front door of the house and return at the back door, taking the long way around. As naïve as it sounds, I started my “walkabout” in the United States by sticking my thumb in the air outside the arrivals terminal of New York City’s JFK airport and eventually hitchhiked my way across the country.