Gone Fishing

Industrial overfishing and other man-made factors have pushed one-third of the world’s fish stocks to be threatened with extinction, and many other species are not far behind. The problem represents a serious risk to ocean biodiversity, and to large human populations that rely on fish for day-to-day survival. What can be done?

March 18, 2021 — 35:10 min
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Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Manuel Barange

Director, Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, Food and Agriculture Organization

Michele Kuruc

Vice President, Ocean Policy, World Wildlife Fund

Stewart M. Patrick

James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Show Notes

One third of the world’s fish stocks are currently overfished. Industrial fishing wreaks havoc on fragile marine ecosystems, and leads to egregious waste of marine life. The crisis is compounded by a lack of centralized oversight of the high seas and widespread illegal fishing operations.


Yet, as the world’s population booms, demand for fish as a source of protein and micronutrients is only expected to grow, particularly in some of the world’s poorest countries. In this episode, three experts assess the problem, and offer strategies for how the world can work together to preserve one of the earth’s most important shared resources.


From Manuel Barange


Feeding 9 billion by 2050—Putting fish back on the menu,” Food Security

Keynote Address, ICES Annual Science Conference 2019

Arctic Frontiers Conference 2020


Talking Oceans and Climate Change,” Food and Agriculture Organization


From Michele Kuruc


Michele Kuruc Before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee [PDF]


Life and Law,” World Wildlife Magazine


An Analysis of the Impact of IUU Imports on U.S. Fishermen [PDF],” World Wildlife Fund


The Threat of Illegal Fishing Is Too Great to Ignore,” Yahoo! News


From Stewart M. Patrick


Why the U.N. Pact on High Seas Biodiversity Is Too Important to Fail,” World Politics Review


Read More


North Pacific pollock fleet preps for season after tough 2020,” Alaska Journal of Commerce


Seafood from slaves,” Associated Press


Freshwater fish are in ‘catastrophic’ decline with one-third facing extinction, report finds,” CBS


EU must end overfishing to protect our oceans, say scientists,” Euronews


The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020,” Food and Agriculture Organization


Revealed: seafood fraud happening on a vast global scale,” Guardian


Hidden Chains,” Human Rights Watch


Dramatic shark decline leaves ‘gaping hole’ in ocean, new study reports,” Japan Times


Japan’s chefs build on the growing market for sustainable seafood,” Japan Times


Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish,” New York Times


‘The Fish Rots From the Head’: How a Salmon Crisis Stoked Russian Protests,” New York Times


The Battle Over Fish Farming In The Open Ocean Heats Up, As EPA Permit Looms,” NPR


Governments Should Act to End Harmful Fishing Subsidies,” Pew Charitable Trusts


Pressure Mounts on Governments Worldwide to Stop Subsidizing Overfishing,” Pew Charitable Trusts


5 Years Later: What’s Changed Since Mashiko Sushi Went Sustainable,” Seattle Magazine


Lawless Ocean: The Link Between Human Rights Abuses and Overfishing,” Yale Environment 360


Watch or Listen


The Fish on My Plate,” FRONTLINE


The four fish we’re overeating—and what to eat instead,” TED


Will the ocean ever run out of fish?” TED-Ed



It can be tough to try and make lifestyle choices that will help build a healthier world. Over and over, we find out that one of our habits is contributing to climate change, inequality, or the destruction of earth's biodiversity. Even habits we thought were healthy. 

Take seafood. For years we were told that fish were an important part of a good diet. But now we are learning that many of the fish we are used to eating are threatened species. 

Seafood is the largest traded food commodity in the world, and it plays an essential role in our global diet. For some people, fish are a luxury, but in many of the world's poorest and fastest-growing populations, it's a matter of survival. At the same time, relentless industrial fishing methods are pushing many species to the brink. If things don't change, our fishing habits could devastate ocean biodiversity and deplete a resource that humanity needs in order to survive. 

Fish are in trouble. But the solution may not be what you expect. 

I'm Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, will there always be plenty of fish in the sea?  

BBC: 1:49 “We have massive and widespread overfishing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbCR0KSU52g&t=109s

Teen Kids News: 1:30 “76 percent of the world fish now are fished at capacity or overfished and collapsing.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJmFpI2hmqU&t=90s

The France 24 Observers: 0:35 “In the last 50 years, the earth has lost half of its marine life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kfioTMk3uI&t=35s

BBC: 1:53 “We have completely destroyed the natural balance of fish in the world's ocean” https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=113&v=dbCR0KSU52g&feature=youtu.be

SIERRA: So, are we going to run out of fish?

Michele KURUC: If the current way that humans are fishing continues and the current practices remaining unchecked, that doesn't set up a good scenario for our future. 

Hi, my name is Michele Kuruc and I'm the vice president for Ocean Policy at the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. 

The pressure, the amount of fish, the frequency, the quantities that fishermen are taking out are really causing many stocks to be in very bad shape in terms of their future viability. I mean, fish is one of the most heavily traded food commodities that we have. 

Fishing really is a big business. In 2018, the global export market reached an estimated value of $164 billion dollars. Asia is the leading region in the fishing industry, with China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and one outlier - Spain- fielding the most vessels globally. The European Union, the United States, and Japan are the three places that consume the most fish by volume. 

KURUC: And it's really valuable, many different species are very high cost, so there's a lot of profit to be made in catching fish. We have these man-made causes, these drivers, these threats that are caused by just better technology, bigger boats, better refrigeration, easier methods of transport. And then we have some of the man-induced natural factors like climate change, which are also changing the water quality, the composition, the acidification of the water that fish call home. And some species can't adapt that well. They move to different parts of the ocean to have a more hospitable climate. And that then raises lots of political issues about who gets to catch and how many.

If you have ever gone fishing, you know the drill—a rod, a line, a hook, some bait, and maybe a boat. 

But modern-day industrial fishing looks nothing like that. 

The boats in many fishing fleets are essentially gigantic floating factories. Inside they have all the machinery necessary to process, freeze, and package hundreds of tons of fish per day. Guided to schools of fish by sonar and spotter planes, some of these ships drag nets that are over a mile long, snaring whole schools of fish that they are after, and many that they aren't after, too. 

Some of the methods are shocking. Take bottom trawling, which involves dragging massive nets across the ocean floor in the hopes of sweeping up fish. The process destroys coral and other ocean-floor ecosystems that are essential for all kinds of life, just for one catch. 

As fish populations decline, these fleets are having to travel further from land and drag their nets deeper in order to reach their targets.  

Manuel BARANGE: When it comes to fisheries, there are two things that are very important to know. First, about one in three fish stocks is overfished. And that means that we are catching more than the population is able to produce.

My name is Manuel Barange. I'm the director of Fisheries at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And I'm also a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK.

So to have an analogy with banking, you know, we are eating into the capital rather than just using the interest. And that doesn't mean that we are collapsing the population. It's just that this is not sustainable. We need, actually, to change that. But we see a dichotomy of what is happening between developed countries and developing countries. In developed countries, we see increasingly an improvement in sustainability status. In developing countries, we see the opposite. We see a decrease in sustainability, increasing volume of problems. And those are not easy to resolve. 

It doesn't sound good. One in three fish stocks, a.k.a. the types of fish we eat, are being destroyed faster than they can reproduce. And many others are on the edge. The incredible waste and destruction of industrial fishing fleets are awful to contemplate. If these are the only options, then maybe it's time to lay off the seafood.   

SIERRA: I mean, are we all going to just have to stop eating fish?

BARANGE: No, we certainly should not stop eating fish. And in fact, we should eat more fish. But that does not mean that everything is right and good in the world of fishing and fisheries. You know, when I was born, there were 3 billion people in the world. If I live a full life, by the time I die, there will be 10 billion people. So in my generation, we've multiplied by more than a factor of three of the number of people, and we all want to eat; we all need to eat, and we all have a right to eat. And so, of course, there's a pressure on all the food systems, and all food systems in the world, be that land-based or ocean-based, have impacts. All of them have impacts. Some of them are manageable, and some of them are less manageable. 

KURUC: Well, you know, right now, about one-half of the world's population is dependent upon fish for about 20 percent of their protein, so we're talking about over 3 billion people. So it's a very important source, not only of food but of nutrition, of livelihoods, of economic stability for communities that could have a whole cascade of negative consequences if we stop eating fish or if we continue to have these dangerous practices. So if, for instance, as you said, we stopped eating fish, something has to take the place in humans' diet, and there are many negative environmental consequences that would flow from that as well. So it's not a simple yes/no, take one thing out, and then everything else can operate as it does now. It's an interconnected system. The ocean obviously provides not only fish but many other things that we as humans need for the health of our planet.

The solution can't just be to stop eating fish altogether. And that's because food is a bit of a zero-sum game. If the world's population doesn't get calories from fish, they will have to get them from somewhere else. Even vegetarian options, like soy, can involve deforestation and other environmental impacts. And in many parts of the world, catching and eating fish is a matter of day-to-day survival. 

BARANGE: When you look at the global level, you know, fish production and fish consumption, you see that we now consume twice the volume of fish per capita that we used to in the 1960s. But that is particularly the case in developing countries. It is particularly the case in Africa, in the Pacific Islands, in general, in small island development states, where there's very few other opportunities for high-quality protein and very few opportunities for high-quality sources of micronutrients. Iron, zinc, vitamins, all those are concentrated in fish. And those are particularly important in pregnant women, children under five, so that is important to recognize, and fish has a very significant role to play. 

Even in the developed world, where it can be a luxury rather than a necessity, fish can be an important part of a healthy diet. But to have sustainable access to fish, we may need to ease pressure on the handful of species we are used to eating and think about expanding our palettes. 

BARANGE: I think that we humans like to eat what we are used to eating. So, we know we go to the shops, and we have a shopping list that tells us what is that we need. You know, some people only want to eat cod or tuna. And we don't have the flexibility of mind to understand that this is perhaps not the best thing to do. The best thing to do is to eat the fish of the day, whatever has been able to be caught that day or that week by the fishermen in your area. And part of the problem is that we don't know how to cook different types of fish, so there is an element of consuming education that is quite important to make people see the greater advantage and the fantastic possibilities that we have when it comes to fish. I mean, compare it to land-based animals. What do we have? Cows, pigs, chickens, you know - you count with the fingers of two hands. In the case of fish, you have about 600 species to choose. It's a great diversity. 

The problem isn’t really fishing itself. It’s fishing a handful of species unsustainably. In the global race to figure out how to feed billions of people without dooming the environment, fish are actually one of the best tools we have. But we’re interacting with them in a very short-sighted way. 

BARANGE: You know, when we talk about the oceans, it's a single word, right? But it is a very, very large space. We are talking about 70 percent of the surface of the planet, and over 90 percent of the habitable space in the planet; and habitable not by us, I mean, habitable by organisms. So in terms of this space that aquatic systems have, it is huge, and yet we only produce about 2 percent of our caloric intake in those systems. So we are really not using aquatic systems to the full. And if we are to feed 10 billion people, we need to do that. We can't just rely on land systems, which are extremely stressed, as we all know. If we have to increase, for example, agricultural production, we need to start cutting forests. Who wants to do that? Or we want to intensify production by using, for example, genetically modified strains, and who wants to do that? So they are limits to the capacity to produce food on land, and we have not reached those limits in the water at all. And furthermore, perhaps something that people don't know. But fish are a very efficient converter of feed into flesh. There's a particular ratio that we use very regularly in foul, and that is, how much feed do you need to produce 1 kilogram of flesh of 1 organism. And in the case of fish, that ratio is 1 to 1.3. In other words, we need 1.3 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of flesh in the fish. In chicken, it is 1.9. In pigs, it is 4; in beef, it is 8, you need 8 kilograms of feed for 1 kilogram of flesh. And this is for two reasons. First, because fish live in water, and because of that, they have to invest less energy into creating bones. Because in water, the effect of gravity is more controlled, they don't have to fight gravity in the same way that you or I have to when we stand up. And furthermore, they don't regulate their temperature. They actually just keep the temperature of the water. So when it comes to looking at what are the advantages, or what are the sources of food for the future, fish has so many boxes that you would tick. You have to invest in fish for so many different reasons.

Compared to land, the ocean has a lot left to offer. But the fish species we are targeting are being fished to the brink. Bluefin tuna, red snapper, halibut, swordfish, pollock, and even cod are just some of the species under threat. What to do? One solution is something called fish farming, also known as aquaculture. Take a section of ocean, close it off, grow fish, and let the rest remain untouched. But fish farming is not as ideal in practice as it can seem at first. 

KURUC: So farmed seafood, which is usually called aquaculture, makes up a really important part of our fish supply. It's been increasing in recent years, and now it's almost half. So, on the one hand, it certainly relieves some of the pressure on the wild fish stocks that we're trying to take out of the ocean. But we also have to factor in what are some of the harms that aquaculture, farmed seafood, can cause? And we have this conversion factor because farmed fish is going to take other things out of the environment, like mangroves, areas that are important nursery grounds for fish. They serve lots of important functions for our planet. There's an interconnectivity between both farmed fish and wild-caught fish in the sense that if you have a fish farm, you need to feed those fish. And currently, a lot of the fish food, the fish meal is ground up wild-caught fish that is fed to these fish that are on these farms. So the fishing aspect, the wild-caught fishing aspect, remains really important for both sectors, both in the wild-caught as well as in the farm sector. It's not like there's going to be an easy answer if we switch all of our fish procurement to fish farming. The other thing that I think is probably at least somewhat interesting to know is that not all species have been successfully farmed. So the variety of fish that we currently enjoy would go down dramatically because there are only certain types of species that can be successfully farmed today.

Aquaculture has its problems, but the most significant pressure on threatened species remains traditional wild catches. And to understand the kind of damage being done, it helps to take a look at a species that is not itself threatened...shrimp. 

KURUC: So, when shrimp are caught, typically, there is about one pound of shrimp that's retained for nine pounds of other fish that are caught in the same net, at the same time, that are discarded because they're not part of the target fishery. In other words, they're not shrimp. They call them discards, and those are fish that are typically dead, and they're thrown over the side. 

In the world of fishing, this is sometimes referred to as “bycatch”. 

KURUC: They're not utilized, at least, in many countries. In some countries where they don't have the luxury of being able to discard anything, all of it comes onshore, but in most countries, that's not the case. And it's not just other fish. Oftentimes, sea turtles get caught up in those nets as well. Sea turtles need to breathe air, they need to surface, they need to come up pretty often, and those fishing nets that are fishing for shrimp typically stay down for a long time. And it's one of the biggest hazards for our sea turtle population, and that's the intersection with the shrimp fishery and trying to figure out ways to save turtles and still preserve the fishing industry for shrimp.

If that’s not enough, there’s another major problem with shrimp fishing: it has been tied to severe human rights abuses, including modern slavery aboard fishing vessels in Thailand. In fact, there are a host of human rights concerns when it comes to the global fishing industry, and the topic could be a subject of its own episode. We encourage listeners to check out the resources in our show notes to understand more about what’s going on there.  

SIERRA: And these unsustainable practices, this is common across various types of fish?

KURUC: In many, many types of fisheries, they're looking for the ideal sized fish. Oftentimes, it means fish that fits on a dinner plate or they're looking for certain condition of the fish. They're looking for the fish that is going to bring them the best price and everything else. Regardless of whether they've caught it or not, they'll throw it overboard. So, there is a very high amount of waste and the unsustainability comes in. Obviously, there are finite amounts of population. And so, you can't only keep 10 percent and throw away 90 percent and not expect that's going to have an impact on the health of the fish populations.

SIERRA: It's wild to me because that's not even the illegal fishing part.

KURUC: No. I know.

SIERRA: That's the legal part.

KURUC: I know. I know. 

The story of shrimp, and the incredible waste of bycatch, is just a window into the practices that make humanity’s engagement with fish as a food source so inefficient, and so unsustainable. And as fish contend with ever-more relentless methods, other threats are looming over their survival.  

BARANGE: There are many other activities in the oceans that perhaps go a little bit under the radar or not as in the radar as fisheries. For example, coastal zone development, the removal of mangroves and seagrasses for a number of purposes, from mineral extraction to the building of marinas, to the expansion of bays, to the dragging of harbors, a lot of those activities that perhaps one does not think so much in terms of the impact. That is the first thing. Second, of course, oil exploration and such activities that do have significant impacts, most of those activities take place within a narrow band from the continental shelf, you know, they will be largely within the first fifty kilometers or so from the coast. That is the area of the oceans that is particularly impacted. And I'm including here pollution issues, runoff from agriculture, production, lots of nutrients that end up in the sea, plastic pollution, and the like. Those areas are very, very highly impacted. When it comes to high seas further away from the coast, then the major impact really is climate change, because the ocean plays a very significant role in regulating the climate. For example, 90 percent of the additional heat that we have produced as a result of global warming sits in the ocean. And a quarter of the carbon emissions that we emit are in the ocean. So the ocean has a very significant role in climate regulation and also a significant impact. In fact, it is the geographical area that will suffer the impacts of climate change most. So when you think about temperature change, what you will see is that organisms adapt to that. So all fish tend to have an environmental window that they feel comfortable in. And that environmental window might be, say, from seventeen to eighteen degrees. If those seventeen to eighteen degrees move physically because the water is warming, they will move with that water. And so we expect a number of species to move towards the poles in both directions. So that's the first impact, changes in distribution. There will be also changes in production. Some species will see a decrease in production and others an increase in production. All that has huge implications for food production in the ocean, at all levels, if you can imagine, for example, a fisherman suddenly going out to sea and not finding the fish that they are used to fishing. And it's not that easy to change to another species to fish because some of them require different boats, different gear, and different technology and different expertise. And that goes all the way up the food chain, all the way up to humans. 

Fish don’t obey borders. The human sphere is a lot thornier, and figuring out what is and isn’t legal at sea can be confusing. In order to understand how it works, we turned to friend of the pod and CFR’s own Stewart Patrick, who is an expert on global governance.  

SIERRA: Who is in charge of the ocean? 

Stewart PATRICK: Well, it's a really complicated question. The oceans are massive, right? They cover 71 percent of the earth's surface and about a third of that falls under the sovereign jurisdiction of particular nation-states. But the rest of the oceans, the so-called high seas, are really the quintessential global commons. They belong to everybody and to nobody, and they're governed by an incomplete patchwork of treaties and bodies.

Now, the closest thing that exists to a constitution for the world's oceans is the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. But UNCLOS, to use its acronym, has a lot of significant gaps, and that's particularly true when it comes to conservation and management of natural resources, particularly fisheries. Now the convention establishes special rights for coastal states in their territorial waters, but also in what are called exclusive economic zones that extend about 200 nautical miles from shore. But beyond that, there are a lot fewer rules. Now, in theory, about 95 percent of the world's fisheries, including the high seas, are governed by nearly twenty organizations called Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. But the rules of these bodies are limited to their own member states, and they're often poorly enforced. Plus, they only deal with a limited number of species, and they're really uneven in their regulatory power and their conservation mandate.

Another issue is that a lot of fish species are highly migratory, and they travel back and forth between areas of national jurisdiction and the high seas, and nobody asks for their passports, but you still have to manage these species.

So what does this patchwork of laws mean for the health of the oceans, for fish, for biodiversity? 

PATRICK: You know, the impact of poor governance has been devastating, and it's getting worse. Advances in technology have really outpaced any kind of regulations and stewardship of the oceans. They're permitting this huge dramatic exploitation of the seas, and we're getting better at finding and harvesting fish, but we're doing really poorly in terms of conserving and managing these resources that are so critical. 

Is it possible to imagine a new global system that could better regulate how humans interact with the ocean and with fish? 

PATRICK: The best thing that could be hoped for would be a Paris Agreement for the oceans in which the countries of the world all came together and pledged to do more to meet a global target. In particular, to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean in their territorial waters and also on the high seas from human exploitation. This is the target of the global campaign for nature. And it's been endorsed by more than fifty countries. But the hurdles to getting to this 30% target, particularly in the open ocean, are immense. The best immediate step in the direction of protecting the oceans would be to ratify a high seas biodiversity convention, which is envisioned as an implementing agreement under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.

The high seas biodiversity convention would be designed to ensure that we can serve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. And this treaty would allow the identification of areas that are especially fragile and also important ecologically, including for critical fish species. These areas would require special treatment. Now negotiations over this draft treaty have been going on for several years, and the fourth and final stage of these negotiations is supposed to occur by the end of 2021. If this treaty were ratified, it would mandate environmental impact assessments of major commercial activities, including deep-seabed mining. It would also allow countries to set up marine protected areas and other area-based management tools, not only in their territorial waters but on the high seas. It isn't perfect, but it would help.

Coming to a global agreement on how we can protect our shared oceans is perhaps the most important factor in solving the problem. But there are also a lot of local laws when it comes to fishing. And they can have an impact too. 

SIERRA: What sort of regulations are there on the fishing process? How strict is fish law?

KURUC: I love that term, fish law.

SIERRA: I love it too. I think I might've made it up, but you could have it.

KURUC: I know I've been doing this for a long time, and I've never heard anybody call it fish law. So I think that's just great. There are lots of aspects of fishing, licensing vessels, operating vessels, who can do that, what kind of a license do they need to have? What sort of restrictions are in place? Are there requirements about almost all of that? The answer is yes, there are, but what there isn't is an equal system throughout the world that respects the rule of law that enforces all of these requirements at an equally strict level. Obeying the law hasn't necessarily been very well-respected either.

Enforcing the law is hard enough within a sovereign country on land. Enforcing it in the vast expanse of an ocean system, without any centralized authority, is nearly impossible. Experts estimate that at least 30 percent of the fish caught every year are caught illegally. The perpetrators range from established companies to transnational organized crime rings. Within the realm of illegal fishing, crimes range up and down the supply chain, including the targeting of protected species, fishing in protected areas, fish-laundering, and mislabeling. One study found that 36 percent of seafood products in thirty countries had been mislabeled by the time the consumer bought it. 

KURUC: Measuring how much illegal activity there is, is difficult. People who break the law try to hide what they do. In many cases in fisheries, it's not hard. You look at two fish; you cannot tell from looking at them if one was caught legally and one was caught illegally. They look exactly the same. It's quite a challenge to put in place requirements and regulations that can be easily enforced all over the world. 

SIERRA: So are there any examples of regulations that have worked?

KURUC: I'm glad you asked that question. I didn't want this to be a story only of gloom and doom.

SIERRA: Me neither.

KURUC: So the short answer is yes, and the region that has really pioneered some of the most successful programs is the European Union. And a little more than ten years ago, they embarked upon the development of basically a two-tier program. It looks at the countries that the EU is buying their fish from to see if they are adhering to appropriate standards for enforcing their laws. Do they even have laws? Are they basically a responsible trading partner when it comes to how they supply fish to the EU? And they have used this program to sanction countries, providing yellow cards, and in some cases, advancing to red cards. And if you get a red card, just like in soccer, you're in big trouble, because the red card basically means that the trade-in fish from your country is no longer going to be allowed into the lucrative EU market until you basically clean up your act and the EU has given you sort of a clean bill of health. And so the reason that I feel that that has been so successful is because it harnesses the very important power of trade and market leverage to try to get countries to do what they should have been doing all along, to say, "If we want to keep selling, if we want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our trade, we have got to do better."

It has really changed in a relatively short period of time, the activities of many, many, many countries that have not historically been doing very well. So, I would say that that's probably the most effective success story when it comes to a new way to improve how we fish and to try to make sure that some of the really bad things are not rewarded by getting additional market share.

The EU’s effort is worth looking at because it doesn’t just address the bloc’s own fishing practices. It uses their economic clout to influence the behavior of other countries and regions. With fish, as with so much else, money talks. 

And there are a lot of other good ideas on the table too. 

SIERRA: What reforms would you most like to see? If fish as a food source is something that's going to continue, that needs to continue, you know, how do we get eating fish right?

KURUC: One of the biggest problems, and it remains a problem today in many places, is the inability to have transparent data about all aspects of fishing operations and fish trade be available, so accountability and verification can be achieved. We need to know who's out there fishing? How much fish are they taking? What kind of fish are they taking? Is it really what they say it is? We need lots of data. We need technology to really be put to work on some of these issues. And if there was going to be one major change, that would be it. So it takes the guesswork away that, when you're a consumer, standing in your grocery store saying, "Should I buy that piece of salmon for dinner tonight? Or is that really a bad choice because I'm not really sure about it?" If you think that the government is already making those evaluations for you, sadly in most countries, you would be wrong because they're not. We shouldn't have to be wondering. We shouldn't have to make a choice about our food that's based on a lack of information.

There's one other thing. I mean, I talked about this at a really high systems level, but I will say that there's also another aspect to this, and that's at the personal level. And what can consumers, who really want to be responsible, who care about the health of our planet, what can they do? There's a relatively simple thing. And first and foremost, that is, speak up and ask questions. And I don't mean that necessarily in a political sense, although advocacy with lawmakers is always great. But this is just much more simple. When you're in the supermarket, or you go to the fish market, or you're in a restaurant, and you're thinking about ordering fish, you can ask the person that you're dealing with, "Do you know if this is sustainably caught?"

BARANGE: You know sustainability is a bummer. It is a really difficult thing to do. You are always chasing your tail, right? So working towards sustainable use is a difficult thing. You have to look at every level, what is it that is failing? You know, why is it that you are not making something so sustainable? Now in the U.S., for example, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that for every fish stock in the US, to manage them properly, you need the order of $3 million a year. And so if you have twenty species, you are looking, you know, north of $50 million a year to manage those resources properly. Now, for the U.S., $50 million is not a lot. But for some other countries, it's a lot of money. And so sometimes countries have different priorities, and are not investing sufficient effort, money, infrastructure, people, scientists, to make those resources sustainable. So there are many things that can be done, and very many that are not working well. But the most important is to make decisions on the basis of science, number one, and to have political support for those decisions. If you have those two, you can fix almost anything. If you follow the science, and you invest your political will into following the science, then fisheries and other food systems are very sustainable and will feed us into the future.

The ocean belongs to all of us. It touches every region of the earth. But its biodiversity is on the deep threat. It’s not foolish to imagine the overstored ocean, the ocean that once again teams with fish for millions and millions of years. Nor it’s foolish to imagine a sustainable ocean that continues to provide food for ever-growing human population. It’s not the one or the other. We have the knowledge we need to do both. The only question is whether we will act on what we know. 


For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/Whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.

Have a question or some feedback? Just feel like saying hey? Send us an email at [email protected]

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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. 

Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Our intern for this semester is Zoe Han. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Additional research and extra help were provided by Elena Tchainikova. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!

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