Andrew Sharpless, CEO, Oceana

Originally published in The Earth Island Journal

Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless estimates that if we managed the world’s oceans better, wild seafood could potentially be a major protein source for our world’s ever-growing population. He says, “a fully productive ocean could provide the entire animal protein diet for a billion people, or 13 to 15 percent of the animal protein produced on the entire planet,” by 2050. His claim has been questioned by some fisheries economists, who say the numbers are way inflated, and by environmentalists opposed to the idea of promoting fish consumption at a time when the most of the world’s marine life is in peril. But the head of the largest international organization working to protect the world’s oceans, believes his theory makes practical sense, since one can’t effectively ban the eating of meat, fish, and animal protein. I spoke with Sharpless about his “Save the Oceans and Feed the World” idea and other threats to oceans when he was in San Francisco last month. An excerpt from our conversation

photo of a well-dressed man in a restaurant

It’s rare to have anyone talk about fish as major protein source for the world in the future. Most of the conversation now is about how to stop overfishing. Don’t you get criticized for talking about saving the ocean by eating fish?

There’s a view that everybody should be a vegetarian. My daughter’s vegetarian, so this is a view that I live with. As a moral matter I respect the debate. As a practical matter it feels like a sideshow to the main activity, which is – we’re emptying the oceans in a way that’s incredibly shortsighted.

I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t’ think the world in on the path to becoming vegetarian. As a practical matter we have to address the fact that you can’t effectively ban the eating of meat and fish and animal protein. So what we need to do is manage that [meat and fish consumption] in a sensible and long term, and responsible way.

But not everyone likes to eat fish. You say it could be the main source of protein for the world, but many people might not want fish as their protein source.

I don’t think there’s a problem with there not being enough people in the world who like to eat fish. We are saying that, in the best-case scenario, the role that an abundant ocean can play in feeding the world is that it can provide equal to what eggs provide currently. And that doesn’t require everybody in the world to eat fish everyday. Something to the order to 700 million or one billion people could eat fish every day and that’s a sustainable number.

I do want to call out that there are some benefits to eating fish as opposed to terrestrial livestock. There are going to be nine billion people on the planet and a lot of them are going to want to eat animal protein – lamb or eggs or poultry or fish.

Ask yourself which is the most cost efficient to produce? Which requires the most fresh water? Which one uses the most land (which is in short supply) to produce? Which one releases the most CO2 in the process of being produced? Which one is the healthiest for people to eat? The answer to every single one of those is fish.

And, medical studies show if you shift from red meat to fish, you get omega-3 fatty acids that are extremely good for your health. They help with obesity, heart disease, brain development … So I think it’s fair to say that fish are the perfect protein.

Another interesting data point is that about a third of all of the fish we catch in the world’s oceans is fed to other fish and other livestock. It’s called reduction fishery. You are taking the fish and you’re feeding it to something else that’s not a person and in the process you are losing most of the value of the fish – something like 90 percent of the value. And if you were to feed all of the world’s fish directly to people and manage the oceans better, by the middle of the century you could give 1.1 billion people a fish-based meal every day. So that’s the scope of what a really abundant ocean can do for feeding people.

I just think this is a huge opportunity.

You mention that ensuring sustainable fishing practicies can’t be a global, top down effort. That it has to be a country-by-country effort. What would you like individual countries to do?

Everybody knows, from a technical perspective, what to do to make the oceans be abundant, and it’s just three things – have reasonable science-based [catch] quotas, protect nursery habitat, and reduce bycatch, that is, the accidental killing of non-target species. Usually fish, because they are so prolific, if you give them these three things, within about 10 years you can see a really measurable increase in the number of fish in the water.

Unfortunately, we are headed in the wrong direction right now. We have so mismanaged the world’s fisheries that they peaked in the late 1980s. Total global catches have been declining. You’ve heard of peak oil, we’ve hit peak fish. We are headed down the backside of that. We need to turn that around.

Unfortunately the UN isn’t very competent at forcing change in the world. But here’s some good news –coastal countries of the world have control of their coastal oceans out to 200 nautical miles [from their shores – the area is designated as the concerned country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ]. So, for example, nobody fishes within 200 miles of the US coast without the US government’s permission. So the quotas, the habitats, the bycatch in the coasts of the US are under management by the US. You don’t have to go to the UN to regulate it. Same is true across the world.

Two hundred nautical miles is a long way. And guess what? Fish have the good sense to spend most of their lives in these coastal zones. By a ratio of 7 to 1, the world’s oceans’ fish are caught within the national zones of these coastal countries.  That means we can get the job done country by country.

We made a list of top 10 countries whose EEZs have the largest catches of ocean’s fish. Found that 53 percent of the world’s ocean fish are caught in the EEZs of just 10 countries. The US is the third on that list. Peru is number one because of a very small fish, the anchovy.

Point here is, 10 countries give you 53 percent of the world’s fish. Twenty-five countries give you 75 percent of the world’s fish. So what Oceana would like to do, working with other conservation groups, is to get those 10 to 25 countries to do the three things we talked about– set quotas, protect nursery habitat, and prevent bycatch. National policymaking in those countries is the chief lever to get that done.

photo of a trawler at sea, nets deployed
Photo by Jon Anderson

When it comes to regulating fishing catches, “it’s an arm-wrestling match” between the big
fleet operators and regulators,” says Sharpless.

But setting quotas can be a difficult task. It’s been tough implementing sustainable fishing practices in the US, for example. Any thoughts on how we can move beyond this conflict between the fishing industry and regulators?

Short answer is no. It’s an arm-wrestling match everywhere in the world between the big fleet operators who tend to take a short view of things and the scientifically-driven view that Oceana and sensible regulators have.

If you are the operator of a big fleet you are really focused on this year’s results and on the money you make this year. When a regulator comes to you and says I’m going to ask you to reduce your income for five or six years but you’ll get more income in years seven, eight, and nine, you don’t have to be a fisherman to worry that future payment won’t come. It will, science shows that, but businesspeople tend to focus on the short term and the operators of these big fleets are just businesspeople.

There are some things you can do to try to help convince the fleet to back down. The places in the world where there are still abundant fisheries, the fleets tend to be more rational. They tend to be able to take a longer view. Like, for example, the northern Pacific, where we work, is one of the most productive parts of American fisheries and has one of the best fisheries management in place. In New England fisheries, which have long been mismanaged, are in a much more depleted state. The fights there tend to be much bloodier between the science side of things and the fleet side of things.

Can you cite some countries that have best fishing practices?

Oceana works in US, Europe, Chile, and Belize. We observe that there are some countries in the world that do a decent job and some that do a lousy job. One of the places that does it well is Norway, which is a big fishing country. They do a lot of sensible things. They very strictly control discarding at sea. They’ve done a lot of habitat protection and bottom-trawling control. They are an example of where the scientific community and the fishing industry has sat down and made sure they can make money forever. New Zealand is fairly progressive too. But the Europeans have done a terrible job… The Spanish fleet is a predator that the world needs to worry about… So there are some positive examples, but there aren’t as many as you would like.

Given that Oceana works to project marine life and prevent ocean pollution, what’s its stand on all this speculation about mining for rare earth metals in the oceans?

Oceana is very disciplined about not trying to fight everything on earth and lose everything. We have a limited number of goals that we prioritize and we focus on those. So Oceana does not have a formal position on ocean deep-sea mineral exploration. At the moment it’s a highly speculative, highly expensive thing and I think it’s a long way away from being commercially viable.

There is a form of deep-sea mineral extraction that we are very worried about – it’s called deep sea ocean oil drilling. And that is a serous problem and Oceana has been leading the fight from a principled point of view. We oppose ocean oil drilling. Period. End of story. We think it’s a shortsighted, idiotically stupid thing for any country that values its beaches or its fisheries to allow. We were against it before Deepwater Horizon blew up.  We had testified before Congress on this issue. I really worry a lot about the moment we are in right now in the world with high gasoline prices. Because there seems to be about 20 percent of the American population that moves back and forth in its attitude about ocean oil drilling based on the price of gasoline.

And that 20 percent would make a key difference in national opinion?

Yeah. Because there’s 40 percent [of the American population] locked in on either side.

The problem is that you are not going to get $2 gasoline by allowing the oil companies to drill the hell out of American oceans, or even American land for that matter. Because the way the world sets oil prices is on a global market. It’s not the domestic supply and demand, it’s the international supply and demand that sets the price of oil.

The really sad thing is when you give a green light to ocean oil exploration in America, and you cash in your own beach and your own fishery, you don’t get $2 gasoline back. Because that oil, when it’s found, gets sold to the highest bidder on the world market.

But we can’t talk just about not drilling in the US, or in one country’s coastal area, when we are talking about the world’s oceans…

Yes, Oceana opposes it everywhere. We found fought hard to stop an ocean-drilling project in the Canary islands off the coast of Spain; we fought hard again ocean oil drilling in Belize, where we work. Belize has 40 percent to the second largest reef in the world and it has leased 94 percent of its oceans to oil companies for exploration. It has so-called “protected” 34 percent of its waters. But they have allowed oil exploration in protected zones. So Oceana is battling very hard right now to get those oil exploration leases closed. This is a country where one oil leak, 1/20th the size of Deepwater Horizon will devastate it’s fundamental driver for foreign income – tourism.

Any last words for our readers?

Pay attention to what fish you eat. Make your personal consumption morally responsible. But that’s not all you should do. You have to get engaged in helping Oceana, or whatever conservation group you want to pick, to pressure the regulators to do a better job at setting quotas and stopping bycatch. They need to step up and they need to hear from citizens that we want them to do a better job. And I hope people will do that.