What Would It Take? Sustainable Ocean Fisheries

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What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wendee Holtcamp spoke with ocean advocate Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, about how to create sustainable ocean fisheries.

What would it take to create sustainable ocean fisheries?

It is going to take coordination at the highest levels, coordination between different government entities responsible for managing resources. Nations are struggling to set catch limits and quotas, while still trying to figure out how many fish are there. We don’t know enough about the oceans, yet we’re reducing the amount of money we’re spending on research. A lot of very smart people around the world are working on the problem of sustainable fisheries, but we need to invest more in science. We also need to get the fishermen on board. We need to get them to embrace devices like the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), and to use nets with wider filaments so they’re catching their target species, rather than tighter nets that catch everything. It will take fishermen staying out of marine protected areas and catching the species they’re allowed to fish and not overexploited species. If we’re able to get everyone on the same page, we still can achieve sustainability. But we are running out of time.

How are we doing so far?

Right now we are failing miserably. It’s a free-for-all out in the ocean. There’s no ownership of common spaces, and there’s a “get it before the next guy gets it” mentality.

What can consumers do to help?

People should avoid fish that are overexploited, such as Chilean sea bass, swordfish, shark, irresponsibly caught shrimp and all sorts of other species on the brink. In the U.S. alone we have almost 700 different species that are not only safe to eat but also tasty, but we eat the same dozen species every time because we know what they look like, we know our family will eat them. We need to make different choices. If it continues to go on as now, we’re going to see some major collapses.

How does your organization, Blue Legacy, work with sustainable water issues?

Last year, we converted John McCain’s Straight Talk Express into a biodiesel mobile workstation, and then went on a 17,100-mile expedition across North America, stopping on many spots along the way to tell the water stories of local communities and local water-keepers. Through film and expeditionary filmmaking, we work to reconnect people with the water in their life, water that shapes the land they live on, shapes the places they live, the communities they have and the quality of life they depend on. The short films are distributed primarily online to media partners, schools, nonprofits and all sorts of organizations so they can tell their stories online to advance their objectives in the communities they serve. When we stopped in a community, we made that day all about them.

Has having a baby affected your outlook?

When I think about projections on what we’ll have in 5, 10, 50 years, all of a sudden that’s a time frame of Clémentine’s life, and those milestones are very poignant. When I was young, I had great opportunity to see a lot of extraordinary places, but now they’re gone or fundamentally different from how I knew them. That grieves me. There were places that broadened my view of the world, and as we lose those places we impoverish ourselves. I want there to be places she can spend weeks exploring tide pools, and pristine creeks where she can catch tadpoles. I want her to know those things. Our generation is the last generation to be able to save some of these treasures we have. It’s our “space race” to protect the quantity and quality of water systems. If we fail, her generation will have lost some really irreplaceable natural places and species.

Published in association with Momentum, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.Image by Bil Zelman.

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