Keeping More Fish in the Ocean: Good for People, Good for Nature

More and more fishers understand that their jobs and livelihoods depend on healthy fish populations. As fish disappear, so do their businesses.
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It sometimes feels like environmentalists focus on the negative, always talking about the dangers of deforestation, climate change and other threats to our natural world.

And to be sure, we face numerous challenges that must be confronted. But there is also plenty of good news to share.

Across the country, communities are working with environmental organizations to find ways to keep lands and waters healthy and, in turn, promote local jobs and economies.

In Port Clyde, Maine, fishing communities are working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to use nets with holes of different shapes and sizes in order to manage their catches and the health of fish populations. The nets are designed to allow more juveniles and fish too small to meet legal requirements to escape. While the amount of fish they bring in is somewhat reduced, fishermen are reporting other benefits. Because there is less bycatch (illegally small and commercially-unviable fish), fishers save time sorting and there is less damage to the fish they do catch -- meaning higher quality and higher market price.

And for nature, the nets mean smaller fish have the chance to reach maturity and reproduce to ensure healthier populations and improved marine systems.

More and more fishers understand that their jobs and livelihoods depend on healthy fish populations. As fish disappear, so do their businesses.

"Take less, leave more in the ocean," one of Port Clyde's fishermen said. "To me it is obvious that this will ensure more fish to spawn the following year."

Fisheries already provide essential nutrition for 3 billion people around the world -- almost half the global population. But according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 80 percent of our fisheries are being fished at or beyond sustainable limits.

With expanding populations and growing demand for food, these problems will only get worse if we continue with business as usual.

Fortunately, the global market for eco-labeled fish products is steadily growing -- bringing benefits to both fishing communities and marine waters. Between April 2008 and March 2009, the sustainable fish market grew by more than 50 percent, reaching a value of $1.5 billion.

And major fish retailers -- including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods -- now collaborate with the Marine Stewardship Council and other NGOs to buy fish that meet sustainable standards.

All these factors are helping bring fishermen and environmentalists together to find common solutions.

In Morro Bay, California, TNC worked with local fishermen to petition fishery managers to establish 3.8 million acres of no-trawl zones off California's Central Coast.

Historically, groundfish -- species that live close to the sea floor -- have served as the backbone of fisheries in this region. But the overreliance of bottom trawling -- a fishing method that drags nets along the sea floor -- led to damage of habitat, harm to other marine species and a decline in local fishing income.

To help rebuild groundfish populations, local fishers and harbormasters worked with TNC to map the no-trawl zone. TNC purchased vessels and trawl-fishing permits to mitigate the economic impact of these new closures, and leased these permits and vessels to fishermen with the requirement that they use less damaging fishing practices or limit trawling to less sensitive areas.

The fishery is now transitioning to a "catch share" system under which a quota will be set on the amount of fish that can be taken from the area. The system is aimed at reducing the threat of overfishing. Each permit TNC purchased is allocated a portion of the fishery's quota and is leased directly to local fishers to ensure they have access to catches under the new system. TNC is also working closely with these fishers to help them implement sustainable practices.

These California fishermen recently traveled across country to share the experiences with their fellow fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine. Together, the communities are hoping to find ways to maintain their traditional lifestyles and ensure their local marine waters remain healthy and productive for their children and grandchildren.

While bad news about our lands and waters seem to fill the headlines each day, people across the country understand the value of nature and are working to protect it. That is the true spirit of conservation: Knowing that the actions we take today can build a stronger, healthier and more productive world tomorrow.

Watch a video about how fishermen in Maine are using nets that help maintain healthy fish populations:

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