ENRIC SALA: Can We Eat Our Fish and Protect Them, Too?

Enric Sala
PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

What are fish banks?

The ocean is like a checking account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit. This is what’s happening because of overfishing. Many fisheries have collapsed, and 90 percent of the large fish, sharks and tuna and cod, are gone.

Fish banks are areas we set aside without fishing, reserves where we allow marine life to come back. They are like the principal on a savings account we set aside that produces the interest we can live on.

How does this differ from conventional marine reserves?

Marine reserves are not new tools, but we are looking at a new approach to create and run them—by thinking of fish banks as business opportunities, as a way to maximize their utility while protecting the environment. We want to move away from past perceptions of reserves as a sacrifice or a luxury for rich countries. Instead of depending on government or philanthropic resources, we propose to use private investment or private-public partnerships to develop many more of these fish banks.

Marine reserves have been known for more than 30 years for marine conservation and protecting biodiversity. Scientific studies on marine reserves around the world show that if you close a place to fishing, the number of species increases 20 percent, the average size of a fish increases by a third, and the total weight of fish per hectare increases almost five times—in less than a decade. After a few years there are so many fish that they spill over and fishermen tend to fish more around these reserves.

But the problem is, what are fishermen going to do the first few years before spillover becomes significant? I decided it was time to have a practical, economic answer. Reserves not only help local fisheries around them but also tourism in places where tourism is feasible. At the Medes Islands Marine Reserve off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, less than one square kilometer of protection is bringing the local community 200 additional full-time jobs and 10 million Euros of tourism revenue every year. This is 50 times the fishing revenue in the area.

So I got together with some top economists to develop a business model for marine reserves where we are identifying all of the sources of revenue that are created or enhanced thanks to the restoration of marine life in the reserves, and mechanisms to cover the creation and management costs and also finance any potential losses fishermen may have in the first few years while marine life recovers inside the reserve. As we have seen in many places around the world, after a few years the benefits should outweigh the costs.

So the idea is to look at the whole range of ecosystem services, and find someone who would value those enough to put money into them?

Exactly. In some cases fish banks will create more fishing outside their boundaries, in some more tourism and more jobs. But also we need to think of “blue carbon” and other services provided by healthy marine ecosystems. Mangroves, seagrasses and coastal marshes are great sinks for atmospheric carbon. Getting cash from global carbon markets—by protecting one of these habitats and avoiding their destruction—could be another way for financing these reserves. And other services too we are only now starting to quantify, such as shoreline protection.

Based on the data we have, fish banks will work in developing countries and developed countries, in places where tourism is feasible and also in remote places where tourism is not so likely. The portfolios of mechanisms to finance these fish banks will be different, depending on the local and national context. But I believe there are many different possibilities.

Are there certain areas most in need?

Coastal areas have been the most affected by human impacts and are in most urgent need. We are fishing all over the ocean, but 90 percent of the fish comes from within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of coastal countries, where many fisheries are overfished or have been depleted, including most developing countries. Every coastal country has the opportunity to create their own fish banks, to scale up what they have done so far, in a way that is much more efficient, ecologically successful, and also more profitable economically.

Why is this important?

Only 1 percent of the ocean is protected, and only a fraction of that 1 percent is fully protected in no-take reserves. Countries that signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to preserve 10 percent of their waters by 2020, but at the current rate of reserve creation this seems unlikely. I think that to scale up and achieve these global goals, governments will need to allow for private investment in self-sustaining reserves that have a business component but still protect the environment.

Can fish banks make ocean fisheries sustainable?

Fish banks are not the only solution to depletion of marine resources. That needs to be very clear. They are one of the tools that need to be used in coordination with better fisheries management in all the places outside the fish banks.

Fish banks will not be equally successful everywhere. But in these times of environmental degradation and continuous collapse of fisheries it is very important to identify the bright spots and figure out how can we have more of them.

Marine Ecologist Enric Sala

It’s hard to not feel guilty about eating seafood these days as reports of overfishing and collapsed fisheries abound. Led by a group of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, however, an exciting solution is beginning to emerge, the brainchild of marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala. Sala spoke to Terry Waghorn from Forbes and Momentum recently about “fish banks” as a tool for protecting marine biodiversity while providing food and jobs from the ocean.


VIDEO: The Importance of Pristine Coral Reefs

National Geographic's Ocean Now is a project to study the last healthy, undisturbed places in the ocean. Join Dr. Enric Sala and a team of scientists as they spend six weeks exploring the pristine waters of the southern Line Islands in the South Pacific. Watch the video on National Geographic website


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