Each June 8 serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. 06/07/2021
Oceans cover most of our planet. From the poles to the tropics, over one million animal species — and perhaps a billion different kinds of microbes — occupy a vast variety of habitats, from coastal kelp forests to volcanic vents (COML, 2021).
The oceans’ impact extends to life on land, too. Oceans regulate climate, supply 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen, and offer land dwellers an abundance of necessary nutrients. In fact, seafood supplies nearly one-fifth of all animal proteins eaten by humans (Costello et al., 2020).
Those often-overlooked facts are part of the reason for today’s international celebrations for World Ocean Day. The annual event celebrates marine life and raises awareness about the threats our oceans face. In 1992, Canada proposed World Ocean Day during the Earth Summit in Brazil, a major United Nations conference that also ultimately helped spawn the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement combating greenhouse gasses.
The annual celebration didn't actually start until 2002, and the United Nations didn't formally recognize it until 2008. At the time, it was called World Oceans Day – the “s” was omitted this year in recognition that ultimately, all oceans are one body of water that connects us all.
Today, thousands of events during World Ocean Day attract participation from organizations ranging from schools and zoos to government groups, sailors and more. Their goal? Convince world leaders to increase ocean protections.
The State of World Oceans
Sustainable fishing is imperative to lasting ocean health, but it’s also just one part of the equation. Right now, Earth’s oceans are at a tipping point. Even as we take strides to protect and preserve marine life, threats mount from issues like climate change, invasive species, pollution (including noise pollution) and industrial overfishing. And those threats are unlikely to abate. Experts expect that humanity’s population could increase by billions in the decades to come, increasing environmental impact and requiring even more food production (FAO, 2018).
This year, World Ocean Day is focused on protecting at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030 for a healthy ocean and climate. This United Nations goal is officially called 30X30.
Research shows the bold plan could simultaneously help oceans recover and help feed a growing human population. So far, just seven percent of the ocean is protected. But by setting aside more marine areas, researchers say humanity could actually preserve biodiversity and increase the amount of seafood available for humans.
It sounds contradictory, but a major study released in the prestigious journal Nature earlier this year suggested that we should actually protect more of the ocean in order to increase our seafood harvest (Sala et al., 2021). By protecting large chunks of ocean from industrial overfishing, marine life can reproduce without interruptions from large-scale commercial operations. Once grown, those juvenile species ultimately leave their protected homes and set out for waters where humans are allowed to fish. So, the net effect of ocean protections can be more seafood — not less.
More Protection, More Fish
Something similar happened in Baja California in the 1990s after overfishing in an area called Cabo Pulmo created an underwater desert. Overfishing had depleted fish stocks and pollution had destroyed the coral reefs. Out of desperation, locals stopped fishing and called for the creation of a large national park. The new park had strong regulations and a clear management plan. As a result, local biodiversity has exploded in just a few decades. Instead of commercial fishing, the community now relies on a robust tourism industry. And fishermen can once again draw from healthy fish populations in the surrounding areas.
Cabo Pulmo shows that marine protected areas aren’t only a kind of watery national park. They’re a scientifically valid path forward for the fishing industry.
Unfortunately, this trend also works the other way around. Activities far from healthy fish populations can still inflict environmental harm. The plastics and pollution we release into the ocean can have an impact even in marine protected areas. And just as animals living in ocean preserves eventually leave their bounds, farmed fish often escape the confines of their pens and spread disease to wild populations.
A new study released last month in the journal Science Advances showed that farmed Atlantic salmon often carry an illness called Piscine orthoreovirus-1. And when those farmed salmon escape, they’re infecting wild Pacific chinook salmon and killing them (Mordecai et al., 2021).
Escapes are also more common than you might think. Four years ago, a salmon net pen collapsed at a Washington State fish farm and released more than a quarter of a million Atlantic salmon, which then dispersed into the larger ocean, lowering the availability of wild fish. Recent research also shows the environmental impact of farmed salmon on open ocean food supplies, as aquaculture companies pull huge quantities of smaller fish from the sea to feed their captive stock.
It’s clear that healthy fisheries require proper regulations — both in the ocean and closer to shore (Ashe et al., 2018). Fortunately, fish farms are illegal in Alaska, which is where Vital Choice sources nearly all of its wild salmon.
A Future for the Sea
At Vital Choice, we’ve supported sustainable, wild-caught fish and strong ocean protections since our founding (for details, see Our Story). And that’s why much of our seafood is caught in Alaska, home to some of the best-regulated fisheries on the planet.
After nearing the point of collapse from overfishing, Alaskan salmon fisheries have recovered. Today, fisheries managers have learned to protect healthy populations for the future while harvesting hundreds of millions of pounds of high-quality, wild-caught salmon. Both research and environmental groups, as well as governmental bodies, list many of Alaska’s fish among the most sustainable on Earth. The state is providing an important test case for the viability of sustainable fishing, both economically and environmentally.
Around the world, many fisheries are starting to see similar signs of recovery after decades of overfishing by industrial-scale commercial operations. Yet many more still need help.
One positive trend in the U.S. has been a number of projects making progress restoring salmon in streams and rivers along the West Coast. By giving the fish safe harbor to spawn, stakeholders hope to increase populations at sea while also returning a lost way of life for many communities.
In the past year, we've reported on the first wild salmon in 80 years to spawn in the Upper Columbia River and attempts to return wild Chinook salmon to California’s Central Valley. Another effort called the Blue Creek Project is restoring a cold-water lifeline for salmon in the Klamath watershed along California's Redwood Coast. (Vital Choice supports the Blue Creek Project as part of a plan to offset our carbon footprint.)
Elsewhere, debate is emerging around a bold, multi-billion dollar new salmon plan to tear down four huge dams along the Snake River that’s being pushed by a U.S senator from Idaho, among others.
All of this action is a sign that things may finally be moving in the right direction. So this World Ocean Day, let’s be thankful for how far we’ve come in just a few short decades, while remaining vigilant about the things we can all do to help.
As consumers, we carry the power to help force change. Every time we choose to eat sustainable, wild-caught fish, we’re supporting our oceans and rewarding the fishermen committed to doing things the right way. And by taking part in events like World Ocean Day, we show world leaders that we support protecting our marine environments. To find out more, visit WorldOceanDay.org.
- Census of Marine Life. About the Census. A Decade of Discovery. Accessed May 29, 2021. http://www.coml.org/about-census/
- Costello C, Cao L, Gelcich S, et al. The future of food from the sea. Nature. August 2020. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2616-y
- Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D. et al. Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z
- World Fisheries and Aquaculture: The State of Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals; 2018. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf.
- Mordecai GJ, Miller KM, Bass AL, et al. Aquaculture mediates global transmission of a viral pathogen to wild salmon. Sci Adv. 2021;7(22).
- Asche F, Garlock TM, Anderson JL, et al. Three pillars of sustainability in fisheries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;115(44):11221-11225. doi:10.1073/pnas.1807677115