We never thought we could “fish out” the world’s oceans; the concept just didn’t exist. But it’s happened. In 1992, Canada’s government banned cod fishing in the North Atlantic in recognition that this enormous, once world-class fishery had collapsed as a result of overfishing. Today, they’re still waiting for the fish to return, and Canada has lost US$ 200 million of high-value protein and 40,000 jobs. Worse, the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 87% of all measured fish stocks are fully or over-exploited. The blunt truth is: sustainable seafood management is no longer an option, it’s a must.

Business needs to be part of the solution to this crisis, so let’s frame it in a language that business understands. Our oceans are the single largest asset in the world. In 2012, they contributed over US$ 21 trillion in free materials and services to support industries that produced an estimated US$ 72 trillion GDP in 2012.

It’s hard to overstate the importance, then, of keeping them healthy and productive. But how can this be achieved when the world faces such huge demand on its food production capability? Global spending on goods and services is forecast to grow 43% in the next 10 years, as our finite resources are stretched further to meet the demand of a fast growing middle class. The question of can we feed a population of 9 billion people who will require 70% more food than we produce today is a valid one.

The good news is business is reacting as the need for supply chain resilience and customer and investor preference become clear cut. McDonalds is one example in this transformation towards sustainable fishing. It has announced that its fish packaging in the USA will carry the blue eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and that worldwide, 99% of all its fish will come from MSC qualified sources.

Walmart, too, has developed a Sustainability Index for suppliers which by 2017 it will use to source 70% of all goods sold in its US stores. These decisions are important as they affect big global supply chains: from the local fisherman or grower, to processing and manufacturing, to the purchasing decisions of the wholesaler, and finally to the marketing aimed at the consumer.

For first movers such as McDonalds and Walmart to gain further currency, businesses need data to determine what changes will have the greatest positive influence on future revenues, and determine what is actually achievable. On 8 June, World Ocean Day, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Oceans is endorsing two initiatives to meet this need and guide management of ocean resources for the future: the Ocean Health Index and “Seafood Traceability” (transparent tracking of seafood from source to consumer).

The Ocean Health Index is the first comprehensive measure of how well we are using ocean resources in a sustainable way. Using a scale of 0-100, where 100 is an attainable goal for sustainably enjoying ocean benefits and anything less than 100 is unsustainable, it measures 171 countries with shorelines against 10 goals, including seafood provision, biodiversity, and livelihoods and economies.

This will provide governments with a useful tool for decision-making and scenario planning (“How will protecting our coral reefs impact on ocean health scores for fisheries, tourism, jobs or biodiversity?”  “Will building more hotels lower our scores for tourism and shoreline protection?”). And because Index scores are updated annually, they can be used to monitor progress towards achieving an optimal mix of benefits and assessing whether a strategy is working in a sustainable way.

The Index provides a framework that can be applied at any scale, from a small bay to the entire world. Global databases are used for the international version of the Ocean Health Index, while local agencies and governments can choose to run an Ocean Health Index computation for a local region using data that is specific to that local area. This provides policy-makers with a framework for decision-making and a system to track progress.

This is a first. Until now, we have not had a way to assess our sustainable use of ocean resources. We have had no metric by which to manage our largest natural asset.

Seafood Traceability is the second initiative endorsed by the World Economic Forum.  Like the Index, Seafood Traceability provides necessary information to manage our seafood resources worldwide. Traceability refers to the ability to track fish products back to the fisheries where they were caught, and the ability to know essential facts about how that fishing was conducted.  Without this information it is impossible to manage fisheries and difficult to eliminate illegal and unregulated fishing.

By endorsing the Ocean Health Index and Fish Traceability, the World Economic Forum has identified a key to future decision-making for the industrial leaders of the world. The potential pay-off is huge.  US$ 50 billion more in food could be harvested from our oceans. By 2030, 5 billion members of the middle class could access ocean-related tourism, resulting in more jobs and expanded industry. Industry could profit from a sustainable supply chain. As my friend and oceanographer Sylvia Earle likes to say about managing our ocean resources: “We need to act as if our lives depend on it…because they do.”

For an interactive trip to the future of our oceans click on the image below:



Author: Greg Stone is Executive Vice-President, Moore Center for Science and Oceans, Conservation International; he is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Oceans

Image: A commercial fishing boat off the coast of British Columbia. REUTERS/Ben Nelms