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Deep waters: how can we protect our oceans and fisheries?

When it comes to animal protein, Canadians, despite having the longest coastline in the world, don’t think about fish

Typically when Canadians discuss protein-related foods, they look to our key livestock industries: cattle, hogs and chicken.

In comparison to those terrestrial food sources, fish stocks are transient and invisible. That can make oceans and their issues easily overlooked. But fish and seafood must be part of any discussions about sustainable food systems.

Oceans feed the world – but rapid change in our oceans has put the food supplies of billions of people in jeopardy. We need to understand why, and find out what we can do about it.

For more than half the world’s population, from Africa to Asia and beyond, fish represents in excess of 50 per cent of their animal protein intake. And for billions of people without access to preservation technologies and energy, oceans are a natural refrigerator. People go out every day to catch lunch or dinner.

But two recent reports detail how global warming will compromise life in and dependent on the world’s oceans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature claims that, since 1975, oceans have absorbed more than 90 per cent of all the extra heat caused by global warming. The resulting ocean warming, combined with other threats like acidification and reduced oxygen in the water, has led to a variety of impacts on marine life. Those include movement of fish species toward the poles, increased incidence of disease, and coral reefs bleached white and devoid of life. Oceans, then, have become the world’s coolant device – at great cost to the planet and its inhabitants. Food security is under threat.

Another report, from the University of British Columbia, details how the alarming state of our oceans impacts industry. The report says fisheries stand to lose about $10 billion in annual revenue by 2050 if climate change patterns remain unchecked.

Of course, some regions should gain as fish seek cooler waters for survival. Greenland, Ireland and even Canada could be net beneficiaries of climate change.

Since oceans represent a largely unexplored frontier, and cover almost 75 per cent of the planet, we don’t always appreciate how fisheries sustain our food systems. So it’s critical that we gather more information and improve our technology rated to fisheries and oceans. We need to better predict the future of seafood systems. Acquiring substantial data and monitoring human interactions will be critical.

Our improved understanding can lead to policy change and the establishment of programs to support industry.

The global consumption of fish has doubled in just a few decades and that demand is expected to continue to grow. From the sushi phenomena to the growing popularity of the Mediterranean diet, the western world is embracing the wealth of oceans.

In the midst of this are bizarre food distribution anomalies. For example, the United States imports nearly all seafood it consumes and exports almost everything it produces. Pure economics are behind this: other countries earn more selling to the U.S. than they can selling to their own citizens. So protein malnutrition threatens some of the world’s vulnerable regions and this situation may get worse.

Some countries, like Canada, want to expand aquaculture production. But interaction between oceans and aquaculture makes many Canadians uneasy. Developing sustainable aquaculture, then, will require more study of best practices and social attitudes.

Our nation is surrounded by the world’s longest coastline. Canada must be a leading force in advocating for the health of our oceans.

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