To have any chance of making the right decisions which take proper account of the needs of complex marine ecosystems, it is vital we have the best possible understanding of what is going on beneath the waves.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I first of all just say how extremely grateful I am to you for coming to this event today. I know that many of you have come a very long way indeed to be here, and I can only express my warmest gratitude that you have taken the trouble to do so. I am delighted that Minister Richard Benyon and Commissioner Maria Damanaki are here; as well as Ministers from the Sultanate of Oman, the Republic of Maldives, the Republic of Sierra Leone and the Isle of Man; officials from The United Nations, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and our fishing representatives from around the world, as well as leaders from the N.G.O. community and, critically, the private sector. What an extraordinary gathering of knowledge and wisdom! At the end of the day, the only way we can achieve real progress on some of the most complex issues that confront our world today is by people coming together and finding workable, effective solutions.

That is very much the spirit in which my International Sustainability Unit has invited you here today – and, indeed, the spirit in which it has sought the views of many people over the last two years in order to identify a consensus on how we might manage marine fisheries more sustainably.

I know there are many of you in this room today who know only too well how enormous this challenge is and how important it is that we address the issue now, before it is actually too late. The world simply cannot ignore the question any longer. That is why, if I may, I would like to share with you the key findings so far of my I.S.U. and what those findings lead me to consider are important targets in the near future.

For my part, the issue of sustainable fisheries is something I have taken an interest in for over twenty years. And having spent most of my Naval service over thirty-five years ago trying to avoid running into fishing boats operating in large fleets at night (!) – not something I would recommend to any of you! I have also had interest in those who work in the sector, both at sea and, further down the supply chain, on land. I need hardly say that it is a source of great pride to me that I was made a Liveryman of the Fishmongers Company in this very hall in 1971, just over forty years ago – even if coming here today serves to remind me just how many years ago that was and how many bits have dropped off me in the intervening period!

The thriving existence of this venerable institution, however, surely reflects the fact that marine fisheries represent an incredibly important activity which is far from marginal, either economically or socially.

When you think about it, it is an astonishing fact that the world's marine environment has the regenerative capacity to continue providing us with seafood long into the future. Unfortunately, that capacity has been severely weakened and it is critically urgent that we find a way to manage this precious resource much more intelligently.

Of course, the challenge of making the transition to more sustainable fisheries is only one of a number of pressures on the marine environment. Oceans are becoming more acidic; run-off from industrialized farming is causing waters to become too rich in nutrients, thus creating dead zones in the oceans; waters are getting warmer, and more and more square miles of them are being polluted with plastic. The human assault on the Earth’s oceans is depressingly comprehensive. Many, like myself – but not enough at present – are deeply concerned about all of these issues. However, the I.S.U. Marine Programme I am officially launching here today will focus principally on fisheries.

I must say, I have been particularly struck in the last two years since my I.S.U. began the extensive research and consultation process that has led to us gathering here today, by the growing number of incredibly encouraging stories we have come across of those fisheries that are either certified as sustainable or are in transition towards being sustainable. The story today need no longer be one of doom and gloom and inevitable decline, but one that harbours the possibility of generating more value from a strongly performing natural asset. This potential can only be tapped if we can manage it well. And this, of course, is the real challenge – how can we ensure that the many and varied benefits that wild fisheries provide can support us in the long term?

I am rather tempted to use an analogy that is somewhat prominent at the moment – the business of operating a well-run bank where, if you don't want to see your capital wither away, it is sound economic practice to take only a dividend on the return your capital produces. A well-run bank also adopts sensible spending patterns that keep that capital intact. You will all know better than me that data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, and from others, on the exploitation of fisheries tells us that we are not running the bank as well as we should. We go beyond taking the dividend. We are digging a long way into the entire marine eco-system's capital reserve, which has reduced its resilience considerably leaving us dangerously exposed.

Nevertheless, hope is at hand. And this is why I wanted to share with you some of the findings of my International Sustainability Unit. The team has spoken with experts around the world, from the retail and processing sectors, to N.G.O.’s and academic bodies and, most importantly, to those who actually do the fishing. And what is fascinating – and encouraging – is that there is a lot of common ground among the seemingly disparate parties involved in fisheries – more convergence than you might think, in fact.

For instance, most people agree that fishing must take account of the way the whole ecosystem operates. There is also broad agreement on the importance of adopting robust methods that control illegal fishing. It is also clear to most that the current economic model which underpins much of the fishing sector needs considerable adjustment. All are agreed that incentives must protect livelihoods and help to generate growth but, at the same time, they must also be designed so that they enable future generations to benefit too.

What I have found most striking, and perhaps even surprising, is the extent to which in different parts of the world real progress is being made in establishing a more sustainable approach to fishing. I think it is fair to say that the general impression of what's happening in fishing has been pretty depressing. It has been a story of constant over-exploitation, haunted by the prospect of collapse.

This is certainly part of the picture, but my I.S.U.’s report being published today clearly shows that this is by no means the whole picture. From Norway to Namibia and from Japan to Peru, there are inspiring examples of good practice which are beginning to translate into bigger catches of fish, higher earnings and more secure jobs.

There are so many examples of good practice that not only is it encouraging that this can actually be done but it is also vitally important that they are replicated and amplified. They represent a clear message of hope that we don't have to see the continuing decline of fish stocks as some kind of inevitable destiny. There truly are viable alternatives and it is my hope that, by highlighting these examples, my Marine Programme will help to prove that something can be done, and develop a consensus on how it can be done.

It is incredibly encouraging to know that we have within our grasp the tools and expertise to rebuild the world’s fish stocks. Of course, like most questions linked to the better management of natural capital, there is huge complexity with many devils lurking in the detail, but in a bid to muster the will to affect a change, let me outline what I see as three broad areas of action which may just help to enable the scale of change required. They will be the main focal points for my Marine Programme’s continued attention.

First of all we need good information. To have any chance of making the right decisions which take proper account of the needs of complex marine ecosystems, it is vital we have the best possible understanding of what is going on beneath the waves. And if that information is to be put to the very best use we need to encourage more of those dynamic relationships that are proving so effective where they now exist between the scientific and fishing communities.

Secondly, there is an urgent need for sufficient funding to support the transition from unsustainable to sustainable management. As always, the issue of transitional finance is absolutely key, just as it is if we hope to save what is left of the rainforests. I have read plenty of estimates as to how much finance would be needed to achieve sustainable fisheries worldwide – for example, the United Nations Environment Programme puts it at approximately 0.1% of global G.D.P. – but whatever the estimate it would surely be an extremely useful step to conduct a thorough analysis of the gap between what is needed and what is available today – from governments, philanthropic institutions and development agencies. Then we might be able to identify where that extra funding might come from, and you never know, such an analysis might also serve to highlight where some of the more perverse subsidies might be re-directed or, indeed, even removed to make a more positive contribution.

I am certainly encouraged that some organizations have experimented successfully with innovative market incentives to achieve more sustainable fisheries. It is the I.S.U.’s intention to build a consensus on how some of these mechanisms might be scaled up and how transitional finance might be best deployed.

The third point of action is to try and create a more joined up, collective approach. I am convinced that if we can build partnerships between those fisheries that are willing to change with those in the private sector who are the links in the supply chain, as well as the scientists who gather the good and useful information and those who can provide the necessary funding, then we might collectively achieve the scale of change required. That is my hope, and my I.S.U. intends to work with all of these stakeholders to create a clear model of how this can be done. As part of this, I am delighted that we have been able to identify twenty leading experts and practitioners in the fishing industry who are prepared to act as ‘ambassadors’. They have been drawn from all corners of the world and have kindly agreed to act, at the very least, as catalysts among the industry, to stimulate the debate about how practical steps might be taken to move towards more sustainable fisheries management.

I must say, I am particularly heartened that this year promises to be especially busy. There are many opportunities for making progress towards sustainable fisheries. Later this month, for instance, The Economist will host a major oceans summit in Singapore. In May, for the first time, Europe will host the World Fisheries Congress when it comes to Edinburgh. In June, the Rio Plus-20 Summit will convene an Oceans Day in Brazil. There is also the on-going reform of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy, and the annual Seafood Summit which meets in Hong Kong in the Autumn. I sincerely hope that all these events, and others besides, will lead to further progress and that in the years that follow sustainable fisheries can become the norm rather than the exception. If that was to happen, then I am in no doubt we could lay the foundations for improved economic development, for more robust and resilient coastal communities and thus ensure better food security.

In fact, if we did achieve sustainable fisheries at scale, I believe it could be a turning point for the world. The impact would be felt far beyond the fishing sector. And I cannot stress how important this would be. We have to fend off what I often detect in many quarters, which is a debilitating fatalism that dogs any serious discussion on how best to marry human demands with what the Earth’s natural systems can sustainably provide. Even though they may not say so publicly, there are many who have already decided that nothing can be done to steer us away from catastrophe. Not least because they believe human nature will always favour short-term gain over the long-term stewardship of resources – ever more consumers demanding ever more commodities will, they claim, push the Earth to the point of ecological collapse and there is nothing we can do about it...

Well, I happen to believe this need not be the case. It is not in Nature's make-up to fail. So, it is not in our nature to fail either. Just as Nature transforms, so it is in our nature to transform, especially when we have acquired the knowledge to do so. We have it in our collective gift to steer the better course, to achieve a better balance by properly understanding and then operating according to Nature's harmonic system. Thus, we can thrive from the dividends provided by the world's ecosystems, if only we can come together to work out the solutions and then encourage their broad acceptance and support.

And, as I say, if we can balance what is undoubtedly a difficult equation, we may provide inspiration and confidence on a wider scale. That is why I urge all of you to work together in the period ahead, to build on the inspiration provided by the many leaders who are here with us in this room today, to take our world in the positive direction which our experience – and, indeed, our instinct – tells us is so clearly possible.