Although it is a great pity that the original, brilliant idea of enclosing Selfridges in a fishing net has somehow proved impossible, there is no doubt that through its window displays Selfridges is raising awareness of possibly our most urgent problem.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I did just want to say what a very great pleasure it is to be here today at the launch of Project Ocean. It has been wonderful to see the incredible creativity which has so clearly gone into the Project, which has been in planning for a very long time, and for that I need to pay a particular tribute to Alannah Weston for all that she has done herself personally to make this Project Ocean happen and drive it all forward. Having known her since she was very young, it has been fascinating - and hugely heartening - to see the direction in which she is taking Selfridges.

As President of the Marine Conservation Society, I am so pleased that Project Ocean is a collaboration between Selfridges, the MCS and the Zoological Society of London. The connected power of these three organizations, as well as the other partners in the project, is enormous. It seems to me that if we are to achieve anything in this area, and I firmly believe that we must, it is imperative that we all find ways of working together.

Although it is a great pity that the original, brilliant idea of enclosing Selfridges in a fishing net has somehow proved impossible, there is no doubt that through its window displays Selfridges is raising awareness of possibly our most urgent problem. A few years ago, my rainforests project, which I set up, showed powerful images of burning rainforests, species-rich grasslands being ploughed and pollution discharges to rivers. These terrifying images, thankfully, galvanized public opinion and inspired positive action. But when it comes to the oceans, it seems that the ‘out of sight and out of mind’ rule has governed our reaction.

Perhaps because the world beneath the waves is rather alien to us humans, we are tempted to believe that what goes on there has very little to do with our wellbeing and welfare. But of course nothing could be further from the truth as you yourselves here at Selfridges illustrate so brilliantly. The oceans cover two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and have a profound bearing on the functioning of all the planet’s complex life-support systems, including those which sustain life on the land.

The oceans absorb or try to absorb much of the carbon dioxide we have released from deforestation and burning fossil fuels. They are a source of rainfall and weather. Perhaps most obvious, however, is the vast quantity of seafood they provide. For millennia, Man has relied on the productivity of the oceans for nutrition. This is more important than ever today, as our population continues to grow and our demand for jobs and development remains apparently insatiable, and we increasingly just seem to take the successful functioning of natural Ecosystems for granted – despite what we do to them.

If we found the means to look after the oceans, then the evidence I have seen says that we can achieve more in meeting these demands, rather than less. In other words, sustaining the Oceans, and the vast natural capital they sustain, would enable us to meet more of our needs, not less.

I find it surprising, to say the least, how in some quarters this conclusion is still regarded with evident scepticism. Some see the protection of ocean ecosystems, or any ecosystems for that matter, as a constraint on development, rather than as an essential precondition for it. As time goes by, however, and we continue to test our precious world to destruction, it is more and more obvious that we need an urgent change in perspective.

Across the globe, fisheries are in decline. Earlier this year, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported a sharp rise in the proportion of fisheries that it regards as over-exploited. This has followed a long term trend which saw about ten per cent of stocks depleted in the mid-1970s to around twenty-five per cent in the early 1990s. In 2011, about thirty-two per cent are considered to be overexploited, depleted or recovering. When one considers that a further fifty-three per cent of fisheries are at their maximum yield, and that many of these are not managed sustainably, it is clear, I think, that we have a lot of work to do. With this challenging context in mind, and having set up my International Sustainability Unit (ISU) to continue the work started by my Rainforests Project, I asked it to work with many others in the search for possible solutions.

My ISU’s team has spoken with industry leaders, retailers, researchers, campaign groups and others and I am delighted to say that a level of consensus is beginning to emerge, both in relation to the challenge, and the possible remedies. Importantly, there is growing agreement on the extent of the opportunity, in gaining literally tens of billions of pounds more value from the seas each year through more sustainable fishing practices. And there is an emerging view on how this might be achieved. It seems there are three main components.

The first is to use the many different tools we have, from better fishing gear to marine spatial planning, to manage the oceans as a whole ecosystem. If we did that effectively, we could obtain far more value than we can through simply seeing the seas as a collection of different natural resources, each of which we exploit and deplete in turn. Secondly, to do this well, to manage the oceans as a whole system, we need better governance and control mechanisms, so as to overcome what is a very well documented ‘tragedy of the commons’. In part, this must be achieved through making it clearer who has what rights and responsibilities. Thirdly, and in order to facilitate the other two, we need a more rational economic approach. The fact that we are spending more than ten billion pounds per year on subsidies which encourage damaging practices is surely a case in point. By changing official incentives so that they support more sustainable practices, and by harnessing market demand for sustainable seafood, it seems we could achieve quite rapid progress.

Good ideas take us only so far, however. In order to make durable change, we need the will of the different stakeholders, and that in my experience is often helped by increased awareness. Which brings me back to the wonderful initiative being launched here today. For if we can get oceans and fisheries talked about on the High Street, in the same way that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has so brilliantly managed over the scandalous issue of discards, it could be a short journey from there to more rational practices and better economics, and onward from there to the healthy oceans that will remain of incalculable value to our children and grandchildren.

Project Ocean concludes with a meeting of the GLOBE Parliamentarian Oceans Forum, which we hope will help address these urgent issues, which is why I am so pleased that Lord Debon (the Eponymous John Gummer), who is Chairman of GLOBE could join us here today. John, we’re relying on you.

I wish you all well and look forward to seeing the success of your work reflected in more rational use of the oceans in the years ahead.