Having spent quite a lot of time delving into different aspects of the ecological challenges we face, I must say that compared to some of the others, when it comes to sustaining fisheries, we have better opportunities for positive progress than is perhaps widely thought.

Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am most touched and flattered to have been invited to join you here today and to have this very important opportunity to share with you something of what I have learned in recent years through my rather modest efforts to promote more sustainable fisheries. I am doubly pleased to be able to address this distinguished gathering, because not only is this the first time the World Fisheries Congress has met in Europe, it is also your first meeting in the U.K.

Now, some of you may have heard a rumour of my long standing interest in the oceans – partly, I suppose, because of the five years I served in the Royal Navy nearly forty years ago, when much of my time was spent trying desperately to avoid colliding with numerous fishing boats at night and incidentally, not understanding a single word any of them were saying to each other on the radio, and partly because I have been increasingly determined to help find answers to the question of how we can sustain wild fish stocks in the long term, given the demands we are now putting on them. The good news is that there are positive answers and I hope you won’t mind if, this morning, I spend some time spelling out just how it will be possible to have a global fishing sector which, very simply, will ensure there are more fish, providing more jobs and a greater return to our economy, than there is today.

Like many of you, I suspect, my motivation to make a positive contribution to this often hideously complicated question has been driven by the clear evidence we now have of the damage we are causing to the oceans’ natural systems. And I am sure you don’t need me to point out that the dire consequences for Nature caused by this damage have a direct bearing on people. And, as is so often the case, it is the poorest who will be hardest hit.

For what it is worth, I have been trying to point out for many years that there is a direct link between the health of ecosystems, both on land and at sea, and food security. But as you cannot obtain a degree in common sense at any university throughout the world (you seem to be able to get one in just about everything else!) not many people were inclined to listen. Nevertheless, vast numbers of people around the world rely upon the sea. Their survival depends upon the ocean's capacity for renewal, which can only be maintained if we take an intelligent approach now to looking after the underlying natural systems that enable the oceans to function. And this is why we cannot see this as simply another “environmental issue.” It is a serious social and economic issue. If fish stocks fail, then the social and economic consequences will be dire. Just think of all those thousands of coastal communities in Africa and around the world whose livelihoods and futures depend on fish – where will they go; what will they do? How would escalating conflict over scarce resources be contained? These questions alone must surely concentrate our minds...

But consider the facts. In 2008, for example, developing countries exported about twenty-seven billion dollars worth of fish, creating a net revenue that was far higher than many other traded commodities, including coffee and rice. It is in these same developing countries that the vast majority of the 120 to 200 million people who earn a livelihood from fisheries actually live. It is also where the majority of the one billion or so people who rely on fish as their main source of protein live.

So, clearly, with fewer fish, not only are export earnings dented, food security becomes a real issue too. One recent study concluded that if fisheries had not been so over-exploited in recent decades, then in 2000 approximately twenty million people could have avoided malnourishment. That was twelve years ago and I fear that if that number was recalculated for today it would be even bigger.

Given the huge body of expertise gathered in this room today, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t repeat the many facts and figures I know you are all very familiar with. Suffice it to say, global fish stocks are deteriorating and we cannot ignore the fact, merely carrying on as if it is business as usual.

I would just mention, though, a few figures which, for me, highlight a crucial disparity which I have been particularly keen to address in recent years. It is the disparity between how much we know and how much we should know about the state of fish stocks and the environments they need in order to restore themselves.

Most leaders of big organizations will tell you that it is not possible to manage what you cannot measure. So it is sobering to realize the scale of the challenge on our hands. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, only about ten per cent of exploited fish stocks are actually assessed, and even then some of the assessments do not happen regularly. The majority of fish stocks which are subject to scientific assessment are located in the relatively richer parts of the world where, perhaps paradoxically, the direct link between the health of stocks and food security is not so acute.

And what is more, in many cases I have come to realize that we only have a partial understanding of the way the complex marine ecosystems which support the fish actually work. I am no expert, but it does seem to me that under these circumstances our chances of keeping stocks healthy, and oceans thriving so they continue to maintain food security, are going to be severely compromised unless we dramatically – and, I would suggest, rather urgently – improve our knowledge.

Having spent quite a lot of time delving into different aspects of the ecological challenges we face, I must say that compared to some of the others, when it comes to sustaining fisheries, we have better opportunities for positive progress than is perhaps widely thought.

This impression was reinforced by a report published in February by my International Sustainability Unit, or I.S.U. for short. It looked at how many fisheries scattered around the world have turned the corner and are moving away from decline and towards recovery. By combining a wide range of different tools and methods – things like creating protected areas, using better fishing gear, managing more effectively the allocation of access rights and clamping down on illegal fishing – the report demonstrated how good practice is evident right across the globe. It was fascinating to see that these positive changes are leading to more fish in the sea, more fish landed, more secure livelihoods, more food and more profitable fisheries.

I found this picture of the situation especially compelling because it was based on the testimonies of the fishing communities themselves. It was their stories of success and the benefits they found that were so encouraging. It conveys a powerful message of hope, in fact, and confirmed a principle I have worked with for over thirty years – I have found that if you can transform the thinking of people on the ground and get them to make a difference, it can have a tremendous multiplying effect. Communities can do remarkable things, if you work with them from the grass roots up, starting, perhaps, by demonstrating to those who have yet to take the critical steps towards more sustainable approaches the benefits others are reaping by changing the way they do things. I’ll come back to that process in a moment, if I may.

There were other conclusions, though, to be drawn from my I.S.U.’s research. In particular, it would appear that fisheries making progress towards sustainability had three elements in common. Firstly, wherever success was being achieved there was a strong economic rationale to what was being done. Secondly, there was a robust management structure in place with agreed rules and methods for managing stocks, and these rules were enforced. And thirdly, there was an approach to managing stocks that took account of the whole ecosystem, rather than individual stocks in isolation.

Not only do I think it important to draw attention to these findings, I also think it is useful to highlight that there is now a consensus emerging on the extent to which such conditions can be scaled up to enable more sustainable fisheries. Consider the fact, for instance, that over a hundred and twenty diverse organizations from all parts of the world have added their names to my I.S.U.’s Joint Declaration on Action for Wild Marine Fisheries. I am delighted that this short statement and its long list of supporting signatories is being unveiled today by my I.S.U. because it could help to inspire the sort of collaboration that good practice actually demonstrates is possible.

Self evidently, all future harvests of seafood will be one hundred per cent dependent upon marine ecosystems. The reason I state something so obvious is that so often we behave as if the opposite was the case; that we can somehow continue degrading ecological systems as if the social and economic benefits we derive from doing so can be maintained indefinitely, no matter what ecological damage this causes.

If, though, we are to act according to Nature's limits, then there are serious implications. If the fish we eat is dependent upon us knowing that stocks are healthy, then we need much better information and therefore better methods of collecting the data so that we can take the right steps to ensure stocks remain healthy in the long term. With good information we will be better able to take more informed decisions and manage the risks more effectively.

It seems to me that collecting the data we need to manage risks could be achieved, in part, by harnessing the knowledge of the people who actually catch the fish. They are out there on the ocean day after day and they often have a much clearer insight into the state of the marine environment they work in than anyone else. Inevitably, though, this has to be about a lot more than gathering reliable data. It is also about building trust between the scientists and the various other stakeholders, and making sure that everyone has confidence in the process of assessing stocks and rebuilding fisheries.

I witnessed exactly this at first hand a couple of weeks ago when I visited the Isle of Man. I found that the fishing community there very much understands the implications for them of the science of stock recovery and the extent to which the protection of spawning grounds is important to the future of their livelihoods. In fact, they accept the science to the point where they have requested the designation of marine protected areas.

In a world of rather gloomy portents about the state of the environment, I found this encouraging. And there is genuinely good news around. With proper management, depleted marine ecosystems and fish stocks can still recover, and often surprisingly quickly. Even without proper management they can recover as has been witnessed off the Somali coast, where I suppose for the last six or seven years nobody has been able to fish. As a result I’m told the fish stocks have increased enormously to the extent that further down the coast, off Kenya, they are reaping the rewards.

My I.S.U. has highlighted plenty of examples. One is the case of the North Pacific Halibut fishery, where thoughtful action to rebuild stocks and reorganize the management of the fishery has meant that people no longer have to go to sea in such dangerous conditions. What’s more, the value of the catch has increased. It now fetches seven dollars per pound, compared with just one dollar previously. On the other side of the world, at the clam fishery in Ben Tre province, Vietnam, the transition to sustainable management has meant that not only are more shellfish being harvested because stocks have recovered, but the fishery now supports some thirteen thousand households, whereas in 2007 it was about nine thousand. And there is also a certain amount of good news right here in Scotland. For example, I am particularly encouraged to hear that the cod stocks in the North Sea have shown signs of recovery from what was, only a decade ago, a much depleted fishery. By reducing the effort at sea and other management techniques, the stock, I am told, has doubled over the past six years.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, even if we don’t always have sufficient knowledge and data to understand how much rebuilding is required and what the trajectory of recovery will look like, we do know, from experience all over the world, that fisheries and marine ecosystems can recover, when given the chance to do so.

It strikes me that what we are missing now is urgent and collective action, from international institutions and national governments right through to the smallest fishing communities, in order to achieve the scale of change required. If anything, this is probably the greatest challenge of all. Not least because progress can only be achieved by forging partnerships with all stakeholders and using all of the tools we have available: consumers need to be more informed; the science has to be better; we need different kinds of access rights and we do need carefully thought out marine protected areas with the help of the people on the ground. If it is possible to foster more regional collaboration from early on in the process, then perhaps more fishermen would see carefully-sited marine protected areas, well designed access rights and gear changes as a way of actually improving their livelihoods rather than a threat to their jobs.

This is why my I.S.U. will be making the point of bringing people together to help share and spread good ideas through a process I have been employing for years. I call it “Seeing is Believing.” Over many years I have seen how a good idea in one region or one part of a community can inspire others if they see it in action at first hand. So often scepticism, resistance and deadlock in one area or community can be overcome by allowing people to meet and to discover from those who have been through a process of transformation that there really can be better opportunities and returns by doing things differently. So it is my hope that the work done by my I.S.U. might play a small role in making this happen so that those who have already embarked on a process of positive change might inspire those who have yet to begin.

Later today I will hear from the experts about the importance of research when I visit a Marine Scotland research vessel called the “Scotia”. And while I will be fascinated to learn about their research methods and what they have found, in the end the point about fisheries recovery programmes is whether they make a difference to the health and abundance of fish stocks and can maintain all of the related commercial enterprises. That is why I have invited representatives from the fish & chip sector to accompany me to the “Scotia”.

Fish and chips are a part of British culture, one of our iconic national dishes, but I wonder if it is an aspect of our national life that we can safely say can be sustained indefinitely? When I was at school here in Scotland I remember one occasion buying fish and chips from a shop in Inverness. It never occurred to me then that I was eating food that had such a reliance on how we treat a wild natural resource. But, of course, how we harvest the fish has a direct impact on how many are left to catch next time. I am delighted that some pioneering fish and chip shop owners are making the connection and I am very much looking forward to discussing what might be done to help them make sure we can carry on enjoying this peculiarly British tradition. The simple fact is that fish and chip shops rely on there being plenty more fish in the sea, and that is only going to be the case if we take care of fish stocks now and plan for them to be there long into the future. If their businesses are to remain viable in the long term, fisheries management, accompanied by sound science, really matters to them too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that the solutions to ensure the viability of our marine ecosystems are to hand and the economic and social benefits that could come from rebuilding the world’s fisheries are within reach. Given the success stories that already exist, I would urge you to be inspired to redouble efforts to scale-up what is already happening so we can reverse the decline of fisheries by managing them for profit on a more sustainable basis. After all, the World Bank estimates that if managed well, global fish stocks could be worth some fifty billion dollars more per year than they are today.

I wish you well in all your important work during this Congress. I know there is great complexity behind the points I have mentioned, but they are viable, if we can muster the energy and the will, as indeed we must for the sake of our children and grandchildren.