THE BLOG

Where Money Meets Nature

09/07/2014 18:15 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 10:59 BST

One of the gravest difficulties we face in matching human needs within the capacity of what the Earth can indefinitely provide comes down to how we've come to see economy and ecology somehow locked in an irreconcilable struggle, wherein efforts to protect one inevitably lead to costs for the other. A meeting hosted today by The Prince of Wales at St James's Palace in London will consider a rather different reality. It's emerging in relation to the future of the marine environment.

Far from being in conflict, a gathering of experts from the very different worlds of fishing and finance will discuss the opportunities that exist for working together to generate both financial returns and a healthier marine environment. Harnessing financial capital for the enhancement of what is increasingly called 'natural capital' is an exciting idea whose time has come, marking an important departure from economic narratives that have assumed the destruction of nature as a necessary price for progress.

The emerging idea that will be discussed tomorrow sees productive ecosystems as the basis of sustainable wealth, in this case through investment in what is widely now described as the 'blue economy', and in particular fisheries. The proposition is simple: by financing the measures needed for the improved health and recovery of fish stocks, it will be possible to get returns later on in the form of more and better quality fish to sell. And fish is but one aspect. Increased earnings from tourism, eco-tourism and sport fishing are among other values that can be optimized by improving the state of ocean ecosystems.

Participants will hear how if a series of conditions are in place, including clear rights setting out who can fish where, when and for what catch, and if a science-based sustainable fishing plan is put into place, then what has widely been seen as a 'tragedy of the commons' can be flipped into a major economic opportunity. It will require official monitoring and enforcement, not least to manage the risk posed by illegal fishing and the freeloaders who would otherwise steal the benefit of investments being made.

It is possible to do this. Research published by The Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit (ISU) in 2012 revealed cases from right across the world of where fish stocks have been rebuilt (embed link to Towards Global Sustainable Fisheries). These examples of positive progress all show how success can be achieved when sufficient resources are available to fund the measures needed to do it, including, for example, scientific research, different fishing gear and better regulation.

One case in point concerns the halibut fishery in the North Pacific, where a reform programme that cost the equivalent of about 3% of the annual revenue earned by the industry was spent in ways that increased its productivity. Income from catching this valuable species increased from around US$77million a year to $248million - an improvement of 222%. By any standard a good return.

In New Zealand some $US25million was spent on better fisheries management, and as a result the national value of fisheries increased from $1.57 to $3.2billion - an increase of 103%. Similarly, in Vietnam, the Ben Tre clam fishery established secure tenure and achieved MSC certification from the Marine Stewardship Council in 2009, and saw its revenues go from $837,000 to $1.25million, an increase of 49%.

Foundation grants, other philanthropic finance and official money has played a vital role and will continue to do so, but if we are to have an opportunity to realize the size of the prize at hand, as well as see reform at the scale and pace required, then much more will be needed, including from mainstream commercial investors in search of a return.

Considering the scale of the sector it could absorb a lot of finance. Globally marine capture fisheries each year contribute about $270billion to world GDP and the World Bank estimates that if stocks were managed in more intelligent ways then that number could be about $50billion bigger on an annual basis. On top of this potentially massive economic return are a number of social gains, including long-term employment and food security.

In order to inspire more of the kinds of actions that have already led to significant progress in a number of fisheries, The Prince of Wales's meeting will also see the publication of a new report written by the US-based Environmental Defense Fund and the ISU. It's called Towards Investment in Sustainable Fisheries and provides an overview of how different types of capital can be harnessed to finance the profitable recovery of fish stocks.

I hope a lot of people in the financial sector will read it, because they have some of the resources that are urgently needed to restore ocean health. If more of them realized how investing in nature can lead to healthy economic returns then perhaps the mobilization of the money we need to achieve a sustainable world would not be so hard to do.

Towards Global Sustainable Fisheries:

http://www.pcfisu.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ISUMarineprogramme-towards-global-sustainable-fisheries.pdf

Towards Investment in Sustainable Fisheries:

http://www.pcfisu.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Towards-Investment-in-Sustainable-Fisheries.pdf