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Follow the Data Podcast Episode 8: Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Almost 3 years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in partnership with Oceana, Rare and Encourage Capital, launched the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, a $53 million, five-year effort to boost fish populations in Brazil, the Philippines and Chile. The goal was clear: if we can reform fishing practices in these three vital countries, we will revitalize 7% of the world’s fisheries. One of the largest single contributions ever made for such work, the Vibrant Oceans Initiative focuses on revitalizing the fish population by simultaneously tackling both industrial and local fishing practices.

In this episode, we’ll go in depth on the ways the Vibrant Oceans Initiative is working to encourage responsible fishing globally to protect this vital source of food and income for generations to come.

Leading the conversation is Andrew Sharpless, the Chief Executive Officer of our partner organization Oceana, and Melissa Wright from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment team.

You can listen to the podcast and past episodes in the following ways:


Katherine Oliver: Today we’re going to talk about fishing and why sustainable fishing matters. But first – we have to brush up on our fishing facts. Peak fish supply occurred in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen a decline in supply. But what’s causing this decline? Over-fishing. And the fact that our demand for fish continues to increase despite a shrinking supply. We’re essentially taking more fish than can be naturally replaced. How did this happen? With the rise of industrial ships, destructive habits and weak government regulations – over-fishing flourished in the past 10 years, leading to a depletion of the global population of fish. So the idea that there are plenty of fish in the sea…well, that’s really not true. And it brings us to our data point today:

One billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein. And thousands of people rely on it as a source of income as well. As the world’s population continues to grow, so will the demand for fish – which is projected to rise by over 20% by the year 2030.

The good news is that many experts think restoring abundance to the ocean is very much within reach. But it’s going to take time and a unique approach. Almost 3 years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in partnership with Oceana, Rare and Encourage Capital, launched the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, a $53 million, 5-year effort to boost fish populations in Brazil, the Philippines and Chile. The goal was clear – if we can reform fishing practices in these three vital countries, we will revitalize 7% of the world’s fisheries. One of the largest single contributions ever made for such work, the Vibrant Oceans Initiative focuses on revitalizing the fish population by simultaneously tackling both industrial and local fishing practices.

To tell us about how more, we welcome Melissa Wright – a member of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Environment Team – and Andrew Sharpless, the Chief Executive Officer of Oceana – as they discuss the ways the Vibrant Oceans Initiative is working to encourage responsible fishing globally to protect this vital source of food and income for generations to come.

Melissa Wright: Welcome Andy, it’s great to have you here at Bloomberg Philanthropies today. Really thrilled that you’re able to join us for the Follow the Data Podcast and looking forward to the conversation today.

Andrew Sharpless: Me, too.

Melissa Wright: To kick us off – I just wanted to hear what you think is the biggest misconception about the oceans today.

Andrew Sharpless: I guess some people think it’s impossible to hurt the ocean it’s so big. There are famous like scientific forecasts from the 1850’s, 1860’s by very distinguished scientists of the period as saying that the ocean was so abundant and so big that it was impossible for humankind to ever have an impact on it. The second biggest misconception is that, well, then it’s so big there’s nothing we can do about it.

Melissa Wright: But Oceana is doing something. Can you tell us more about your leadership at Oceana and what you all are doing?

Andrew Sharpless: What Oceana’s job is, is to put more fish in the sea, to make the oceans more abundant, so that we can feed lots of people from a rebuilt ocean. Our method for doing that is winning national policy changes that produce that outcome. Chiefly that focuses on two things: stopping overfishing and fighting pollution.

Melissa Wright: You’ve been doing this since 2003 when you took the helm at Oceana and you have a pretty diverse background that brought you to the place where you are today. Can you tell me more about what attracted you to Oceana and the work that they do?

Andrew Sharpless: Yeah, I did not take a straight line to this position. In fact a lot of people who work at Oceana know — knew since they were very young that they loved the oceans –I’m not that guy. You know if you’d talked to me when I was 20 years old and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, oh, I want to run a public interest group and I would have had a long list of the public interests — it could involve lots of good things. But I wasn’t narrowly focused on the oceans.

So I was a public interest guy as a young man. I thought a lot of public interest advocacy was full of good intentions. And I went to so many meetings where people were talking very eloquently about something — and then nothing would happen.  And I got pretty disillusioned.  And I went into business.  And one of the things I loved about business which is unexpected because I was like this really progressive, young man. Was business, it really matters whether you do what you said you were going to do.  And you know pretty much every quarter people notice — whether you’re getting —

Melissa Wright: Held you accountable.

Andrew Sharpless: Yeah, and I loved that about it.  It was so real and so satisfying.  And then to make a very long short somewhat short, the founders of Oceana, and it was founded by five big foundations –And they contacted me and wanted to help to run it.  And I said I don’t want to work that hard ’cause I knew — about startups and I had been in business startups and I know what that takes.  And so I said, well, I’ll help you find your CEO.  And I’ll help get people organized and… and I got there and I, frankly, I learned about what was happening to the oceans.  I learned about the blueprint that the founders had for a very practical group that would deliver measurable outcomes quickly. So lo and behold here I am —

Melissa Wright: An ocean convert.

Andrew Sharpless: — 14 years later.  Yes.

Melissa Wright: We ought to dive into some of that data and information that Oceana is so well known for.  I wanted to point out a data point that we used as we were formulating the Vibrant Oceans Initiative.  Basically that more than 80% of the world’s fisheries are either overexploited, at risk of becoming over exploited, or recovering from overexploitation.  But it also is clear that proper management of fisheries can increase the number of fish and is projected that that could be up to even 50%. So can you say a little bit about the Vibrant Oceans Initiative and how this work is aiming to address that problem?

Andrew Sharpless: So the Vibrant Ocean Initiative brought Oceana together with two other NGOs, one called Rare and one called Encourage Capital.  That was Bloomberg’s idea.  The essence of that idea was that’s the problem of ocean conservation can be broken down into –overfishing and pollution. The solution to that can be broken down into controlling the big industrial fleets — that have the capacity to overfish really aggressively with these colossal big vessels.  And then also helping the smaller artisanal fishers that work closer to the shore self-manage better.  And that the fixes for each of those are different. You need to have the laws and the regulations force the big boats to do the right thing.

Fish sensibly, scientifically. So Oceana specializes on getting the laws and the policies and the regulations in place so that the big boats don’t overfish.

Rare focuses on capacity building, kind of community organizing amongst the smaller fisherman so that they know how to do a better job of managing the coastal inshore fishery and so they can see the benefits of that themselves.

Encourage Capital is a social impact capital firm whose job it is to raise social capital to help the fishery transition.

There’s an opportunity to rebuild ocean abundance so that there are not only more fish in the sea but there’s more fish to be caught from an abundant sea.  There’s more jobs from an abundant sea — there’s more fishing jobs.  There’s more food to feed people from an abundant, rebuilt ocean.

So everybody would think, well, if there’s all this upside why doesn’t this just happen? The reason it doesn’t just happen is it’s like rebuilding your bank account.  After you’ve spent your back account down, you don’t get a very big interest payment off of it. You have to rebuild the bank account.

The oceans rebuild really quickly.  Many fisheries come back very quickly. And so Encourage Capital’s fundamental mission is to finance, if you will that transition.  In some cases it’s five years.  You’ll reduce fishing pressure.  The fisheries are rebuilt.  Everybody can be making more money, having more jobs, catching more fish.  But in the short run you have to reduce fishing pressure and therefore income.  So it’s good to be able to help people through that transition.

Melissa Wright: So how do we know all of this is working?

Andrew Sharpless: That’s a great question. Bloomberg came to see us a few years ago and challenged us in a way that was really profound.  And in the way that Bloomberg likes to do that, Bloomberg Philanthropies.  And I said, well, I don’t know.  How does Bloomberg Philanthropies like to do that?  And you told me the story about your tobacco work.

And the tobacco work at Bloomberg was similar to what we do in that the objectives in many cases were policy objectives — pass a law, pass a regulation, controlling the access that the tobacco companies have to, you know, get people addicted to smoking.

And but what you did that was different than, and I didn’t know about, was you measured out comes in terms of lives saved. People who were still living who would have died otherwise.

And I said to you, well, no, I can’t do that.  That’s impossible.  Because here’s how ocean conservation conversations work.  If you sat down at an ocean conservation meeting of many organizations, first group might say you know the most important thing we can do is to save the big predator fish, the sharks, the tuna —

the other ones that are like the lions and tigers of the ocean because if you save the ones at the top of the food chain then everything else has to be abundance underneath that —

Melissa Wright: That charismatic megafauna?

Andrew Sharpless: Correct.  And the second group would say no, no, no, no, no.  That’s completely wrong.  The most important thing is to save all the little creatures at the bottom of the food web like the sardines and the anchovies because if there’s lots of abundance at the bottom of the food web then you know things can build on that. The third person would say no, no, that — you guys are both wrong.  The most important thing to save is the reefs because if you have the reefs abundant and healthy, that’s where most of the biodiversity is.

And if you were a funder like Bloomberg Philanthropies listening to that conversation and trying to decide how you were going to measure your outcomes you would be buffaloed because how do you — you don’t have a single metric.

First guy’s measuring by the number of sharks he’s saving.  The second guy is measuring — she’s measuring by how many anchovies she’s saving.  And the third one’s measuring by how the reefs are doing.  And you can’t convert one reef into six anchovies — into ten sharks. Or I mean it’s — you don’t have a common metric.  So I said no, we can’t do this.  Sorry.  And I was pretty discouraged because I was looking forward to like —

Melissa Wright: Partnership.

Andrew Sharpless: — working with Bloomberg. And then I went away and I thought about a conversation I had had in Geneva with the Ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Mr. Wu. He listened to me very respectfully talk about how there were all kinds of measures of serious problems in the ocean.  And I said to him, you know I hope you won’t contribute to that problem.

And he basically said… we have a billion people in China to feed.  The West has been overfishing the oceans for a long time. We’re going to get our turn. And I left feeling that I had really mishandled the meeting.  Here, I had a message which was that we could have more food from an abundant ocean. I had completely failed to make him understand that cause he heard me giving the kind of conventional conservation message which is an important one but it’s just only about biodiversity protection.

That made me realize, well, wait a minute, we can measure what we are doing in a systematic metric which is the food value of a rebuilt ocean, the food resource of rebuilt ocean.  How many meals could we feed from a rebuilt ocean? I called Bloomberg back up and I said, wait a minute, we have a new idea.  And let’s talk about this food, the food metric.

Melissa Wright: You were able to bring back that epiphany and help develop what’s now a 3-country effort around overfishing.  And I saw this work in action and in a recent trip to Brazil and was so impressed and inspired.  And it became very clear to me how the different components of this effort really work in tandem for a broader effect. And one of the side trips that we went on when I was in Brazil was to Itajaí, and which I understand is one of the largest commercial fishing ports in Brazil.

Andrew Sharpless: I think it’s “the” largest.

Melissa Wright: “The” largest. And we went on a boat down the river and saw various vessels

Andrew Sharpless: They’re surprising big, aren’t they? I mean you — the audience should understand we’re not talking about like two guys in a little, you know, 15-foot skiff.

Melissa Wright: And Monica, the Brazilian rep from Oceana was telling me about how there was a lack of information, now, about what those boats are bringing in, which species, how much, when, and where they’ve been fishing because the country stopped monitoring their landings or their catch a few years ago.  Can you speak to what impact that has had on the fisheries in Brazil and the work of Oceana?

Andrew Sharpless: So I’ve taken that same trip with you and it’s very impressive. The scale of our ability to catch ocean fish is enormous.  And you see it as you go down that river and you’ll see these vessels that are stories and stories high — four or five or six stories high.  So amazingly Brazil has collected no data on its own fisheries since 2008.  Brazil’s had a kind of a budget crisis in that year. One of the ways they saved money was by cancelling all data collection efforts on fishery catches.

So fishery catches are called landings.

And so working together with, you know, our partners there we are now gathering landings data in an official and credible way and reporting that up.  And they’re now gathering data on about 40% of the total fishery catch.

Melissa Wright: Congratulations.

Andrew Sharpless: Yeah.  Which is a pretty basic step, we can all see how that starts to set the conditions for, you know, scientific and sensible management. We’ve just launched together with this little enterprise called Google, and Sky Truth, an NGO, is our other partner.  It’s called Global Fishing Watch.  And your listeners can go to

This gives everybody in the world who has a regular internet connection something that nobody’s ever seen in the history of the planet which is a global view of 35,000 of the world biggest fishing vessels in action all over the world, the capacity to drill — to see the world in a macro sense and see like where the Spanish fleet is all at once on a global map or to zoom in on a place that you’re particularly interested in. And then even if you see a vessel, a particular vessel, fishing in a place that it shouldn’t be, you can actually click on it and get its name, its flag, its identifier, and you can even follow where it’s been and see its history back all the way to 2012.

Melissa Wright: What kinds of things would we see if we did that?

Andrew Sharpless: So this is really a moment where I think we’re going to discover over the coming years that this tool reveals all kinds of things that we don’t know. And so I anticipate that it’ll be used in all kinds of different ways. Companies that buy seafood that want to make sure their sourcing it sustainably from honestly fished fisheries.  Will say to their fleets that supply them, I want to see your boats on Global Fishing.  I want to make sure that you’re fishing in places where you’ have licenses to fish. I want to make sure you’re not fishing in forbidden zones. So President Obama created an enormous closed fishing zone, a fully protected fishing zone around the northwest Hawaiian Islands.  It has a long Hawaiian name, don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Melissa Wright: Papahānaumokuākea.

Andrew Sharpless: Oh, way to go Melissa.

That’s impressive. People could wonder well, okay, so he created this — how do we know whether it’s real?  You can to Global Fishing Watch and you can see now. And in this case, the American government gets a lot of credit, ’cause if you go, you’ll see that it’s being enforced. And then you can go to places and sometimes discover problems.  And then you can alert your local newspaper or you can generate some pressure.

Basic principle of governance is — governments do a good job when their citizens can tell whether they’re doing a good job. In fact there’s a famous case in Kiribas where the Kiribas government created a big, a Phoenix Island protected areas, it’s a very big protected area, it’s a good thing they did.  And then with the help of Global Fishing Watch they identified a particular vessel that had cheated and fished in there.  A big fine was paid, multimillion dollar fine – so real consequences.

Melissa Wright: How is Oceana using the Global Fishing Watch platform?

Andrew Sharpless: I’ll give you a nice example.  So the world… the world’s most important fishery, believe it or not, is Peru. Up to 10 or 12% of the world’s wild fish catch can be caught each year from Peruvian waters.

Melissa Wright: It’s huge.

Andrew Sharpless: Amazing thing. They’re like the Saudi Arabia of fish. So it would be good from the point of view of the future if the Peruvians did a good job.  So we have a team in Peru.  And Bloomberg is helping us with that project as well. The last place on the West Coast of South America where shark parts can be landed and exported is Lima, Peru.

We use Global Fishing Watch to track particular Spanish sharkers that we suspected were sharking in the Southwest, Southeast Pacific.  And guess what?  We discovered that they fish and then you can see them running into Lima and then running back out.  And we found 12 different vessels doing this.

We presented that information, where you can show the history on a map the Peruvian government and said look at how Lima is being used by a really disreputable part of the Spanish fishing fleet you can really help protect create almost like a safety zone for these sharks in this part of the ocean by closing the last port on the West Coast of South America.  And so they’ve done that.

Melissa Wright: Excellent.

Andrew Sharpless: Yeah. Data makes it concrete and believable.

Melissa Wright: So it sounds like countries around the world have an opportunity to take an active role in managing their fisheries.  Oceana, Rare, and Bloomberg Philanthropies brought on the University of California, Santa Barbara, to do a modeling study about the impacts of the initiative.  And I think that those findings were really interesting and relevant, potentially for other places that may want to enact similar policies and programs. Can you say a little bit about what you learned from the study, Andy?

Andrew Sharpless: The countries that Bloomberg has put into the Vibrant Ocean Initiative, Philippines, Brazil, Chile, and maybe now adding in Peru, were chosen not because they were easy but chosen because they represented those 30 countries.  They were like a portfolio that represented the whole challenge of making a global difference in ocean management.

The theory was that if we could make a measurable difference in these places, then it would be possible to go ahead and make a global impact.  So this is a dramatic moment for us when we met to see the results of the study.  And here’s what they found over a 50-year view after you win the policy implementations and the work that Rare does, across these three countries: the Philippines, Chile, and Brazil; you’re going to see big increases in three measures: 53% up in biomass; 55% up in catch, meaning every year you can catch 55% more than you can catch in the business as usual case; and then a 31% increase in revenue.

The biggest benefits, even bigger than those, go to the smallest fishermen who are going to suffer the worst under the business as usual case.

Melissa Wright: Who benefits the most from the Vibrant Oceans Initiative?

Andrew Sharpless:  The model showed that there’s a big synergy benefit for the artisanal fisherman, the smaller fisherman —

Melissa Wright: Why?

Andrew Sharpless: — especially in the Philippines.  The reason is that the Philippines has a law that protects the coastal zone, out the 15 kilometers, exclusively for the smaller fishermen.

That law is often broken.  And the big boats come in to fish.  Sometimes they bottom troll, destroy the bottom.  Our job is to get the big boats consistently kept beyond the 15 kilometer zone.  Rare’s job is to teach the artisanal guys how to not overfish that 15-mile zone themselves.  If either one of us does our job, we help, but think about how we’re vulnerable if we don’t both do the job. If we keep the big boats out then the smaller guys are capable of overfishing on their own.

Andrew Sharpless:  If the smaller guys stop overfishing and rebuild their ocean, then the big guys can come in and scoop up their fish.  So it turns out you need to do both to get the maximum benefit.  And the model, adding those two together, shows that you get a big bonus from doing both at the same time, on top of the benefits you get from each one individually.

Melissa Wright: Fantastic. Andy, what would you say to someone who doesn’t like to eat fish or go to the beach or is a redhead like me and tries to avoid the beach occasionally, during the summer?  How would you explain the benefits of ocean conservation to a person like that?

Andrew Sharpless: This is something we realized also through working with Bloomberg.  Rebuild ocean abundance and you do something very, very good that’s easy to understand: feed a lot of people, create a lot of good fishing jobs for in many cases very poor people around the world.

But guess what?  You do more than that.  If you care about climate change then you ought to help us rebuild the oceans.  If you care about biodiversity loss on the land, you ought to help us rebuild the oceans.  If you care about human health, you ought to help us rebuild the oceans.

The biggest driver of biodiversity loss on the land is agriculture.  It’s not urbanization, it’s agriculture.  The most intensive form of agriculture is livestock production.  In the year 2050 when there are going to be 2 billion more people on the planet than there are right now, 2 China’s worth more people, if you care about biodiversity on the land, you want those people to be eating as much fish as possible because the animal protein that you get from fish is a livestock that you didn’t have to grow and eat. So by building an abundant ocean for the year 2050, think about the terrestrial biodiversity benefit that we deliver.  It’s huge.

Second point.  A huge driver of climate change is methane emission from livestock production, chiefly from the rear ends of livestock.  Methane is, along with CO2, a big driver of climate change.  Methane levels in the atmosphere have been rising consistently since the rise of the industrial era but agriculture, especially livestock production, is a big cause of that.  How do you minimize livestock-driven climate change?  Give people an alternative for their animal protein. Wild fish.

Aquifer depletion. The grain that feed livestock come from fields that are in many cases manually irrigated from the declining aquifers.  So if you’re worried about water supplies and we’ve seen in California right now after the unusual — weather effects there that they’re having to divert reservoir water down into the agricultural uses, you can help on that problem by making sure that we can feed people from an abundant ocean instead of having to have huge expanded livestock production.

And then lastly human health and this is something Bloomberg Philanthropies has long been a leader in.  Your doctor will tell you, she will, that you should stop eating red meat and you should eat fish.  And that if you do so you will see big improvements, in obesity, cancer, heart disease, and even some things related to your mood.

Melissa Wright: All right.  So we know that this work is incredibly important for people around the world as a source of food protein, as their livelihoods, their economies, how can people who really care about these issues get involved?

Andrew Sharpless: Well there are a couple of ways.  One issue can just become a subscriber to Oceana’s social media.  We of course have a Twitter feed.  You can find me on Twitter.  You can go to Oceana’s website,, and sign up for all kinds of engagement there.  And I encourage anybody who’s listening to this to go do that.

So if you want to know why I am motivated at Oceana, it’s that I sincerely think that there’s nothing else that is practical, that is achievable, that we can do, Melissa, you and I can do this. So the next decade we can do this together.

Melissa Wright: All right.  I’m in. Well thank you for being here, Andy, and for your partnership.  Congratulations on all of the 2016 victories and here’s to the New Year.

Andrew Sharpless: Thank you Melissa.

Katherine Oliver: We hope you enjoyed this enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

If you’d like to learn more about the Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative, visit

Thank you for listening to our podcast – if you haven’t already, subscribe and send us your feedback at  As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it you it can’t manage it. Until next time, keep following the data. Special thanks to producers and editors Kelsey McCarthy, Ivy Li and Lindsay Firestone, and music composer Mark Piro.