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The end of fish

The ones we like to eat are rapidly vanishing from the ocean.

The ones we like to eat are vanishing from the oceans. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/St. Joseph News-Press via Associated Press)

People are getting more adventurous with how they eat, and when it comes to seafood, this means exhaustively looking to every exotic corner for the best, newest and tastiest fish. Also, the stuff is delicious. Seafood is a critical portion of more than 3 billion people’s diets. Already, 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported.

This can’t last. The oceans are stretched, and certain fish species are approaching depletion. Leading scientists project that if we continue to fish this way, without allowing our oceans time to recover, our oceans could become virtual deserts by 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. Given that demand for seafood – along with the world’s population – is rising, don’t be surprised if this window closes even faster. Make your peace with fish, because it may not last much longer.

We’re not biologists and we’re not scientists, but in 2010 – aboard the TED Prize Mission Blue voyage to the Galapagos – we joined 100 of the world’s leading ocean scholars and advocates. The expedition, led by National Geographic explorer and that year’s TED Prize winner, Dr. Sylvia Earle, made us acutely aware of the overfishing crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, look at the data. The Census of Marine Life concluded in 2010 that 90 percent of the large fish are gone, primarily because of overfishing. This includes many of the fish we love to eat, like Atlantic salmon, tuna, halibut, swordfish, Atlantic cod. If we don’t allow for proper recovery, these fish risk total extinction.

The recent experience of Ivan Macfadyen, a famous yachtsman, confirms these findings. In 2013 he sailed from Melbourne to Osaka – the exact path he had taken in 2003. What he noted this time around was the silence of the ocean. “What was missing,” he said, “were the cries of the seabirds, which, on all previous similar voyages, had surrounded the boat. The birds were missing because the fish were missing.”

So Dan Barber was asking a crucial question in his 2010 TED Talk: Given all these challenges, “how do we keep fish on our menus?”

There is, thankfully, an answer: aquaculture. Or simply put, fish farming.

But it’s not without stigma. The most frequent criticisms, which include the overuse of antibiotics and environmental harm, are the same that have plagued the meat industry. Yet we don’t have time to waste when it comes to investing in the technology, science and practices that could help scale this industry sustainably.

The reality is that technologies do exist to achieve this without abusing, or even using, antibiotics or degrading the planet. And scaling the industry means not only taking pressure off the oceans, but also providing food security for the more than 1 billion people who depend on seafood as their primary protein. Further, given that oceans can’t physically keep up with the rising demand for fish, we need farming to grow. By 2022, the output of fish from aquaculture must be 35 percent higher than current levels. Transparency Market research anticipates that the global aquaculture market will jump from $135 billion today to $195 billion by 2019, with the added benefit of more jobs and economic growth.

Ultimately, if we want to continue enjoying seafood, two things must happen: First, the ocean must be allowed to regenerate. This means fishing moratoriums, especially on certain species that are on the brink of extinction, and better management of fisheries.  And second, we must supplement wild catch with healthy, sustainably farmed fish.

Imagine for a moment that we still hunted for cows. That every time someone wanted a steak or hamburger, it required a hunter to go out in search of a wild animal. It seems obvious that these common foods would quickly become rarities, so why should it be any different that we start to farm fish? What’s more, growing fish actually requires far less energy and feed. It also requires almost no water, because fish swim in it; they don’t drink it.

The trend toward fish farming has already started: The number of fish now harvested from farms has doubled – nearly tripled – in recent years, and aquaculture is fulfilling nearly half the world’s demand for fish. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, aquaculture presently provides about 63.6 million tonnes of fish per year, which isn’t far behind the 67.2 million tonnes coming in via wild catch. As early as 2015, farming is expected to surpass fisheries as the main producer of fish. But to safeguard the planet against some of the worst practices we’ve seen in other meat industries – such as overuse of antibiotics, water contamination and clear cutting of forests (or, in this case, mangroves and other habitats) – it must be done in an environmentally sound manner.

As we walked away from our own voyage on Mission Blue, we began to explore possible solutions to the dangers of overfishing. We’ve spent the past four years finding the innovators and technologies that will help us scale this industry the right way, before we reel in the last wild-caught fish from our oceans.

Amy Novogratz and Mike Velings are the co-founders of Aqua-Spark, the first investment fund focused solely on sustainable aquaculture. Novogratz is a former TED Prize director. They met aboard Mission Blue and in 2013 launched the Holland-based firm.

Related: New program tries to tackle overfishing in oceans