How a TED grant helped spread a powerful ocean conservation idea

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Overfishing is the number-one threat to the oceans’ ability to provide food and sustain life. Under current conditions, we’re closer than we think to a world of no more tuna-fish sandwiches, sushi, or protein for more than a billion people.

Back in 2003, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program asked TED and its parent, the Sapling Foundation, to help spread a great idea: that the way to solve overfishing and help our oceans rebuild is to align incentives so that sustainable fishing is the most profitable way of fishing.

The Sapling Foundation gave EDF a $250,000 grant to explore whether new incentive-based approaches that work with — instead of against — economic forces — could transform the business and regulation of fishing. Equally as important, Chris Anderson gave EDF head David Festa a slot at TED to present this fledgling idea.

Did it work? Yes:

A landmark study published today, Sept. 19, in Science magazine shows that the focus of EDF’s Oceans Program — a fisheries management system called “catch shares” — is the only management system that prevents overfishing. In fact, the study finds, catch shares actually reverse overfishing and return fisheries to abundance.

Fish_swimming_away_250x200.jpgAs David Festa writes to the Sapling Foundation:

Here are few highlights of the return on your investment.

EDF’s Oceans Program has turned this investment into what we now call the “Big Bet,” a campaign to convert the majority of US, Canadian and Latin American fisheries to catch shares. Results from the 11 US fisheries managed this way are impressive. Typical findings from a study we released last year include:

+ Conservation: 100% compliance with fishing limits set by scientists.

+ Cleaner fishing: 40% decrease in unwanted catch thrown overboard dead.

+ Economics: 80% revenue increases per boat due to better yields and dockside prices.

Based on the strength of the work the Sapling Foundation and private TEDizens helped fund in its early years, we have been able to enlist new support including $5 million in capital pledges for a new public-private venture, the California Fisheries Fund, a $5 million partnership with University of California (funded by Paul Allen), and grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation exceeding $20 million to advance catch shares and incentive-based management in the US.

Despite this progress, we’re just now reaching critical mass. We have a big job ahead of us. And we can’t do it alone. We need to work more closely than ever with colleagues, supporters, partners, fishermen and other stakeholders to advance this conservation agenda. It is critical that the world’s movers and shakers gain a working knowledge of our efforts to redesign fisheries.

The EDF’s Oceans Program is a powerful example of how a seeding grant and a great idea can combine to make real change. The Sapling Foundation now makes grants solely through the TED Prize — granting three people each year $100,000 and one wish to change the world. Look for some very exciting news from past TED Prize winners this fall, as their wishes — with the help of seeding grants and assistance from the whole world — start to come true.