Searching for a sustainable blue future in the post-2015 development agenda

15 May 2014

Fish are an important source of food and income for millions across the globe, but oceans and marine ecosystems are suffering from heavy exploitation and degradation. How might the new sustainable development goals help in this area?

Many of the most intractable problems we face globally and locally involve collective action to manage a shared resource. Nowhere is this truer than in the management of marine and coastal resources in general and fisheries in particular. Marine ecosystems cover some three-quarters of the globe and support a diversity of living resources that sustain the livelihoods of millions of people across all continents.  For example, in Senegal the proportion of dietary protein coming from fish is as high as 75 percent, and in Sierra Leone it supplies 63 percent of the total animal protein consumed. Also, some 260 million people — mostly in the global South — are directly employed in marine fisheries.

Fish are also one of the most traded food commodities in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Fish trade supports economic growth and contribute to national revenue, food security, nutrition and diet diversification. Nonetheless, world fish stocks are running dangerously low. Only 20 percent of global fishery resources are moderately exploited according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of the others, 52 percent are fully exploited with no further increases anticipated, 19 percent are over-exploited, and eight percent are depleted. Only one percent are on track to recover from previous depletion. If current trends continue, we are very likely to see fishless oceans by 2050, implying loss of livelihood for millions.  

A desired state of world fisheries and oceans

Among the main drivers of deterioration in the state of global fisheries are (i) anthropogenic factors such as overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction; (ii) climate change or variability that affects the ecology of fisheries due to physical changes such as ocean acidification, as well as biological and chemical alterations in primary production. Wild fisheries are also often open access, or at best common property, which leads to their overexploitation. Furthermore, small-scale artisanal fisheries significantly produce fish in developing countries but are often not accounted for in national statistics, meaning their relationship to the economy, the environment, and food security remains invisible.

Although the current state of global fisheries is gloomy, the debate on the post-2015 development agenda is an opportune moment to discuss this challenge to move towards a more desired state in fisheries worldwide.  There is the need for a clear vision of on global oceans and fisheries for the next 15 years and beyond. Significant restoration of depleted fish stocks to “pre-exploitation rate,” major regeneration of critical natural habitats, mitigation of related climate change impacts and enhancement of adaptive capacities of coastal fisher communities, a designation of up to 20-30 percent of global oceans as marine protected areas and a considerable development of technical and institutional capacities – particularly among developing country governments – in order to enable measurement and good management of marine and coastal fisheries resources are critical policy measures.

While it is not yet clear how marine and coastal resources in general and fisheries in particular will be framed in the post-2015 development agenda, little doubt remains that these should play a central role.  One of the highly debated issues has been whether there should be a clear set of goals and targets with particular focus on fisheries or whether fisheries should be included as a driver to enable the achievement of other targets such as food security, poverty alleviation, and so on.  While obviously having a clear goal and a set of targets on fisheries may be preferred, a siloed approach to sectors and themes for which the MDGs were criticised, may not be desirable.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development (OWG) of the UN is scheduled to deliver a draft proposal for sustainable development goals by July, to be forwarded for consideration by the 68th General Assembly in September. The working documents currently being discussed shed light on the group’s thinking and the possible shape of the final outcome. While it is perhaps too early to analyse the document at this stage, it will help foster sound understanding as the process unfolds.

Restoring fish stocks: Policy preventives and curatives

Prevent control and reduce marine pollution:Marine pollution by waste disposal is  a man-made destructive practice requiring urgent action. According to studies, 80 percent of marine pollution originates from land-based sources. There are already several legal and policy initiatives ongoing to prevent the persistence of marine pollution. Invasive species offer one illustrative example of marine pollution, singlehandedly responsible for about US$138 billion annually in lost revenue and management costs in the US alone. Coordinated approaches at local, regional, and international levels are needed to significantly reduce such forms of marine pollution, as well as reverse the damage done to oceanic ecosystems worldwide. The time is ripe for drawing an internationally accepted ecological, societal, and economic optimal pollution level to work towards by 2030.

Restore and protect marine ecosystems: Marine and coastal habitats are also being destroyed at an alarming rate through ocean acidification. Habitat degradation can have permanent effects if pushed to a point where conditions physically or biologically prevent regeneration. Coastal areas, home to over 90 percent of all marine species are being lost at alarming rates.

The impacts of climate change on fisheries are also very complex because this depends on geographical location, type of species, the nature of aquatic environment, and so on. Therefore, continued efforts to move towards a clearer understanding of the impacts of climate change are critical to enhance capacity of vulnerable fishery dependent communities.

 Regulate harvesting to restore fish stocks: Restoring depleted or overexploited fish stocks to pre-exploitation rates through policy controls­ is equally extremely important. A national, regional, and global process to determine the pre-exploitation rate of particularly threatened and commercially important fish species should start and accordingly set targets at national, regional, and global levels.

Develop and fully implement existing regional and international regimes governing oceans: There is a critical governance gap in marine environments especially beyond national jurisdictions. Usually dubbed “the high seas”, these represent one of the main natural resources governance challenges of the 21st century. Overfishing of coastal waters in response to growing market demand for seafood products and technological advancements have enabled many interest groups to go beyond exclusive economic zones and intensified  deep sea fishing  increasing pressure on the open ocean.  Therefore, it has become very important to create an equitable global oceans governance framework.

Eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing: Global losses are estimated to be between US$9 billion and US$24 billion annually, representing between 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish, weighing between 10 to 22 percent of total fisheries production. Developing countries are most at risk from illegal fishing, with total estimated catches in West Africa around 40 percent higher than reported catches. This results in a significant loss in government revenue from landing fees, export earnings, taxes, etc.  These losses are particularly severe for developing countries with high reliance on fisheries for domestic consumption and export earnings. A study in 2005 found that in Liberia, for instance, elimination of illegal fishing could increase GDP by more than 4 percent.

Establish Marine Protected Areas, consistent with international law: While there are many cases where established Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have had significant positive ecological outcomes, it is also feared that this is done at the cost of fisher communities whose livelihoods are directly and indirectly affected by total or partial closures of some fishing grounds. To avoid such social costs, MPAs need to be complemented with compensation or rewards for affected fisher communities. At the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP10 in Nagoya, Japan it was agreed that “by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas...(…)…are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems ... (...)... and integrated into the wider seascapes” (CBD COP 10, Decision X/2). International Institute for Environment and Development suggests that by 2030, 20-30 percent of coastal and marine areas within the national jurisdictions of coastal and island states should be designated as protected areas.

Eliminate fishing subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing: Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at US$30-34 billion annually, with capacity-enhancing and fuel subsidies accounting for 20-24 billion USD. Subsidies are often provided when revenue is exceeded by costs, making many fishing activities economically viable consequently leading to overfishing. Fish stock depletion globally has been driven in part by high levels of fishing subsidies. A retreat from the subsidies in fisheries would considerably contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of fish stocks. However some fishery subsidies provided in the developing world have positive contributions to the overall wellbeing of fisher communities and poverty alleviation.

It is extremely important to first and foremost define the desired state of global oceanic ecosystems and work retrospectively.


In order to realise targets discussed so far as part of the SDG process, and indeed also as the process moves forward, it is extremely important to first and foremost define the desired state of global oceanic ecosystems and work retrospectively. Unless this is done, it will be very difficult to prioritise measurable and achievable targets and actions. To do so, there is a need to fill knowledge gaps pertaining to optimal pollution levels, historical state of marine and coastal habitats, and climate change impacts. Last but not least, more regional and global coordination is needed to ensure successful implementation of the existing fragmented management regimes.

A longer version of this article is available in Biores, May 2014. 

This paper is based on a policy briefing published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED): Fisheries and the post-2015 development agenda, IIED, January 2014.

Author: Essam Yassin Mohammed, Researcher in Environmental Economics and leads a work programme on Economics of Marine and Coastal Fisheries with Sustainable Markets Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He is also a member of the LDC Independent Expert Group on Post-2015 Development Agenda.  

This article is published under
15 May 2014
The EU reached agreement on legislations to govern the bloc’s fisheries activities in May 2013 and on the related financing in January 2014. Although the reform could have gone further, WWF welcomes...
15 May 2014
There is an explicit mandate on governments and trade negotiators to concretely ensure sustainability of the oceans’ fisheries. This mandate requires an uneasy mental shift on what is best for the...