Searching for a sustainable blue future in the post 2015 development agenda
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.
Many of the most intractable problems we face globally and locally involve collective action to manage a shared resource. Nowhere is this more true 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. 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 processes by providing an important source of cash revenue to service international debt, fund the operations of national governments, and import food for domestic consumption, thus contributing to national food security and diversification of diets. It is deeply troubling, therefore, that 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 biology and ecology of fishery due to physical changes such as ocean acidification, as well as biological and chemical alterations such as changes in primary production. Wild fisheries are also often open access, or at best common property, which leads to overexploitation of the resources. Furthermore, a significant proportion of fish produced in most developing countries are from small-scale artisanal fisheries that 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 a very opportune moment to discuss this challenge, ideally resulting in a coherent and coordinated approach to move towards a more desired state in fisheries worldwide. In order to get there, however, we need to have a clear vision of what sort of global oceans and fisheries we would like to see some 15 years down the line. I outlined in a previous policy briefing paper a desired state of global fisheries which includes: 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.
While it is not yet exactly 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 in the process 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 either.
Some clarity on the direction the international community might take is offered in the latest “focus areas” document released by the co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) prior to the UN body’s 11th meeting in early May. Of the 16 headline suggestions, Focus Area 13 at the time of writing ran “Conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, oceans and seas.” Such a clear mention of marine resources is warmly welcomed by fisheries enthusiasts. The focus area calls up on states to “take urgent and significant actions for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, oceans and seas.” Seven potential target areas are listed although, unlike for some other focus areas, no potential indicators are put forward yet. Each of these is examined in further detail below.
OWG is scheduled to deliver a draft proposal for sustainable development goals (SDGs) by July, to be forwarded for consideration by the 68th General Assembly in September. Given the nature of UN processes, the working documents currently being discussed shed light on the group’s thinking and the possible shape of the final outcome. While I understand the danger of jumping the gun in analysing this early stage document, it is helpful to discuss what the focus areas might mean, even at this stage, in order to develop a sound understanding of the evolving process. Indeed, OWG co-chairs have indicated that they will release another revised version of the focus areas document at the end of May and it will be interesting to track the progress of the marine and fisheries related targets.
Prevent, control and reduce by x% marine pollution and marine disposal of waste and tailings, including from land-based activities
Marine pollution and waste disposal are some of the greatest man-made destructive practices requiring urgent action. According to some 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. Some of these include: the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter – commonly referred to as the London Convention; the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL); the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, and so on. But problems still persist. Preventing and tackling marine pollution remains a highly complex issue mainly due to nonpoint sources, such as wind-blown debris, and the trans-boundary nature of pollution. The cost of marine pollution to societal wellbeing is also significant. 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. A rough back-of-envelope calculation would give an illustrative view of the economic costs from this particular pollution form on the global scale.
Coordinated approaches at local, regional, and international levels are needed to prevent and significant reduce such forms of marine pollution, as well as remedy and 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 from destruction, including by halting and preventing ocean acidification
Marine and coastal habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Habitat degradation can have long-lasting or 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 that thrive in ecologically rich and diverse shallow water habitats including coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows, are being lost at alarming rates.
Perhaps the most devastating of all habitat-altering agents is climate change. Even though there have been several studies based on projections and simulation models that predict the potential impacts of climate change on fisheries, understanding of the magnitude and rate of the impact is far from accurate. The impacts of climate change on fisheries are also very complex as this will depend 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. Without this, it will be very difficult to devise effective approaches and new mechanisms to mitigate climate change and enhance the adaptive capacity of vulnerable fishery dependent communities.
Regulate harvesting to restore fish stocks to ecologically safe levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield, and support sustainable small-scale fisheries
More than one billion people – most of whom are in the developing world – rely on fish as the only or main source of animal protein. For example, in Senegal the proportion of dietary protein coming from fish is as high as 75 percent, [Ref 1]and in Sierra Leone it supplies 63 percent of the total animal protein consumed. Healthy fisheries also directly or indirectly employ millions of youth and women. Therefore, restoring depleted or overexploited fish stocks to pre-exploitation rates – which vary depending on species, country, or the nature of the aquatic environment – is 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 ensure the full implementation of existing regional and international regimes governing oceans and seas, including for resources in areas beyond national jurisdictions
While it is difficult to dispute the fact that there is a need to develop and ensure full implementation of existing and highly fragmented marine governance regimes, there is also a critical governance gap in marine environments beyond national jurisdiction. Usually dubbed the high seas, these represent one of the main natural resources governance challenges of the 21st century. Technological advancements have enabled many interest groups to go beyond exclusive economic zones and intensified extractive activities — including fishing and deep sea mining — putting pressure on the open ocean in a way never done in the past. For example, fishing on the high seas has increased over recent decades as a result of the overfishing of coastal waters and in response to growing market demand for seafood products. [Ref 2]In light of these changing dynamics, it is now more important than ever to work towards establishing an equitable global oceans governance framework.
Eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive fishing practices
Global losses are estimated to be between US$9 billion and US$24 billion annually, representing between 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish, which weighs in 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., which could otherwise be used for development projects. These losses are potentially severe, particularly in developing countries with a 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. Illegal fishing is, therefore, not only harmful to fish stocks but also to national economic development and overall societal wellbeing.
Establish Marine Protected Areas, consistent with international law
Currently, only a tiny fraction of the world oceans are designated as marine protected areas (MPAs). While there are many cases where 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 or indirectly affected by total or partial closures of some fishing grounds. To avoid such social costs, MPAs need to be complemented with economic instruments such as compensation or rewards for affected fisher or coast communities.
At the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) tenth Conference of the Parties in Nagoya, Japan it was agreed that “by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, 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, [Ref 3]with capacity-enhancing and fuel subsidies accounting for US$20-24 billion. Subsidies are often provided when revenue is exceeded by costs, making way too 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. It must be noted, however, that not all subsidies are harmful. Some fishery subsidies provided in the developing world have had some 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.
Towards a vision
Delegates could also consider further possible targets as the post-2015 conversations continue. Although fish are highly traded, a number of tariff and non-tariff barriers remain that hinder such commerce. These include measures such as sanitary requirements, access to ports, or regulations on foreign investment. One potential consequence includes developing countries leasing fishing rights on foreign vessels, directing revenue away from local communities. Clearly defining use rights of coastal communities would also be a helpful exercise in tackling overfishing.
In order to realise targets discussed so far as part of the SDG conversations, 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 backwards. 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 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 existing but fragmented management regimes. It is a crucial point given the trans-boundary nature of oceans and the problems they face.
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.
[Ref 1] Ndiaye, O (2003), Report of the Expert Consultation on International Fish Trade and Food Security. Casablanca, Morocco, 27 – 30 January 2003. FAO, Rome.
[Ref 2] Gianni, M and Simpson, W (2005). The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing: how flags of convenience provide cover for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, International Transport Workers’ Federation, and WWF International.
[Ref 3] MRAG. (2000). Summary reviews of the impact of fishery subsidies on developing countries. DFID policy research program project, contract no. CNTR 98 6509.