Sustainable Development

Have our oceans reached a tipping point?

Beatrice Crona
Associate professor, deputy science director, Stockholm Resilience Centre
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Sustainable Development

This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Humanity is collectively mismanaging the oceans to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from WWF. For consumers this statement is in direct contradiction with their daily reality: supermarkets are stacked with cheap and abundant seafood. What’s going on?

My colleagues and I have uncovered the reasons why consumers are in the dark about the very real risks to the planet’s marine ecosystems, and why this is undermining public pressure for sustainable fisheries governance.

Between 1998 and 2008, seafood trade grew 50% and now counts for almost 40% of all seafood caught (by volume). This phenomenal growth drives seafood production and affects vast tracts of the world’s oceans, not to mention all those that rely on them; marine fisheries employ over 200 million people while another 3 billion people depend on them for their primary source of protein.

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

But this enormous growth comes at a price: marine resources are under threat from over-fishing, pollution, ocean acidification and habitat loss. This is where Goal 14 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comes in. It aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans and marine resources. But the question is how?

Economic theory teaches us that scarcity should drive prices upwards until demand virtually disappears. But as fish populations collapse, fishing fleets switch to new species, move farther off shore, or fish deeper, with little impact on fish prices. The fishing grounds left behind may never recover and often the new area is eventually also depleted and fleets move on again. Only when large tracts of ocean are on the verge of collapse do consumers notice a price signal.

Price signals to individual consumers about scarcity in one region are weakened, or diluted, because supplies to supermarkets often come from several regions around the globe. So, a global flow of fish can be maintained in the short term even when local fisheries collapse. This dilution is particularly likely for products like fish sticks because the fish species in the product tends to be unimportant to the consumer, so demand can be satisfied from a range of sources and species.


The fish laid out on ice in supermarkets hide the serious ecological consequences of bringing them to market that have no immediate economic cost. Bottom trawling destroys more or less everything in its path. And dolphins and other species can get caught up in the line of fire, becoming by-catch. These impacts often remain external to the operating cost of the fishery yet contribute to reducing resilience and long-term viability.

Scarcity can also be “drowned out” by noise caused by other economic factors, including the price of other protein sources, government subsidies and regulations altering the cost of fishing.

When we mapped this complex web of interactions between distant consumers and local fisheries and aquaculture businesses, we found a network fuelled by rapid information flow, new technology and more efficient transportation. Together, these mechanisms shield consumers from signals that individual fisheries and marine ecosystems might be in trouble. The theory that increasing prices would signal to consumers that source ecosystems are overharvested is no longer valid in a highly globalized world. Dealing with this requires complementary approaches.

First, catch-traceability schemes can give consumers better information about specific fisheries to tackle dilution of signals. Such schemes are already in place for high-value species. Certification, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, is another way to increase consumers’ awareness, providing guarantees of environmental standards of individual fisheries.

Second, our research group has recently shown that the seafood supply chain is increasingly dominated by a few very large powerful companies: 13 companies control up to 40% of global fisheries. These big seafood companies have a unique opportunity to overcome “indifference through dilution” because they have a greater awareness of, and interest in, understanding the larger patterns of declining resources.

Public engagement in sustainable fisheries can also be pursued outside the seafood trade by directly targeting the public as citizens, not consumers. Strategic communication campaigns can mobilize popular support and influence fisheries policy. The Fish Fight campaign, for example, put so much pressure on politicians, large retailers and wholesale buyers that EU ministers decided to ban the practice of throwing healthy fish back in to the ocean.

Each strategy has its own limitations, but taken together provide a real opportunity to tackle sustainability in the new order of global fisheries and connect people to far away marine ecosystems.

The challenge for science is to understand the interactions between everything from the ecology of local fisheries to the economics of key actors on global markets. But to successfully implement and reach the oceans’ goal, we need to find new ways of collaboration between science, businesses, consumers and politicians. And this needs to happen fast. The world’s oceans are at a crucial tipping point in which major ecological collapse is imminent. The oceans can’t wait.

Author: Beatrice Crona, Executive Director Program on Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Fishermen work at Ponta Negra beach in Natal January 22, 2014. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

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