Nature and Biodiversity

How to end overfishing in the global South

A third of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, up from 10% in the 1970s.

A third of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, up from 10% in the 1970s. Image: Erwan Hesry

Rupert Howes
Chief executive, Marine Stewardship Council
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The global leaders who gathered in Bali for the annual Our Ocean Conference had much to discuss, and even more to do. Our ocean has never been more vital, nor so threatened. The big blue driver of climate and weather, supplier of oxygen for all and protein for many, is under assault from all sides.

Overfishing, rising seas, pollution, coral bleaching, acidification: these issues have taken a terrible toll, threatening fish stocks and the lives and livelihoods of those who depend on them. There are no easy fixes for many of these great challenges. As long as carbon emissions continue to rise, so too will the seas’ woes.

But this is not the case with overfishing. Here, we know the issues, and we know how to overcome them. And yet sadly it continues, year after year. A third of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, up from 10% in the 1970s.

Image: Africa Progress Panel

That’s not to say we haven’t made progress, particularly in the global North. In the US, the number of overexploited stocks is at a record low. In the north-east Atlantic, it’s dropped from over 70% in the early 2000s to around 40% today. After long periods of absence, once-threatened species like North Sea cod or Patagonian toothfish are back on menus and dinner plates.

Working with committed fishers, scientists, NGOs and supply-chain organisations, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has played a part in these successes by providing a roadmap and incentive for sustainable fishing. Over the last two decades, we’ve worked with government, fishers, retailers, scientists and NGOs to encourage fisheries to make the changes necessary to achieve certification to our science-based standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing. More than 400 fisheries around the world are now engaged in the MSC programme, certified or under full assessment. Collectively, they land 10 million tonnes of seafood each year, 14% of the global marine catch.

The encouraging news on ending overfishing isn’t just confined to the global North. The United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, with its dedicated goal for life below the water, SDG 14, has provided time-bound targets to protect our precious ocean resources. The commitments made by the 193 nations signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), along with commitments made this week in Bali by Ocean Leaders from around the world, are profound. If delivered, they could make a significant contribution to ending overfishing in both the global South and North. They also pledge to regulate harvesting, tackle illegal and destructive fishing, and ultimately, to restore fish stocks.

The 2020 and 2030 target deadlines set by the SDG framework are singularly ambitious. With many of the trends moving in the wrong direction, there is little time left for talk – we must deliver and quickly. Overfishing, at least, could be solved. While the solutions are diverse, I passionately believe market-based programmes, like the MSC’s, are part of the solution.

We have been working with fisheries in the global South since our inception and have developed a deep understanding of the challenges that all too often hinder their efforts to demonstrate sustainability and achieve certification. But with these fisheries supporting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, and supplying most of our seafood, we must all do more to build capacity and facilitate their transition towards sustainability.

That’s why, at the Our Ocean Conference this year, we launched the £1 million MSC Ocean Stewardship Fund. The fund will provide support for small-scale fisheries in the global South to overcome the obstacles and barriers they face on their pathway to sustainability. The MSC has twenty years’ track record and experience in helping fisheries develop action plans to improve their sustainability. Over the coming years, we also hope to attract additional resources to increase this fund, accelerating our partners’ ability to drive change and deliver positive impacts.

But the MSC clearly can’t solve overfishing alone. A million pounds is a mere drop in the ocean. If we are to deliver on SDG 14, if we are to achieve our vision of oceans teeming with life and seafood supplies safeguarded for this and future generations, we need urgent, large-scale action from across the seafood industry.

Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

We need governments to accelerate the implementation of harvest control rules and ensure that fisheries are managed and enforced appropriately. We need retailers, restaurants and caterers to rise to the challenge of sourcing sustainable and traceable seafood globally. After years of discussion, we need the World Trade Organization to take action and ban the harmful subsidies that drive so much overfishing. We need to mobilise private sector capital on a much larger scale and use our multilateral lending institutions to make investment more attractive. We need to identify promising new solutions and support entrepreneurial organisations to implement them.

And we need to supercharge these endeavours with knowledge-sharing and communication to deliver lasting change at scale. If there’s one thing that being at the forefront of fisheries development for more than two decades has taught us, it’s that collaboration is key. To manage fisheries, we must manage people. And to do this most effectively, we must continually find new ways to bring together local communities and governments, NGOs and resource managers, seafood companies and resource users, researchers and practitioners.

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Together, we can deliver sustainable fisheries, vibrant oceans, and improved food security for over a billion people. But only if we act now. The 2020 deadline is ambitious – only 18 months away – but enormous progress can and must be delivered by 2030. The clock is ticking.

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityFood and WaterIndustries in DepthSustainable DevelopmentEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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