• The percentage of stocks fished at unsustainable levels has increased significantly since the 1970s.
  • Overexploitation of the world’s fish stocks has been described as “a man-made tragedy in the making".
  • Many developed countries spend huge sums of money subsidising their fishing industries, which can harm food security and livelihoods in coastal communities.
  • This group of Pacific island nations banded together to fight back and win – for themselves and for fish stocks.

While most people won’t have heard of the Nauru Agreement, many will regularly enjoy the product that it concerns: skipjack tuna.

It’s the most commonly canned variety of the fish, and today, a group of Pacific islands known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) control about 50% of the global supply.

In 1982, faced with being outcompeted by larger countries’ fishing fleets, the PNA banded together to protect its waters, its fishing rights, and the livelihoods of countless people who rely on fishing for income. It created the Vessel Day Scheme, which has transformed how much money its member states retain from the value of the fish taken from their waters and helped them adapt to the impacts of climate variability.

Together, the islands now control the fishing rights to the largest and most valuable skipjack tuna fishery in the world.

Along the way, they have also helped define sustainable, community-led fishing practices that generate around half a billion dollars in annual revenues. This year, the scheme was described as “a non-confrontational and effective adaptation in response to climate impacts” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Fishing rights: A collaborative solution

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement are: the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. A ninth participant in the PNA is Tokelau, which has observer status.

The scheme that they created works like this. PNA members agree on a limited number of fishing days for the year, based on scientific advice about the status of tuna stocks. Fishing rights are then sold to foreign ships, which are charged per day fished. The money raised is distributed between the PNA member states.

Prior to the scheme, the individual nations would sometimes undercut one another on price when selling fishing rights to large foreign fleets.

It’s an innovative regional approach to a problem that is harming fish stocks, marine ecosystems and livelihoods across the globe.

Overfishing: ‘A man-made tragedy’

The percentage of stocks fished at unsustainable levels increased from 10% in 1974 to 34.2% in 2017, according to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

This overexploitation of the world’s fish stocks has been described as “a man-made tragedy in the making” by Mukhisa Kituyi, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In a video message recorded in 2017, he warned of the harm being done by fishing subsidies. While “about 97% of the world’s fishermen live in developing countries,” he said, many developed countries spend huge sums of money subsidising their fishing industries.

He continued: “These subsidies make no sense whatsoever, in the economy or the environment. They support the extraction of a depleted resource. They benefit the owners of big industrial fleets, while destroying food security and livelihoods for vulnerable coastal communities.”

Fishing subsidies: Part of the problem

Large industrialized trawlers are responsible for widespread harm done to marine habitats, including the seabed. The value of global fishing subsidies has been estimated to be $35 billion by UNCTAD – more than $20 billion of which plays a direct role in the problem of overfishing, in what are known as harmful fisheries subsidies.

a graph showing that subsidies which promote fishing are considerably higher than those which promote sustainability
Subsidies promoting fishing over sustainability are damaging the environment and creating inequalities, according to the UNCTAD website
Image: Vox

“These subsidies effectively mean that taxpayers are paying industrial boats to degrade the environment and to destroy the food security and livelihoods of vulnerable coastal communities,” a statement on the UNCTAD website states.

“By fueling unfair competition between large fleets and individual artisanal fishermen, they are also fostering inequality.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization whose members are tasked with agreeing a global deal to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, has set a WTO Special Ministerial Meeting on 15 July 2021. The meeting is designed to advance and conclude these negotiations, that have been going on since 2001. Ending harmful fisheries subsidies is also a key target of the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14, which all Heads of State and Government agreed to achieve “by 2020”.

Finding innovative ways to tackle the problems of overfishing is also at the heart of The Blue Food Challenge, which was launched by the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform. The programme seeks submissions from innovators on ways to support the sustainable production of nutritional and economically viable aquatic food.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

Sustainable fishing: An economic bonus

Around 3 billion people rely on seafood for their main source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And according to UNCTAD, the global trade in fish and seafood products generates over $150 billion per year.

For the nations of the PNA, their actions have meant they are able to retain a greater proportion of the value of the fish in the waters that surround their islands.

The system also allowed the countries momentarily without fish – say the Western Pacific’s Federated States of Micronesia in an El Niño year – to sell its days to the Central Pacific’s Kiribati, where the fish were, and Kiribati could resell them to the fishers, evening out the yearly revenues of each state.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Transform Aqorau, who was the first chief executive of the PNA in 2010, said: “Now we’re getting 25% of the dockside sale price of the skipjack (tuna), up from 2% or 3% a decade ago.”

Join the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action in a special webinar, ‘Global Voices for an End to Harmful Fisheries Subsidies – Is there light at the end of the tunnel?’, on Thursday 1 July 2021 at 16:00-17:00 CET. The webinar is open to all by prior registration here.