Sustainable fisheries

The state of our global fisheries is perhaps one of the biggest sustainability challenges humanity faces after global climate change. A billion people depend upon seafood for their main or only source of animal protein. Hundreds of millions of livelihoods around the world depend on this last global industry harvesting a wild resource for food and virtually everyone on the planet is impacted one way or another by the worst excesses of overfishing that threaten the functioning, integrity, biological diversity and resilience of our global marine ecosystems.

Growing pressure on global fisheries for food

The pressure on this renewable food resource has also never been greater. Since 1950 production from the oceans has increased fivefold and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimate that a third of fisheries are now overfished or depleted and a further 50% are fully exploited – i.e. they are being fished as hard as they can with no room for further exploitation. At the same time the demand for seafood is growing exponentially. Meeting the protein needs of the world’s current 7 billion in habitants is already proving difficult; meeting the needs of another 2-3 billion will only add further pressure on this low-carbon, precious ocean resource. Fish it out, literally, and those needs will have to be met through yet more intensive terrestrial farming systems with their own set of complex externalities.

So what has gone wrong? Part of the problem has been a fundamental and widely held view that the oceans were inexhaustible. There will always be plenty more fish in the ocean. As an example of this, Thomas Huxley wrote in 1883 that ‘probably all of the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible’ although he did caveat this statement by referencing it to the then current modes of fishing.

‘’Are there any sea fisheries which are exhaustible, and, if so, are the circumstances of the case such that they can be efficiently protected? I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conviction on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant; and, secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death-rate.”

Technology: making it easy to catch too many fish

The Afrika Super Trawler
AFRIKA SCH 24 SCHEVENINGEN, a Dutch super trawler fishing 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania.
Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

Technology has undoubtedly had a part to play. We have got better and better at finding and killing fish. Moving from sail, to steam and then to diesel has enabled the annual wild harvest taken from the oceans to reach nearly 90 million metric tonnes.  Fishing fleets have become highly capitalised and deploy a sophisticated array of gadgetry in their quest to find and catch more fish. Boats have also got bigger and bigger although it is important to recognise that small is not always beautiful. Large scale fisheries can be just as sustainable if not more so than heavily exploited, unmanaged in-shore fisheries. The specifics matter.

Subsidies: at risk of skewing sensible fishing

As the World Bank report, The Sunken Billions, highlights, perverse subsides have been part of the problem as well, helping to encourage greater investment in an already over capitalised industry and the continuation of fishing through fuel subsidies when rational economic behaviour would have left those fish in the ocean for another day.  Governance, or lack of governance and enforcement, particularly on the high seas, has also and continues to be a significant challenge. Pirate fishing or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is a very real problem.  Our global fisheries need active management and the rules need enforcing, particularly on the high seas. 

Grounds for optimism

Despite the scale of the challenge I remain optimistic that the entire global fishing industry can be and will be shifted on to a sustainable footing and that in the not too distant future it will be possible to anticipate greater annual harvests. This transformation has already begun. We know what the problems are and have many tools to deploy in the solutions tool box. We just need to deploy them and follow through.

A brief of history of fisheries concerns, starting with whaling

The wakeup call and start of this transformation has occurred over a number of decades. In 1925 the League of Nations belated recognised that the world’s great whale populations were being over exploited to the point of extinction. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was eventually signed in 1948 followed by a tortuously slow long process to try and regulate whaling which ultimately led to the complete prohibition. (Well, nearly: there are still some ‘exceptions’  from 1985/6.)

…followed by sardines, herring and cod

Collapsing fisheries have also clearly helped to demonstrate that all was not well and we had to change course. Nature was not inexhaustible. Notable events included the collapse of the Californian sardine fishery in the 1950s, the Norwegian, Pacific and North Sea herring fisheries in 1957, 1967, and 1978 respectively and perhaps one of the most iconic fisheries, the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in 1992. This fishery had been providing food for Europe during the middle ages when Basque fisherman fished the Banks on the US Eastern seaboard well before Columbus reached America in 1492. The fishery was closed in the mid 1990s and has not recovered to this day.

1970s – fish scarcity leads to cod wars

Despite these collapses the fleets continued to expand and as resources became scarcer, fishing nations went to war. Accesses to lucrative and productive fishing grounds were worth fighting for. The Icelandic cod wars in 1972-76 saw the beginning of excluding distant water fleets from coastal zones and the subsequent expansion of fishing effort into Regional Fisheries Management Organisations waters (RMFO’s charged with the management of the high seas) as these highly mobile fleets sought other, easier resources to exploit, particularly tuna.

Fishing control zones emerge

Line and pole fishing in the Maldives
Line and pole fishing in the Maldives

Scientific work in the 1950s, notably by Ricker, Beverton, Holt, Cushing and others began to generate the basis for the scientific assessment and management of fish stocks and in short, to give management agencies the data they needed to start to manage stocks more effectively.

Legislation has also developed to begin to define the rules even if they are not always applied or respected. The fist United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1958 began to codify zones. The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) from 1973-82 further developed this work, codifying all international law for the use of the sea including the establishment of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and rules for fishing and the conservation of resources. Another milestone was the development of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing by the United Nations FAO in 1995.

A global perspective was required

The evidence that all was not well and a change of course was required was increasing, and recognition was also growing that a broader, eco-systems based approach to fisheries management was now needed if fish stocks were to be managed sustainably into the future. A major piece of work that reinforced this thinking was published in 1998 by Professor Daniel Pauly from the University of British Colombia (UBC), Fishing down the food webs (Pauly et. Al. 1998) which perhaps marked the start of ‘global meta-analyses’ the most recent of which, by Boris Worm, published in Nature, predicted the end of all commercial fisheries by 2048. These papers caused considerable controversy but have certainly influenced thinking and understanding.

Fisheries legislation

Legislation and fisheries management was now catching up with the needs to manage ocean resources sustainably. The US Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976) and the most recent amendments in 2007 are probably the most influential national laws on fishery management that have contributed to shifting US fisheries on to a sustainable footing. Global fishery status tracking started by the UNFAO and the NOAA in the late 1990s and most recently the UNFAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing offers perhaps the best promise yet to clean up pirate fishing.

The role of NGOs

The marine conservation NGOs, WWF and Greenpeace in particular, also had a pivotal role to play, helping to raise awareness of the plight of the oceans and to galvanise both political and commercial support for change.

NGOs and business establish the Marine Stewardship Council

Columbus Circle Whole Foods Market, New York City

Following the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery WWF came together with Unilever, then the largest purchaser of frozen white seafood with brands such as Birds Eye and Iglo, to set up the Marine Stewardship Council.  The idea was to establish a market based programme that would work with the industry to incentivise and promote sustainable fishing through its certification and eco-labelling programme, not as an alternative to public policy but as a compliment. Set up in 1997 the MSC became fully independent in 1997.

MSC’s theory of change is very simple. By working with our partners, leaders in the seafood industry from harvest through processing to retail and food service, together with the conservation community to create a market that demands sustainable seafood choices, fisheries are incentivised to enter into assessment and where necessary, to make changes in the way they fish the oceans in order to achieve certification. It is here that the programme delivers the greatest environmental gains as fisheries make changes to their management practices in order to achieve certification.

Assessments are conducted by independently accredited third party certifiers who assess each unique fishery against MSC’s standard for environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing. The process is very transparent, engages stakeholders and is evidence based.

Whilst the organisation has had its challenges along the way our theory of change is now proven. There is a strong and growing evidence base that demonstrates fisheries are making significant changes in order to achieve certification. Importantly, once certified, fisheries do not want to lose their certification.

Sustainable fisheries – encouraging growth

MacDonalds fish burger with MSC logo
MacDonalds have committed to using only MSC-certified fish globally

By early 2013 over three hundred fisheries were engaged at some stage in the assessment process, landing over 9 million metric tonnes of seafood annually, over 10% of the wild harvest. The market for certified and sustainable seafood has also grown exponentially over recent years and is now worth over $3bn annually with over 18,000 individual MSC labelled products available around the world.

February 2013

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Rupert Howes's picture

London, UK

Rupert Howes is Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council. From an early age, Rupert Howes was passionate about nature. Influenced... (Read more)

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