Interview by Ian Somerhalder
Why is a healthy ocean important for people?
The ocean is our world’s greatest resource. It is an engine that powers all life on this planet – the estimated value of the natural services provided by the ocean is an astounding $21 trillion. Three-hundred fifty million jobs are related to marine industries. One-hundred eighty million jobs are directly related to global fisheries, representing $190 billion in total global value. The ocean also moderates our climate, protects shorelines, and provides more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe.
We also feel the impact from a healthy ocean on our dinner plate. By 2050, the Earth’s population will grow to 9 billion people with 5 billion in the middle class. We will need 70% more food and we will have to look to the ocean to help feed the world.
Not everybody eats seafood. Why are healthy and sustainable fisheries so important to the health of the oceans?
Half the world depends on seafood as a source of protein. It’s estimated that almost 1 billion people in the world do not have enough to eat, and seafood provides 3 billion people with almost 20% of their daily protein intake. For the other half that may prefer a steak or tofu, sustainable fisheries are integral to a well-balanced ocean ecosystem. Fisheries with high by-catch and damage to their surrounding habitats reduce the resilience of an ecosystem.
Marine ecosystems are intricately interwoven, so removing a single species may have negative impacts on other integral elements of the ecosystem. For example, removing sharks and other apex marine predators like tuna, alters the structure of food chains, which directly affects coral reef health. Moreover, sustainable fisheries are necessary to support local economies since the fishing industry represents about $5.6 billion of the annual U.S. GDP.
While an estimated 85% of the world’s fisheries are overexploited, fisheries can vary in health from region to region. These differences are due to the size of the fishing fleet, the methods of fishing used, boat types, and institutional frameworks in place. Many Atlantic sardine populations in the Mediterranean are declining or depleted, but Pacific sardines fisheries in the U.S are abundant. Similarly, several red snapper populations of the U.S. South Atlantic continue to decline despite management efforts. Perhaps some of the most exploited fisheries worldwide are the Atlantic and Southern bluefin tuna – commonly found in sushi – which are both considered a critical conservation concern due to demonstrated long term declines in abundance.
How do we manage these tuna fisheries?
When one single tuna can sell for $737,000 at the Tsukiji Tuna Auction in Japan, then we can see how difficult it is to manage tuna fisheries. Sustainably managing tuna fisheries is a politically and economically loaded challenge to which there is no single answer. It requires applying a suite of different management tools, increasing transparency, and increasing economic returns for countries like those in the Pacific Islands, which have stewardship responsibilities for vast swaths of the ocean but currently only recover 5-7% of the landed value of the fish caught in their waters.
Some tools that have worked in the past: marine protected areas (MPA) where some areas have no fishing and other areas have well-managed fishing gives many species a chance to recover and increase. Catch shares have worked by providing licensed fisher’s certain shares of a sustainable amount of harvest of each species. Fisher’s tend to manage and supervise this approach, reducing the need for outside enforcement.
An initiative that Conservation International has been involved with that can potentially help the pacific bluefin tuna recover is the Pacific Oceanscape. It is a management framework that has been endorsed by 22 Pacific Islands countries and territories covering more than 10 percent of the global ocean. It is designed to foster stewardship at the local, national, regional, and international scales, and provide a secure future for Pacific Islanders based on the sustainable development and management of their vulnerable coasts and vast ocean resources.
Individual nations are now making ambitious commitments to protect and sustainably manage their ocean and coastal areas under the auspices of the Oceanscape, from Kiribati’s 408,250-square-kilometer Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the Cook Islands’ announcement of a 1.1-million-square-kilometer marine park, to New Caledonia’s decision to establish a 1.4-million-square-kilometer marine protected area in the Coral Sea. Protected-area commitments under the Oceanscape now total an area significantly larger than the Mediterranean Sea. For context, the area is larger than the surface of the moon; and we know less about it than the moon!
Does an MPA need to be completely closed to fishing to be successful?
No an MPA does not need to be completely closed to fishing to be successful. Its success, however, does hinge on the effective local management and regulations. Each MPA that is supported by CI is different; therefore, we work with local coastal communities to assess long-term solutions to their short-term needs. Often, the result is a multiple-use MPA that can accommodate multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives to ensure solutions that meet human needs while preserving biodiversity. An example would be an MPA that is split into three specific zones: sustainable (local) fishing, tourism, and a no-take zone. The no-take zone can be a seasonal closure (e.g. during breeding season) or completely, restricted at all times.
Where else do you see these types of MPAs being useful?
In the past 10 years, CI has implemented or strengthened the management of MPAs across multiple regions: Tropical Eastern Pacific, Indonesia, Brazil, Philippines, and across the western and central Pacific through the Pacific Oceanscape initiative. Our teams have worked with local partners and communities to build networks of co-managed MPAs throughout Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia and strengthened the management of established UNESCO World Heritage sites like Galapagos, Malpelo, and Cocos Island. We are committed to using prioritization tools like marine protected areas to address the increasing demand for marine resources and to achieve sustainable fisheries and economies.
Can fisheries recover?
Yes, but only if we institute policies and governance mechanisms that support sustainable fisheries. In the 1950s, the Pacific sardine fishery off the Californian coast collapsed due to high catch levels, which led to the decline of many local economies. But, by the end of the 1980s, sardine stocks began to recover, and today the fishery is once again thriving under active management, supporting the livelihood of families and communities. On the flip side, however, is the collapse of the Atlantic Northeast cod fishery, where the fish stocks that cod rely on also collapsed due to overfishing, making recovery very difficult.
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