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Researchers say officials must do more to curb overfishing, including curtailing industrial fishing to protect marine life.
Words by Tracy Keeling
Ending overfishing is a “non-negotiable” element of how the fishing industry must transform, according to a new report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The report’s announcement coincided with a United Nations conference held in June. FAO researchers disclosed that overfishing is on the rise, and has been since at least 1974, with 35.4 percent of fish populations facing extraction at levels they considered unsustainable in 2019.
During the UN Ocean Conference, fisheries and marine experts spoke to Sentient Media about why curbing the practice of overfishing is crucial, particularly for bolstering the ocean’s climate resilience. Officials need to do much more to tackle the issue, these researchers say, including curtailing industrial fishing to limit over-exploitation of marine life.
Covering some 70 percent of the planet’s surface, the ocean is home to anywhere from 500,000 to 10 million different species. Yet the ocean’s incredible capacity to store industrial pollution has also made it a living archive of human excess, including the effects of climate change.
The ocean absorbs around 25 percent of the CO2 emissions produced primarily by fossil fuel combustion each year, most of which comes from resource use of the wealthiest countries. It also takes in over 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming. The ocean has become a dumping ground — intentionally or otherwise — for plastics, sewage and other forms of chemical pollution, including oil spills.
According to a 2020 Frontiers in Marine Science review co-authored by The University of British Columbia’s Rashid Sumaila, climate change-related factors are disrupting the ocean’s chemistry and ecology, causing major consequences for the lives that call it home. The authors stressed that climate change can impact marine organisms’ body size, reproduction and habitats. It can also affect their interactions, distribution and abundance at a community level.
Overfishing is decimating wild fisheries, the Frontiers paper found, including species higher up in the food chain as well as marine habitats. These impacts can be caused by destructive fishing gear and the practice of capturing more fish than nature can replenish. The research shows this unsustainable exploitation of marine life has hindered the ocean‘s ability to cope with the impacts of climate change.
Speaking with Sentient Media, Sumaila says because life in the ocean is interconnected, ecosystems are being squeezed by pressures on all sides. Fishing gear is ruining habitats. Excessive killing of certain species is disrupting their food chains and relations, and warming waters is forcing relocation. An increase in acidic waters, meanwhile, has made new refuges few and far between.
Unsustainable fishing practices also harm surrounding marine ecosystems, leaving them in a weakened and vulnerable state.
In a declaration also released at the conference, UN member states expressed their regret for failing to end overfishing by their previous 2020 target. They announced no further deadline, only pledging to achieve the target “as soon as possible.”
Instead, the FAO report championed further growth of a ‘sustainably transformed’ fishing industry, part of the so-called “Blue Economy,” which refers to economic activities involving the ocean. The planned growth particularly relates to fish farming, known as aquaculture, which has been dogged by concerns over sustainability.
Cristina Pita, principle researcher at Portugal’s Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies and the International Institute for Environment and Development, suggested to Sentient Media that sustainability — along with social equity for small-scale fisheries and coastal communities — has taken a back seat in the Blue Economy so far, despite being a critical component.
Pita said “the focus has long been on ocean-based economic development,” although adoption of the sustainable development goals by countries in 2015 “has thankfully re-focused attention” on the need for sustainability.
Sweden’s former deputy prime minister Isabella Lövin also spoke about officials’ inadequate action on sustainability, asserting that “we are still very much caught in a paradigm of short-term economic gains.” The author of Silent Seas – the Fish Race to the Bottom said “the political will is lacking” to act, even though the science is clear.
A rare moment of concerted political action took place in June, with the World Trade Organisation agreeing to a deal to limit fishing subsidies after years of negotiation. Such subsidies play a large role in the over-exploitation of the ocean, as many unwittingly provide financial incentives for overfishing.
As China Dialogue Ocean reports, the new agreement bans subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as exploitation that targets known overfished populations. It also stops subsidies for fishing that takes place on the high seas, beyond the control of regional fisheries management organisations.
Yet the member countries failed to reach consensus on ending subsidies that merely “contribute to overfishing and overcapacity,” China Dialogue Ocean reports. These are subsidies that enable predominantly industrial vessels, which are estimated to receive 80 percent of subsidies overall, to extensively fish for long periods in distant locations.
Sumaila cautiously welcomed the deal but said the agreement’s failure to ban all harmful subsidies, amounting to around $22 bn a year globally, is “clearly not enough.” And the agreement still needs to be ratified by two-thirds of WTO member countries and implemented, he emphasized, which is no small feat.
Sumaila told Sentient Media that we urgently need a “transition plan” for fisheries management. At a conference side event, he called for increased and better coordinated oversight between local, national and global authorities to transform the sector for the better.
Guillermo Ortuño Crespo, a post-doctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, believes reforms are sorely needed. “Many fisheries rarely contemplate the breadth of the ecological impact of fishing practices,” he says, which goes both for ”the target species and those belonging to the same ecosystem.”
Sumaila has also called for reforms, particularly to large-scale operations. Both large-scale and small-scale fishing can be unsustainable, he suggests, but large-scale fishing tends to be more environmentally damaging overall, due to its destructive gear, bycatch rates and greenhouse gas emissions from extensive travel. Critically, small-scale fishers also often depend on the practice for food and livelihoods.
Sumaila would like to see strict limits placed on industrial fishing, prioritizing small-scale sustainable fishing elsewhere. He also calls for commercial fishing on the high seas to be banned, which his research suggests would boost catches of fish in coastal areas.
Looking forward, change might be “easier said than done,” said Sumaila, but for the sake of the ocean and all its dependents, including humans, we need a joined up approach to fisheries management that treats “our global ocean as a whole.”
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).
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