This is part one of a three-part series on the blue economy. You can find part two here.
More than 90% of the planet’s marine stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. Yet, oceans serve as the primary source of protein for over 50% of the population in least-developed countries. Furthermore, the sustainability of fisheries is crucial for global food security, supporting the livelihoods of 10% of the world’s population.
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Fisheries and marine ecosystems
The significance of the fishing and aquaculture industries for global food security and nutrition is increasingly acknowledged, with over 3 billion people around the world relying on fishing or fish farming for their livelihoods. Fish also play a crucial role in food production, representing approximately 20% of animal protein and 6.7% percent of all protein consumed by humans.
Despite the immensity of the ocean, its resources are finite. As a consequence, marine ecosystems and ocean resources are at threat due to the increased pressure on fisheries to satisfy the rising demand caused by population growth and globalization. Oceans play a crucial role in contributing to sustainable food security and have the potential to produce more food by improving the management of current capture fisheries. In addition to conserving biodiversity, healthy fish stocks are also essential to ensure the provision of ocean ecosystem services including climate regulation, food production, and nutrient cycling. SDG 14, aligned with SDG 12, 13, and 15, highlights the urgency of good fisheries management to preserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. These goals are interconnected and demonstrate that responsible fishing is integral to a broader effort for a resilient and sustainable future.
Current fishing practices
Widespread unsustainable fishing practices exert detrimental effects on marine ecosystems, livelihoods, and the overall sustainability of the fishing sector. Linda Etta, Advisor on Marine and Blue Economy and former Blue Economy Coordinator at the African Union Commission told us “The threats of overexploitation, particularly through illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing lead to the depletion of fish species and migration issues, posing significant risks to communities dependent on these resources. Another pressing concern is pollution, originating from ships, aquaculture, and plastic waste, primarily affecting developing countries and contributing to the deterioration of marine ecosystems, species, and human environments.”
Indeed, the percentage of stocks fished at naturally unsustainable levels has been increasing since the late 1970s, from 10% in 1974 to 34.5% in 2019. Currently, more than a third of global fish stocks are overfished. Moreover, an estimated 20% of global fish catch, representing 11-26 million tons of landings, are caught illegally. It is essential to note that a portion of this IUU fishing occurs in developing countries, where local communities rely on small-scale subsistence fishing which is not always conducted within legal and regulated frameworks and often goes unreported. However, the primary focus should be on preventing large-scale IUU fishing. This suggests a lack of robust governance and monitoring of fisheries to ensure traceability and sustainable exploitation in alignment with regulations.
In addition, destructive fishing techniques and some forms of fishing gear can harm ecosystems, such as catch and mortality of non-target species, which can cause physical impacts to reef environments brought on by fishing methods, gears, and fishing vessel anchoring. Furthermore, the bearings of unsustainable practices can be exacerbated by the effects of climate change and land-based sources of pollution. As underlined by Asia Williams, a Blue Economy Consultant “With climate change, we are seeing a decline in certain species which are migrating because of declining coral reefs, water acidification and ocean warming which can cause fishers to overharvest smaller populations. This will also be a challenge for sustainable fisheries and livelihoods that depend on those fish as well. Policymakers have a huge role to play in regulations, monitoring, and incentives to ensure that protected areas are properly enforced and managed.”
Progress towards sustainability
Anton Gigov, Managing Director at Aquamarine stated “By redefining our work values to prioritize sustainability and positive impact, we unlock innovation in the blue economy. Much like in sectors, achieving sustainability requires cross-sector partnerships, favorable regulations, and increased investor awareness. These strategic shifts create levers for sustainable practices, offering specific solutions for fisheries, aquaculture, biotech, and other ocean-related resources.”
Management strategies and innovations to address overfishing and destructive fishing identified include the establishment of no-take areas within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which are designated parts of the ocean that restrict human activities to a certain degree. Among many others, we can also name seasonal closure to protect breeding sites, restrictions on the number of people allowed to fish, types of fishing gear used, and the quantities or sizes of fish that can be harvested. Prof. Dr. Raimund Bleischwitz, Scientific Director of Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) mentioned to us “To effectively address harmful fishery subsidies, it is crucial to integrate marine spatial planning. The evidence indicates that the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) contributed significantly to the recovery of fish stocks. Thus, it is in the long-term interest of the fishing industry to advocate for the creation and better implementation of MPAs. Furthermore, the incorporation of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture represents an opportunity to combine aquaculture with coastal protection and enhanced fishery practices. This approach enables the evolution of improved aquaculture practices into holistic and sustainable systems.”
A key component of improved marine management is the process of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), which regulates interactions between different human activities and the marine environment to promote a more sensible use of the ocean. It can also play a significant role in the preservation and restoration of marine biodiversity. About half of the 150 countries with marine waters have initiated some form of MSP. Such practices have also been integrated into broader goals, particularly the thirty-by-thirty (30×30) initiative. This global objective entails the successful protection and management of 30% of the planet’s terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. At present, approximately 17% of terrestrial and 8% of marine areas benefit from some form of protection.
Despite the growing interest in this practice, challenges persist. Indeed, the effectiveness of their protected status remains uncertain and depends on their design, implementation, and monitoring. As pointed out by Clara Sanchez, ESG Manager at Tecnoambiente, “To address these concerns and ensure the sustainability of the blue economy, it is essential to implement effective policies for the conservation, regulation, and sustainable management of marine resources. Collaboration between governments, industries, scientists, and local communities is also essential to achieve the preservation of marine ecosystems.”
Given these global initiatives, there is an increased recognition of the essential role sustainable fishing practices play in the recovery and conservation of marine ecosystems. Kristina Pilko, a Blue Economy Supporter and Researcher, told us “To promote sustainable fisheries, policymakers, industry leaders, and research institutions must collaborate to establish supportive regulatory frameworks and incentives to sustainable practice. Vital to this are open conversations, collaboration, and co-creation involving all stakeholders, including the local communities. Moreover, the implementation of science-based management and universally respected regulations on fishing practices is essential. This commitment should be coupled with community engagement and international collaboration to safeguard marine environments.” Unsustainable fishing, combined with climate change and pollution, is exacerbating the negative impact on marine biodiversity. MSP and numerous other initiatives to protect marine biodiversity and livelihoods have emerged and demonstrate growing awareness and commitment to these issues. We must continue to advocate for and implement effective policies that prioritize the conservation, regulation, and sustainable management of marine resources. Only through growing collective efforts will we preserve marine ecosystems, for current and future generations.
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