Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Progress towards sustainable fishing

Depletion of fish stocks is important because 1 billion people rely on them for their main protein intake. 32% of stocks are depleted or recovering from depletion; but this is not solely a  food problem. Fishing is a major source of  employment, especially in the developing world,  and hundreds of millions of people are in communities which depend, directly or indirectly, on fisheries for their livelihood.

The International Sustainabilty Unit (ISU), instigated by Prince Charles of the UK, recently conducted 50 case studies around the world and reports the findings in Towards global sustainable fisheries (February 2012). The results are encouraging. They show that when a fishery which is declining through over fishing is restructured for sustainabilty it not only secures fish stocks but improves the lot of all the stakeholders:
  • The employees get a higher and more secure income as well as safer working conditions.
  • The fishing community, often a poor one, prospers from the flow of money into it.
  • The world economy benefits (especially the developing world).
  • The sea ecology becomes more diverse and stable.
  • There is more fish to eat.
The World Bank estimates that by managing fisheries differently they could contribute an extra $50 billion p.a. to world GDP. At present they contribute to the  tune of about $275 billion (US) p.a. (0.4% of world GDP), so this would bring its contribution up to about $325 billion (0.5 %  of GDP). And fishing is important in preventing and reducing poverty in developing countries. For example, the Ben Tre Clam fishery in Vietnam after transition to sustainability supports 13,000 households, compared to 9,000 in 2007.

The ISU’s aim was to put together a tool kit of ways to achieve sustainabilty in any given fishery, recognising that each one is unique and that no one solution fits all. The economic benefits emerge from the move towards sustainabilty. Pragmatic regulation can reduce the catch, get the support of the fishing industry, increase profit margins and require individual fishermen to work less hard and more safely.

One finding which stood out was the importance of the quota system. In the past much conflict and chaos has resulted from issuing a group with a quota for a particular marine species and expecting each trawler, say, to take its chances on what share of the quota it could catch. There was a mad scramble to make sure that your boat got as much out of the sea as possible before the others used up the overall weight quota. If instead each fishing team gets a guaranteed income the tendency towards destructive competition is greatly reduced. Introducing such a system to the Pacific halibut fishery lengthened the fishing season and increased the value of the fish sold from $1 to $7 per pound.

Prince Charles refers to a debilitating fatalism. Because of marine pollution problems and the selfish nature of some individuals within the fishing industry (as in any field of human activity) some observers seem to regard the situation as hopeless. It is true that rising temperature and acidity of the sea, ever-increasing run-off from industrial farming and the global dispersion of ingestible but undigestible microplastics are serious factors when added to the stress of over-fishing; but progress in arresting and reversing fish stock decline is being made.

 The ISU study has shown how it can be done at a practical level and since all the stake holders benefit there is every likelihood of getting the necessary legislation and enforcement worldwide within a decade or less. Momentum on this front, I believe, will help raise the morale and strengthen the resolution of those fighting on the anti-pollution front.

author 2077 AD (being revised)