Renewing the World's Fisheries


In the twentieth century, ocean fish catches increased twentyfive fold, from 3 million metric tons to a peak of about 82 million metric tons in 1989. It declined the next year and has stagnated since despite increased fishing effort.

All major regions in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific, have declining catches. In some regions, catches peaked in the early 1970s and have since declined by more than 50 per cent. In much of the rest of the world, catches peaked in the 1980s and have since declined by 10 to 30 per cent. Only in the Indian Ocean has the catch been increasing as the same industrailised fishing that depleted other oceans develops there.

Few believe the global catch can expand significantly. In 1995, the United Nations called fisheries "globally non-sustainable." They noted, "It is important to continue to single out overfishing (and its economic counterpart, over- investrnent) as the main culprit."

Meanwhile, some of the world's greatest "inexhaustible" fishing grounds and marine ecosystems notably the Grand Banks and Georges Bank of Canada and New England - are now largely dosed following their collapse. In Newfoundland, shutdowns have entailed a government bailout that will cost nearly two billion dollars. Conservation issues are often pitched as 'jobs versus the environment,' but in the oceans conservation can make jobs.

People generally forget that fish are wildlife. So instead of sensibly living off the biological interest of wild populations, we have been mining their capital. Ironically, over- emphasis on short-term economics has resulted in losses of billions of dollars to fishing businesses and taxpayers subsidising those losses. We have stretched the

Depending on fish

Fishing accounts for only about one per cent of the global economy. But on a regional basis, marine fishing contributes enormously to human survival. In Asia, more than one billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein. Worldwide, about 200 million people depend on fishing for their livelihoods, and fishing has been termed the "employer of last resort" in the developing world; an occupation when there are no other options.

Each year the number of people increases by an amount equal to the population of Mexico. Even if the fish that now go to fertilisers and animal feeds - a third of the catch - went to people, aquacultural production (seafood farming) will have to double in the next 15 years. Aquaculture has been growing rapidly enough to compensate for the decline of wild fish in commerce. Howeve; since aquaculture requires property ownership and exports most of its expensive production to developed countries, increasing aquaculture may actually mean less food for truly hungry people.

Aquaculture faces challenges of its own. Half the people of the world live within about 60 miles of the coasts. This affects water quality. Worldwide mollusc production has already stagnated because of water quality problems. And many fish that cannot currently be bred are raised in captivity from wild fry which are getting scarce for some species because the wild fish are declining.

War on flah

Aquaculture does not appear likely to take much pressure off wild populations. In fact, some shrimp farmers are now fishing with fine-mesh nets to catch whatever they can to feed their shrimp. Aquaculture is likely to increase habitat losses and degradation. One major reason half the world's mangroves have been cut was to make artificial ponds to grow

countries. Intensive aquaculture is in itself a source of pollution, releasing excess feed and facces in semienclosed areas and creating overnutrification and oxygen deficiencies in waterways. There have been problems with disease in dense, monoculture fish facilities adjacent to wild fish populations. Also problematic are the overuse of antibiotics which are toxic to some wild organisms. And alien species, including pathogens, have been introduced both intentionally and unintentionally during aquaculture activities, severely affecting some wild populations.

After World War 11, fisheries adapted military detection technologies such as radar, sonar and loran to peaceful efforts of food gathering. But from the fishes' perspective it might have seemed that war was suddenly declared on them. Later

The realpolitik of fisheries has long frustrated marine conservationists. All too often, short-sightedness has prevailed over scientific advice in setting catch limits, writes Michael Sutton. Now a new initiative pioneered by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Unilever food giant is working towards a radical reform of fisheries management.

The story begins in 1995 when WWF launched its Endangered Seas Campaign with the goal of reversing the effects of unsustainable fishing on marine fishes and the ocean ecosystems on which they depend. Coincidentally, Anglo-Dutch Unilever Corporation, one of the world's largest buyers of frozen fish, was beginning to worry about the future of its seafood subsidiaries.

Fortuitously, the two giants came together in early 1996 and announced a unique conservation partnership. They signed a statement of intent to establish a new organisation known as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) within two years. The idea was to create powerful market incentives for sustainable fishing by establishing a system of independent, voluntary assessment and certification of well-managed fisheries. Products from certified fisheries could then be marked with an eco label, assuring seafood consumers that the source of their fish was environment- friendly. For the first time, too, consumers would have a way of promoting responsible fishery management through their everyday purchasing decisions.

WWF and Unilever pledged matching funds to set up the new organisation, and hired a project manager to oversee the development of the MSC. Recognising that the success of their joint venture would depend on broad support, the partners embarked on a campaign to win support for their idea. A worldwide series of workshops helped persuade fishers, seafood processors, conservationists, scientists, government officials, consumer advocates, and others concerned with the future of fisheries that the MSC was a worthwhile approach. Meanwhile, WWF and Unilever convened a panel of experts to draft a set of principles for sustainable fishing that would ultimately underpin the certification process. Test cases were launched to see if fisheries certification was practical.

The results were astonishing, as if a tidal wave had hit the worldwide fishing industry. Trade organisations that had originally condemned the MSC and its founders began to take a fresh look, and some even published their own codes of practice. In early 1997, the MSC was formally established as an independent entity with offices in London. The new organisation was awarded charitable status later in the year, and took over from its founders the job of developing its infrastructure and principles. Dozens of stakeholders registered their support for the fledgling body, and fisheries around the world offered themselves up as test cases. With luck, the first products from certified fisheries will be available at the end of 1998.

Michael Sutton directs WWFIS Endangered Seas Campaign.

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