Tony Juniper, Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales Charities’ International Sustainability Unit, on fish stocks and sustainable fisheries.
With the world’s fish stocks showing ever more serious signs of stress it is perhaps tempting to believe that there is little that can be done, and that the continuing decline in these potentially renewable resources is inevitable, a pre-ordained spiral of doom that travels from one area of ocean to another, depleting stocks one after the other.
But while this might be an historically resonant characterisation of what has gone on, there is cause for hope. At least that is the message from The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit’s (ISU) new Marine Programme. A report published by the Unit earlier this month1 sets out research to show why this conclusion has been reached, while another one released at the same time presents fifty individual cases based on interviews with fishing communities who have embarked on more sustainable practices 2.
In both cases the message is clear: positive change can take place, if there is the right kind of leadership and if some underlying principles are reflected in how plans aimed at the recovery of fisheries are taken forward. On this latter point, the work of the ISU over the last two years sought to identify consensus among the many groups and interests who have a say and influence over the future of how fish stocks are managed. While there are many views, and in some cases quite strong disagreements, it was possible to find some areas where there was a lot of common ground.
The first was in relation to how we need to look at the oceans as complex ecosystems rather than as a series of discreet fish stocks. Fish don’t exist in isolation. They are dependent on complex webs of relationships with other species. And the fish are not only food for humans, but also a wide range of wildlife that we have collectively decided must be conserved, including various sea mammals, such as whales, and seabirds, including albatrosses. If the fish and other wildlife are to continue to thrive, then the whole lot needs to be looked at together.
A second point of convergence emerged around the extent to which the economics of fishing needs to support more sustainable practices. It is at present often more logical from a short-term economic point of view to over-exploit fish stocks than it is to conserve them. The situation is not helped by an estimated 16 billion dollars’-worth of damaging subsidies which encourage fishing at levels beyond that which the fish can withstand. Lining up the finances so that people can make a decent living from good fishing practices is a vital step.
And then there was agreement around the need for the strong enforcement of whatever rules are agreed to protect fish-stocks and their capacity to replenish themselves. A high proportion of the global fish catch is linked to various illegal activities and this undermines the viability of those operating by the rules. If illegal and unregulated fishing can be ended, or at least heavily curtailed, then efforts to manage stocks through more sustainable practices would be all the more likely to succeed. Finding the means to oversee whatever rules are put in place was thus also seen as a vital component of what is needed.
The identification of these kinds of broad ideas is one thing, but what needs to be achieved in practical terms to make a difference?
The ISU Marine Programme believes that one thing that is needed is better research, and research that is trusted by all of the different groups involved. At the moment much of the fisheries science is disputed by the fishing communities, and while they sometimes reject the data collected by fisheries scientists they are hardly likely to support the policies that are based on it. There is also a need to find new sources of money, so that plans to introduce more sustainable fishing practices, including in some cases reductions in fishing capacity, can be funded. Redirected subsidies could be one source of finance, so could different kinds of private investment. Further incentives could come from the market and more demand for certified sustainable seafood. There is also a need to more effectively spread best practice, so that successes achieved in one place might be shared with others about to embark on similar journeys.
All of this is doable, and if effort is put in the right places with the right kind of collaboration, then we in the ISU are convinced that many more positive transformations could be set in motion. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is committed to doing what he can to improve matters, and his ISU’s Marine Programme is looking forward to collaborating with the many groups involved in continuing the journey toward the more sustainable use of the oceans.