Our ocean provides, but is not an endless bounty
By Ghislaine Llewellyn, Deputy Leader, WWF Oceans Practice
For some people, putting a value on nature is deeply unsettling. How can one species — humans — put a price on the exquisite diversity of life with which we share our planet?
I am sympathetic to the argument that nature’s value is intrinsic, and not dependent on human-made economies. And yet, our wasteful, destructive approach to nature has persisted in part because we have not properly valued the natural assets that we rely on. The result has been bad for nature and people both.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently issued two new reports: “Sustainable Use of Wild Species” and “Values and Valuation of Nature.” They find that policymakers are prioritizing a narrow set of values for nature, focused on the short-term and economic growth, and this is directly contributing to the world’s nature crisis.
The IPBES report on the use of wild species reminds us how much the ocean provides — especially from the daily catches of wild fish — but also how fragile and vulnerable our ocean is if not managed responsibly. Fish are fundamental to meeting the nutritional needs of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, providing protein and essential micronutrients. But fishing is not without risks and impacts, both on the fish populations being targeted and on other marine wildlife and vulnerable habitats.
IPBES has previously documented that fishing is the greatest threat to the health of marine systems. This new report offers a mixed report card when it comes to reducing bycatch — the incidental capture of species other those caught on purpose. The deaths of marine wildlife in the hooks, lines and nets of fishing gear are putting vulnerable species of marine turtles, seabirds, sharks, rays, and marine mammals on a pathway to extinction. Improvements in the mandating, deployment and enforcement of effective bycatch management technologies is urgently needed in marine fisheries, and needs to be treated as a priority by national and regional management agencies.
While bycatch remains a major challenge for many fisheries large and small, small-scale fisheries offer an important example of why it is critically important to ensure the use of wild species is sustainable. By providing food and jobs, small-scale fisheries are often the social and economic backbone for coastal communities. Fish are among the most widely traded commodities on the planet, and the trade associated with small-scale fisheries supports an estimated 120 million people, approximately half of whom are women.
So if there is one priority policy imperative this IPBES report points us toward for the ocean, it is to secure effective monitoring and management capabilities for small-scale fisheries. It’s no surprise countries or regions with robust fisheries management capacity tend to have healthier fish populations than countries and regions with lower or less effective fisheries management capacity. Lower fisheries management capacity tends to correlate with a lack of data, and most small-scale fisheries lack basic information to guide management decisions.
But let’s be clear: More data is no panacea. For too long, “lack of data” has been a convenient excuse for delaying common-sense management measures. In some cases, lack of political will is a bigger hurdle than lack of data. The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission meeting in May this year recklessly disregarded specific, science-based recommendations while yellowfin tuna continue to be overfished, putting at risk one of the world’s most valuable fisheries and the livelihoods of thousands of local communities.
One hopeful development is that a new Aquatic Blue Food Coalition — an idea instigated at the UN Food System Summit in June 2021 — launched officially this month at the UN Ocean Conference. The coalition includes the European Union, Fiji, Germany, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Palau, Portugal and the United States, along with a cross-section of civil society, academia and aquatic food producers, among others. Broadly, the coalition will work toward improved food and nutrition security, lower environmental impact, and improved socio-economic equity in relation to aquatic/blue foods.
This comes not a moment too soon. With climate change placing pressure on our global food production system, the coastal ecosystems of many tropical developing countries face a perfect storm of over-exploitation, declining fisheries productivity and actual displacement of fish populations. This coalition must champion protection of the sources of our valuable blue foods.
Of course, food production is only one of the many valuable services our ocean provides. Leaders and decision makers at all levels — from heads of state to heads of community fishing cooperatives — need to account for the true value of nature when they set policy. Sustainable management is the key to healthy coastal ecosystems underpinning healthy and secure coastal communities. When it comes to fisheries, sustainability must not be the “one that got away.”