Darian McBain explains why the effective management of fisheries is important for ocean health and human society, and outlines areas where regulation of fisheries could be tightened.

Seafood production is a significant contributor to the global economy, with wild fisheries (that capture aquatic species in open waters) and aquaculture (the domestication and farming of fish) together representing a market size of US$406 billion. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that wild capture fisheries produce around 90 million tonnes of wild fish every year, the majority of which (89%) is used directly for human consumption, with the remainder used for fishmeal and fish oil as an input to animal feeds, fertilizers, oils and supplements. These fisheries rely entirely on a complex ecosystem balanced by natural processes.

Fisheries and aquaculture impact on ocean health and marine biodiversity. Meanwhile, human activity is further damaging the ocean ecosystem through climate change. The oceans, one of the main regulators of global temperature and rainfall, and a carbon sink, are experiencing their highest temperatures since records began. These issues are recognised by UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, ‘Life Below Water’, which specifically references the need to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. None of the targets under SDG 14 are currently being met, and it remains underfunded and underachieved.

Despite recognition of the problems, and the importance of fisheries to issues of ocean health, marine biodiversity, livelihoods, trade and food security, there is no industry-wide approach to their regulation such as exists for the international maritime shipping industry, for example. There has also been relatively little research into the interactions between different sectors of the ocean economy, the seafood industry and the impacts of financial policies and regulation.  

In this landscape, how can we ensure that the complex ocean environment is protected for the benefit of us all? If one part of the ocean ecosystem is altered or removed through economic activity, who assesses the impact on other parts of the ocean and holds those responsible to account? Who should be regulating the world’s fisheries and is it possible to enforce a long-term, sustainable approach to these activities?

Global regulation is lacking, but various ocean-relevant frameworks exist

There is currently no single global regulator for fisheries to enforce the sustainable management of the High Seas, the area outside of countries’ territorial seas which is understood to be a common resource. Individual countries can determine regulations within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), even though fish stocks may move between these EEZs and into the open ocean.

While several global frameworks govern different aspects of the ocean, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations, none specifically regulates fisheries. The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, established in 1985, is a voluntary set of guidelines for fisheries and aquaculture and forms the basis for many structures surrounding sustainable seafood production, including certification and traceability standards. Although states have an obligation to conduct impact assessments under UNCLOS, historically there has been no international coordination of assessments for environmental impacts in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

This will change with the establishment of the High Seas Treaty, also known as the Treaty on Biodiversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). Formally adopted in June 2023, the treaty awaits ratification by 60 countries before it can enter into force and become international law. It complements UNCLOS by providing a legal framework for how human activities can take place and how the benefits of marine genetic resources – including fish and other marine life – can be shared equitably between countries. Once ratified, it will promote the sustainable use of ocean resources. However, it does not specifically target fisheries and it remains unclear how it will be applied to the regulation of fisheries. It will also provide a global ocean governance framework for the establishment of marine protected areas in the High Seas and formalise the intention to preserve 30% of oceans by 2030. This was Target 2 of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted at COP15, the fifteenth meeting of the UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2022.

Coordination between countries

In the absence of a global regulatory framework for fisheries, Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) set binding rules for conservation and management for how regional fisheries should be managed in accordance with scientific principles. The RFMOs consist of countries with an interest in the management of specific fish stocks. They work together to monitor the status of the stock, set the harvest control rules for specific fisheries and interact with key stakeholders including the private sector (fishing companies, processors and retailers) and academia, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society actors. Rules are agreed by consensus among members, but coordination between RFMOs currently requires improvement.

There are also NGOs setting standards for best practice for sustainable fishing. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) operates a sustainable fishing standard which is linked to consumer purchasing preferences through the display of the MSC logo. Other NGOs, such as the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Seafood Watch Program, also set voluntary codes, guidelines and certification standards to supplement the FAO guidelines.

A notable absence is regulation related to finance. There is no framework linking finance with the seafood sector equivalent to the Poseidon Principles for shipping, nor a focus from central banks on either oceans or seafood, despite its importance to many economies, to overall financial stability and to food security. However, the Task Force for Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) offers a window into a framework for considering fisheries in the context of the oceans through its Ocean Data Platform. And the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has published an analysis of the global banking sector’s approach to managing environmental and social risks in their seafood portfolios, and this year will publish a baseline study on the approach by asset managers.

Understanding complex interactions

The High Seas Treaty provides a framework for environmental impact assessment on the High Seas, which is needed to better understand the complex interactions that occur between marine life and ocean economy activities. This need was demonstrated by a study on the ecosystem impacts of collecting marine plastics from the surface of the High Seas, which found that current frameworks are inadequate to assess the scope of such impacts on marine surface life.

In fisheries, research into species stocks often focus on either commercially valuable species (target species such as tuna or lobster) or charismatic species (such as whales or dolphins). However, studies of the ocean ecosystem have shown that changes at the lower levels of the food chain can have cascading effects to those higher in the food chain which often have commercial value as animal protein for human consumption.

The case of the American lobster fisheries in the US and Canada and their interactions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale provides an example of complex and conflicting interactions between ocean ecosystems and economic activities. Entanglement in fishing gear associated with the commercially valuable target species of lobster has led to a decline in the population numbers of the right whale and an ongoing conflict between those who stand to gain from the lobster fishing industry and those concerned with protecting the right whale. The two key wild capture seafood sustainability certifications relevant to the region, the MSC and the MBA Seafood Watch Program, have downgraded and suspended the sustainability certification of the lobster fisheries. However, fishing regulations aimed at protecting the right whales were delayed by US Congress in favour of supporting the industry: the Maine lobster industry alone is worth more than US$1 billion annually, employing more than 10,000 fishermen and exporting to around the world. There is currently no accepted framework to assess the economic, biodiversity or cultural value of the Southern right whales against that of the lobster, and as the importance of the ocean economy grows, so will conflicts between industry and nature.

In a recent development that seeks to protect marine life for its intrinsic value, Indigenous leaders of several Pacific States signed into international law a commitment giving whales and dolphins the same rights as people, which include the right to freedom of movement, a healthy environment and the ability to thrive alongside humanity. He Whakaputanga Moana  promotes the cultural significance and importance of the lives of the cetaceans that goes beyond commercial value – and cannot legally be ignored.

What more needs to be done?

There is much more to be done to make fisheries more sustainable and protect the oceans now and for future generations:

  • More countries should urgently ratify the High Seas Treaty and bring it into force, preferably ahead of the UN Oceans Conference in France in 2025, to enable meaningful dialogues to take place.
  • Reform of the RFMOs is needed to ensure they take a long-term and equitable view to protecting not only commercial fish stocks like tuna, but also the biodiversity that supports commercial fishing: coral reefs, mangroves and many species that comprise the food chain and broader ocean ecosystem.
  • The financial sector should make greater efforts to support the seafood industry, which is made up of many companies that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. An industry-wide commitment to a net zero transition can support financial sector engagement, as seen with the decarbonisation targets set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • More ocean-related data is required, including on how species interact, to identify the best actions to take to stop biodiversity decline and the worst impacts of climate change.

If we do not find global solutions to managing the global commons of our oceans, we will find that the old adage that there are plenty of fish in the sea will no longer hold true.

Darian McBain is a Board Trustee at the Marine Stewardship Council. The views in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Grantham Research Institute.

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