WAGING A LOSING BATTLE: Local fishermen in smaller canoes, such as the one pictured above, often compete with bigger shipping vessels from other countries, and end up catching less and earning less. – Photos: National Geographic
Off the coast of West Africa, thousands of boats are competing for a dwindling resource – fish.
Estimated loss of $50 billion annually due to unsustainable fishing practices
Liberia’s $25 million investment in regulating fisheries has seen a tripling of public funds generated through fisheries in 2011
In the virtual free-for-all, local people in traditional canoes catch less and earn less each year. Large sophisticated vessels, many with foreign flags, take advantage of the inability of developing countries to adequately regulate or police their coasts. Under open access, even industrial fleets are plagued by the same problems of decreasing earnings and catch rates.
Similar scenarios have played out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from coastal waters to the high seas.
About 85 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering, according to the State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010. At the same time, growing populations are demanding more fish, and boats using high tech, high yield fishing methods are more than twice as efficient at catching fish as fish are at reproducing.
The result is overfishing – a phenomenon that has already spelled the end of several important fisheries, including some managed by industrialized countries.
Experts say it’s all happening in a vacuum of rules and rights that would create incentives to sustain fish stocks for future use. Today, covert and illegal fishing further undermines efforts to maintain a sustainable global supply of wild fish.
Now, developing small island states, coastal countries, and a growing number of public, private and civil society partners, want the world to take notice of what’s happening – and to help save wild fishing grounds for future generations.
The Global Partnership for Oceans is joining a world-wide effort to find ways to keep our oceans alive – and productive.
Need for Better Governance
Fisheries specialists believe that a push for better governance of the world’s oceans and seas can not only make them healthier, but regain a substantial amount of an estimated $50 billion lost each year from unsustainable practices, according to Sunken Billions (pdf), a report by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
A DWINDLING RESOURCE? With an ever-increasing demand for fish from a growing population, high yield fishing methods have become more than twice as efficient at catching fish as fish are at reproducing.
But fisheries need the full attention of economic and political decision-makers and a long-term commitment for reform, they say.
The World Bank’s PROFISH program recommends ending open access to fisheries and the single-minded competition for fish in favor of strengthening fishing rights for fishers.
Well defined and secure fishing rights provide strong incentives to fishers, communities, and fishery associations to stop waste and overfishing, many believe.
Management systems that provide these kinds of rights, backed by force of law, are successfully used in Australia, Canada, Estonia, Greenland, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States.
Among developing countries, Chile uses catch-share systems for some species and Peru recently adopted them for the world’s largest fishery, the Peruvian anchoveta fishery.
Cooperative rights-based systems that grant exclusive fishing rights to nearby fishing communities or fishing cooperatives are used successfully in the Alaska halibut and North Pacific Pollock fisheries, and the Shetland Islands, Japanese and New Zealand fisheries.
In Baja, Mexico, nine fishing cooperatives have fishing rights—ratified by the Mexican government inside a distinct area. They and an affiliated federation work together to manage the local fisheries and research, using only limited government support.
"Appropriate, clear, and enforceable fishing entitlements and responsibilities are important for the successful management of capture fisheries,” says Bill Fox of World Wildlife Fund. “Such rights-based management programs can strengthen stewardship incentives among fishers to follow ecosystem-based management practices, result in more secure access to fisheries resources for communities and businesses, provide sustainable jobs in fishing dependent communities and can assist in poverty alleviation and improve food security.”
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has pioneered community-based approaches on California’s Central Coast, working with local fishermen to establish 1.5 million hectares of no-trawl zones and purchased vessels and trawl-fishing permits to mitigate the economic impact of these closures.
“We lease these permits to fishermen who use gear that is better for the environment and allows them to catch higher quality fish,” said TNC’s Michael Bell. “Already, our work has improved the environmental and economic performances of the local fishery.”
Coming Together for a Common Cause
In the high seas, too, communities and countries are banding together to better assert their rights and manage fisheries.
Eight Pacific island countries (Federated States of Micronesia, Kirbati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu) joined the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) to sustainably manage tuna fishing in 14.3 million square kilometers of ocean.
The PNA agrees on the number of tuna fishing days in a year, based on scientific advice about the status of tuna stocks, then auctions fishing rights to the highest bidder. Conservation measures, such as requiring observers to be present on tuna purse seine vessels and prohibiting dolphin bycatch, are key to the agreement’s success, says Marshall Islands Finance Secretary Alfred Alfred Jr.
“A healthy ocean translates into economic growth and development, especially for small developing nations,” says Alfred.
But fishing-rights holders must have confidence their rights will be recognized and protected from those who would steal them. Many countries lack the resources to combat illegal fishing by foreign fleets.
Nine countries in West Africa hope participating in the West African Regional Fisheries Program will help them preserve their ocean riches from such threats. Liberia’s coastal fish stocks were plundered during 25 years of civil war and recovery. Now the country has invested $12 million to develop a new regulatory framework to control the number of boats that can access the fisheries, state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and a monitoring center to enforce this framework, training for staff, and rebuilding the coast guard with the support of the United States Government.
“We are doing everything to stop the illegal fishing so that we can regenerate what we have lost,” says Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth. Already in 2011 the Government more than tripled the public funds generated by its fisheries compared to 2010 (albeit from a low level).